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Customer Discussions > Classics forum

When Does a "Book" Become "Literature"?

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Showing 1-25 of 46 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 20, 2008, 1:37:37 PM PDT

In reply to an earlier post on May 22, 2008, 6:25:48 AM PDT
scarecrow says:
literature to me means when the components, its characters, plots,places, narratives, language, structure,tone,voice, moments, come to be independent of what we knowand then creates places we can feel we are there and the experience of reading is somehow idelible within us, remains with us for some time, so literature needs to have some longevity factor, perhaps not working at full tilt always, but in place nonetheless;and literature is suppose come to redefine its previous genres, its previous history, the way Flaubert did, or Joyce, and Kafka, Morrison, and Faulkner, or Camus Toibin, and Cormac McCarthy;Norman Mailer tried to come to terms with this, in post-modernity, which is why is jumped genres at times, with Marilyn, and docu-literature, like Capote, with mixed results.

In reply to an earlier post on May 24, 2008, 12:00:57 PM PDT
Late at Night, when all the children are asleep!

In reply to an earlier post on May 25, 2008, 9:17:54 AM PDT
Greg Barth says:
When it stands the test of time and is recognized for its greatness by multiple generations.

In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2008, 4:58:56 PM PDT
Ferguss says:
To expand on that, I think that to become a classic, a book must be written with superlative talent and care in the choice of words, structure of sentences, and lucidity of meaning. It has to provide a viewpoint that is unique and penetrating. And it has to address the deep mysteries or conflicts of human existence using specific characters and events that make them available to people not yet born.

In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2008, 5:39:22 PM PDT
Menolly says:
I consider a book literature when all the element blend together to form an enjoyable whole! I have read novels that have received accolades for being 'great literature' and felt like throwing them in the rubbish heap i.e., "Ulysses" by James Joyce, this was the most tedious, boring and frightfully written novel I have ever read! Ulysses turned me off Joyce completely, I have not gone on to try any other novels of his since. After I completed reading this (I was determined to persevere) I immediately took it to a second-hand bookstore and nearly threw it at the poor man-I told him he could have it for nothing as it was not worth 1/2 a cent.

The problem with these so called 'classic' literary novels is that most of them are not worth a candle when you manage to wade through them. There are those who will swear black and blue that Joyce is magnificent, but I will do the same and tell you he was horrendous. It just shows that one persons 'literature' is not anothers'.

In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2008, 11:04:33 PM PDT
Abram Taylor says:
Simple: When ya like it! You like FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS? It's literature. Like SLAN? It's literature. Like LOLITA? It's literature. Like TARZAN OF THE APES? THAT'S what literature is, dig? It's subjective as CAN-B, and if ya likes it, no critic or academic-type or whomever can tell you it ain't!

In reply to an earlier post on May 27, 2008, 9:04:59 PM PDT
R. Billings says:
It is true that a book does not have to be approved by academics to make it literature, but simply liking it is not enough. There is a difference between a mere page-turner and literature. One test is whether reading a book a second time is at least as enjoyable or even more enjoyable than the first time. Nabakov said that all true reading consisted of rereading. Since I personally almost never have the patience to read anything a second time (there are too many interesting unread books), that test does not actually work for me. A more useful test is when a book makes you think and you continue to enjoy and learn from a book when you are not even reading it, then it is literature.

In reply to an earlier post on May 27, 2008, 10:26:03 PM PDT
So, for the most part I feel that for a "book" or a piece of prose to become "literature", it needs to Stand the Test of Time. Now, this does not work for everything.
I think that there are instant classics, newer books that will be studied or read for a long time. I mean, "Bluebeard" by Kurt Vonnegut is an example. It only came out in 1987, but is highly thought of and will be remember for a long time. Another example I feel is "House of Leaves" by Mark Z. Danielewski. This is a book that is already considered something special for form and structure of a story, the use of an entire book, the type and form as a means of emotional communication, of storytelling, and that book was really only first published in it's form in the eyar 2000.
So, there are a few factors I feel. Maybe I am wrong, whatever. =)


In reply to an earlier post on May 28, 2008, 5:16:22 AM PDT
El Zorro says:
I think there is no clear cut dividing line that everyone would always agree upon. Standing the test of time is part of it. Being used by Literature professors in their college courses is part of it. The quality of the writing and the depth of the theme is part of it.

