So, being a literature snob in training an English Major, I’ve taken my Vow of Perpetual Poverty now, just to get it out of the way. Instead of securing a job that will make me fabulously rich, I get to take classes that spark debates on what defines Literature and why some books are worthy of being in The Canon (that nebulous list of the “Classics” that determines what our college textbooks will contain), while others are not.

When student loans come in, I’ll let you know if  the trade-off is worth it. 😉

I figure, this being a blog on books and literature and such, I should delve into the whole “What is Literature” debate. Why do we have to suffer through Joyce’s Ulysses, but somehow, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas doesn’t make the cut? The simple (and obviously sarcastic) answer is that Literature is whatever the majority of college professors and literary critics and other old white dudes say it is.

Some of the most common criteria are:

  • Has stood the test of time
  • Gives insight into the culture of the day
  • Has made a lasting impact on society (either that of its own time or today’s… sometimes both)
  • Was the first to utilize a literary style or device

I agree with all points in theory, but whether or not a canonical book actually contains any of these particular qualities is a matter of opinion.

I look at Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative – the story of his capture and life as a slave. It marks one of the first widely published works by a black man, was incredibly influential to the emancipation movement in England at the time, and still gives valuable insight into human nature. I have no problem accepting this as a great and worthy work of writing.

James Joyce’s Dubliners, on the other hand, baffles me. It’s heralded as a great example of stream-of-consciousness writing and is best known for being the first book to have a scene depicting a man sitting on the toilet… this is literature? When I want to read the stream-of-consciousness style, I’ll take Virginia Woolfe any day. And how does writing about a man defecating give any insight into life? As far as I can see, this is nothing groundbreaking, but hey, what do I know?