Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Another (Delayed) Monday Commentary: Reclaiming "Literary"

In my circles, the word "literary" is often thrown around as a pejorative -- and given the developments of the last century, it's really no wonder. Literary fiction, you see, has become tightly associated with a certain background and cast of mind that many of my associates do not share. It is now rooted in the humanities departments of academe, where Marxist dialectic reigns triumphant and cultural pessimism rules the day. When it is not overly obsessed with style and method - when, in other words, it has genuine substance - it is quotidian and parochial in its attitudes and sentiments. It is usually penned by graduates of literature, "studies", or fine arts programs and is judged by the same; consequently, it exists not to speak to the general public but to stroke the egos of the elite.

But this was not always so.

Consider William Shakespeare. On those occasions when a Western literary canon is acknowledged to exist (which is not always, mind), Shakespeare floats to the top of the list. Many still deem his plays masterworks for the ways in which they capture both the flaws and the virtues of our human nature. Was all of this writing bound up in literary magazines to be consumed by the Few? No! These plays were presented at the Globe in front of audiences that included everyone from the Queen to the illiterate commoner. And while Shakespeare definitely had some identifiable political and religious opinions, these thoughts did not completely dominate what he wrote. This, in fact, is what has allowed his plays to endure in the centuries since.

I would like to take back the term "literary" from the arrogant poseurs who've stolen and sullied it. "Literary" to me should involve grappling with the universals. It should reveal who we are in all of our glorious messiness. And no -- this does not mean focusing on everything that's awful and base in the world, as that is no more a true representation of humanity than is pat optimism. A genuinely "literary" fiction would show the courage as well as the cowardice, the virtue as well as the sin, and the love as well as the mindless hate. It wouldn't absorb itself with the fads and fashions of our narrowly-educated clerisy but would instead seek to reach the minds of all men.

And literary science fiction? Again, many on my side of the Social Justice Wars chafe at the very idea that science fiction should seek such a label, but if we take care to properly define our terms, no dichotomy need exist between the sense of wonder that was once the defining feature of our genre and the exploration of the human psyche that makes a story "literary." We could live in a both/and universe in which a science fiction that "comments upon society and civilization at a safe remove" is also a science fiction that is enjoyable to read.  We could live in a both/and universe in which a science fiction that is entertaining is also a science fiction that "makes us better people." Hasn't this been done before? Don't you feel that the stories you've read have actually shaped your worldview and led, in a subtle fashion, to your own improvement? I know I do!

So we shouldn't completely set aside the didactic function of Story simply because certain social justice warriors are abusing it. We should, instead, outperform them at their own game.


  1. I love you for posting on this! I think we should distinguish between the two forms by calling the pretenders to the throne "glitterary". :)

    Why? Because I do not want to insult John C Wright with the term literary, if it includes dreary depressing gray goo, or a trumpeting SJW rant about humans as classes of widgets that aren't lined up properly. Yes, he writes rousing stories with action, beginnings middles and ends, and much daring do. But his style is not the mercenary barebones prose beloved of spy thrillers and mil-sf. He loves language and urges his readers to think beyond the every day to stretch the mind. But he doesn't fall into the navel gazing rabbit hole that so many others fail to escape. His is also a form of escapism. Yes, it is different than the traditional form of exploding space ships, though still includes exploding space ships.

    I think there's room for that. The record shows he does not have difficulty attracting readers.

  2. An awful lot of writers seem to think that "literary" means using lots of seldom-used words in an incomprehensible plot filled with 2D (albeit PC) characters. I don't think so. But it probably isn't Louis L'Amour, either.