In reply to an earlier post on May 28, 2008, 8:37:09 AM PDT
R. Billings - I like what you say. But using those criteria, "Cryptonomicon" is literature to me! Then again, so is "Moby Dick." It's almost as if the reader must struggle to appreciate, and if the work is appreciated, it's a classic. But you wouldn't think you'd have to struggle through a classic. By golly, I struggled through Moby Dick, but it's a great book.

In reply to an earlier post on May 29, 2008, 4:08:04 PM PDT
R. Billings says:
I don't know Cryptonomicon, but if it is Science Fiction, then I would say that as genre fiction, it is automatically disqualified as literature, along with all other genre fiction. Okay, I'm kidding. But Moby Dick, that is another story. Coincidentally, I am struggling through it right now too, after several aborted attempts in the past. The train wreck that resulted from a collision of an adventure novel with a shelf of text books on whales. However, a book does not have to be a struggle to be a classic. Most classics have layers of meaning and getting the meaning from the top layer may be easy in some cases, just not most cases. For example, Dr. Zhivago is a compelling story--not quite a page turner--but an enjoyable and heartbreaking read. Literature should be enjoyable and not just medicinal.

In reply to an earlier post on May 29, 2008, 8:43:29 PM PDT
Time. I guess it becomes literature when it transcends the generation of the author, which, after all is exposed to the same environment to which the author is.

If the text is relatable and enjoyable for someone who cannot fully relate to the context, then it is great, and it becomes literature.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 2, 2008, 10:29:31 AM PDT
Bruise Bane says:
When it is written. When the words are put onto paper.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 5, 2008, 2:25:33 PM PDT
When it expresses ideas in a unique way that address one or more of the lasting questions of humanity.

Webster.com: Literature: 3 a (1): writings in prose or verse; especially : writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.

So: genre fiction is not literature in the "high sense," unless it reaches for some of these questions, i.e. what is justice; what is the good life, etc.

But literature is not a clear yes/no classification. What if a book is mostly a genre potboiler, but contains a few sentences which touch on more permanent themes? Conversely, there can be a book written in the most sparkling prose that expresses nothing of lasting interest (some people put books like "American Psycho" in this category.)

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 5, 2008, 9:00:41 PM PDT
When it changes the way a person thinks and feels. True literature is able to stand the test of time because it MAKES history- then BECOMES history in the process. It is great because it puts into words the feelings that are deep within us; feelings we might not have even known we had. They may have been lying dormant...but the feelings were there, waiting to be discovered. Waiting for a kindred spirit to come along.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 10, 2008, 1:58:30 PM PDT
When a book achieves critical acclaim, not just immediately, not just in one generation, but for more than one generation. Through exceptional use of language, style, form, structure, story or all of these. Not from one person's praise, but from general acclaim. There will always be individuals who do not like a book or author, but when a majority over a prolonged period of time agree on the "greatness" of an author, then it can be classed as literature.

Time in itself is not enough. Agatha Christie's books sold in huge numbers, and still sell well to this day, but I do not believe a majority of critics would regard them as "literature".

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 14, 2008, 11:02:13 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 14, 2008, 11:02:45 AM PDT
When does a "book" become "literature"?

When the book not only presents a great story, but also introduces a new idea into the cultural landscape.

The way this question is posed suggests a temporal transition, that all books start out in one class ("book") and only with time can they rise to the level of "literature." It is the distinction between a regular book and a classic, which by nature must last.

Literature is different from a classic, though they share several qualities. The reason they are great is the difference. While a classic is great because it transcends cultural periods, a piece of literature is great because of the achievements in itself. A book becomes a piece of literature when it not only presents a great story, but also introduces a new idea into the cultural landscape. That is to say that it must be a creation on a level greater than just that of excellent storytelling.

