So Jennifer found a quote on the IMDB board tonight about “To Kill A Mockingbird.” I don’t remember the exact quote, but it was something along the lines of “If I wrote one book that was half as good as “To Kill A Mockingbird,” then it would have to be better than all the Stephen King and popular crap being passed off as literature today.” And you know what? I think that this lady/guy was so full of crap his/her bedsheets are stained.
I mean, really, people. Why the hate? Why does a book that is popular automatically have to be considered crap and “unliterary”? If you know me, then you know that my Master’s thesis that got shelved was on Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” series, so I’ll admit I’m a bit biased. That notwithstanding, I feel that something doesn’t have to be convoluted and painful to read to be considered literature. Personally, I’ll be happy if I never have to read another word of James Joyce as long as I live. His style and what I consider “great” differ enough that I’ll just avoid it. I admit, however, that there are people who get a great deal of enlightenment from “Ulysses” and “Finnegan’s Wake.” I understand (despite my own personal distaste) where he stands in the English canon. I honestly and truly believe that Stephen King is a better writer than Joyce is. He tells better stories; his stories are accessable. But that does not mean that Joyce is crap being pushed off as literature. And it doesn’t mean that Stephen King should be taught in classrooms instead of Joyce. It means that there are different standards that define what literature is, and being popular or a best-seller does not mean that you are excluded from some elite group populated only by the dead and the impenetrably dense.
I can’t remember what semester it was, but someone was talking in class about there being ony crap on television, and I remember a story that was told about a lady coming into the public library with a stack of books and turning them in saying how proud she was to have read all these because she loved to read and refused to dull her mind with the trash that’s on television. When the library worker looked at the stack, she noticed that one of the books was a recipe-laden murder mystery named “Bon Bon Voyage.” Now, I try not to be pretentious, but the comment from class was very true: “LOST” is far more literary than the things in that stack.
My point in all this rambling is this: Just because it’s a book, does not make it literature. Just because it’s a classic, does not make it good. Just because it’s on television, does not make it garbage. Just because it’s popular, does not mean that it cannot be literature. Something does not have to be forgotten for a couple of decades and then unearthed to be literature; an author does not have to be dead in order to garner literary acclaim. A writer can simply tell a good story and be considered literature, unfortunately there is a stigma that the age of great literature has passed and all we have now is a group of genre-writing hacks who churn out formulaic text just for the paycheck.
And there are some people like that! I don’t consider Richard A. Knaak to be in the same league as J.R.R. Tolkien, and they write in the same genre! I consider Stephen King just as great as Edgar Allan Poe. I consider Philip K. Dick as good as H.G. Wells, but I do not consider Stephenie Meyer (and this is a post for another day, guys and gals) to be anywhere near in the same league as Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker. I think Nathaniel Hawthorn was a good storyteller but a poor writer. I think that Jim Butcher has a better grasp of the English language than Herman Melville. But nothing–and I mean nothing–that I think designates any of this, not one little bit, as literature.
That’s what it’s all about to me. I’m finishing my Master’s soon in American Literature, and the honest truth of the matter is that I don’t enjoy literature analysis, and I think that the more schooling I have, the less I enjoy what I read because I involuntarily start analyzing it on some level. Sometimes a story is just a story. And sometimes I want to just read a story. And sometimes these people just write a story. And even when they just write a story, there is more to it than the text you read. And that, my dear friends, is what makes something literature. It isn’t that you set out to write the great American novel; it isn’t that your vocabulary is greater than someone elses; it isn’t that you try (like James Joyce is said to have done) to write the greatest novel in the English language; and it isn’t putting pen to paper to churn out random, lifeless words just to get a paycheck.
What makes something literature is simple: When a good story is written, it’s a good story now, it’s a good story a month from now, it’s a good story ten years from now, and it’s a good story a hundred years from now. Good stories last. What makes literature is that it is a good story. If you sell a million copies because you’ve written a good story, then good for you! You’ve made it! And if you sell three copies, and your book is found forty years from now by a scholar who decides to teach it in class, then again: You’ve made it! Either way, your book, your story, your poem withstood the test of time and became literature. And no one cares (nor do they likely remember) if you were filed under “Fiction” or “Fantasy” or “Children” or “Young Adult” in Barnes and Noble. Because at one point or another, every book that you consider a classic, that you consider to be profound, sat on a shelf somewhere under a sign that read “New Releases.”