A book can be a piece of literature instantly upon publication. It is hard to imagine classics that are not and were not literature from the start. And, given time, all literature will most likely become classic.

An excellent question-thanks for the dialogue.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 17, 2008, 12:43:48 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 17, 2008, 12:46:06 PM PDT
The words - metaphor, meaning, concept, irony - come to mind - thoughtful, big-picture, unique, transcendent, truth -- if these things are happening, use the word literature, whomever the author, whenever the pub date, whatever the genre. Transcendent and universally truthful.

The Definition, with a capital D, of Literature, with a capital L, I leave to the academics - we can't all read everything, and if someone has studied enough to direct me toward some books worth trying to get something out of, I'm all for it.

Genre books that fling out characters and plots like fish out of industrial conglomerate nets - not interested.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 19, 2008, 12:43:56 AM PDT
Lawa says:
Just adding another thought to the discussion.

There are a great many books out there that simply tell a story. That does not make them any less enjoyable or say there is a lower quality of writing- it simply is a one dimensional story.

Literature is multi-dimensional. The story itself will be enjoyed by some and bore others. Yet it is the other dimensions that bring that work into the literary circle. If you cannot use the book as a way to write a paper in psychology, history, anthropology, science, etc. then it probably isnt literature.

For most fiction, the purpose is the story itself. In literature, the story is the mean for a commentary and exploration of other issues. There are good and bad in both categories.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 20, 2008, 2:54:25 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 20, 2008, 4:50:57 PM PDT
K. Murphy says:
While these characteristics may seem simplified, I think they take into consideration the major ideas of what it takes for a book/story to transcend being merely a book to being considered literature:
*written on a subject of import/significance
*provocative - thought & emotion
*says something valuable about the human experience
*does so creatively & imaginatively
*interesting, engaging
*allows for different perspetives

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 24, 2008, 9:22:07 AM PDT
My wife found a book titled "Sir Evelyn's Charge" in the Church library that is mostly made up of books saved from England before WWII.
This book although not well known today is one she has read many times and has the quality where it becomes "Alive" to the reader.
Although she is a great fan of Austin and Dickens and others like them this obscure book is the current favorite.
Does this qualify?

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 27, 2008, 7:59:33 AM PDT
Ravenskya says:
I disagree that genra fiction cannot be literature... I would be easy to say the "Gone With the Wind" is a Drama, "Neuromancer" is sci fi or cyber punk, "The Three Musketeers" is Action/Adventure.

I think what makes them literature is that the trancend above their genre and are accessible to even those who dont venture into the genre. For example, I don't like Sci Fi... yet I find that "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," "1984," "Neuromancer" and "Ender's Game" are all books that I not only enjoyed... but stuck with me long after I read them.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 27, 2008, 4:40:48 PM PDT
Lawa says:
I agree Payne. Literature is fiction that has simply rised above. Many works that we consider to be literature were written for the general public and the common audience. Some were blasted for being low-brow and others considered immoral simply because it told a story. The depth of these works and the social commentary were often missed because they discussed normal operations. With the distance of time the value of these works came to be seen and they bypassed other stories that were much lauded during the same time period.

But here is another question: Do we consider literature to be only those works that stand the test of time? Must all literature be classic in nature? And if so, why are new releases labled as literature if they have not yet proven to stand the test of time?

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 3, 2008, 1:32:16 PM PDT
Sorry for you not liking Joyce. He is not meant to be an easy read, but he is one of the most fun authors. His intention is to involve you in his process. Ulyssyes has some of the most erotic passages in English History. It most certainly not like a popular novel to be read thru at a glance. Joyce engages you as do many great writers. Josesph Campbell has a series of essays on Joyce and Ullyses which really help to explain some of what is being stated in the novel.
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Discussion in:  Classics forum
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Initial post:  May 20, 2008
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