What is Literature or: Hello, Horse

posted in: Day In The Life 43
Illustration of horse, ca. 1650. Ink, opaque watercolour, and gold on paper. Image: Wikipedia.



Hey, horse. Nice saddle. I used to sit up there. Oh, this n’ that. I had to go sleep in a barn for awhile. Could I get back on you? Like, in the saddle? Thanks. Yeah, this feels good.



*  *  *


What makes a piece of writing a work of literature? Have you ever thought about that? (I’m speaking to you, now, not the horse, but she’s still here.)

What makes an essay, or a novel, or a memoir — even a blog post — more than just words on a page? Even if they’re really good words on a page? I’ve been wanting a solid answer to this question for years. When trying to differentiate between a “literary” work or a non-“literary” work, folks sorta cock their heads and offer something vague and impossible to prove, like, “Um … Well, literature is just generally better than other writing? I guess? It’s got something to do with being good.”

That isn’t enough for me. But to be fair, let’s look at a situation where you’ve got writing that’s obviously “better” than other writing to see if it’s a passable definition.

Consider James Baldwin. Consider basically anything he ever wrote. Here you have a writer of staggering talent, a man who spent his entire life toiling endlessly at his desk to make good sentences, a man whose grocery list would surely make us weep for its clarity of conviction. Baldwin once said a writer should write a sentence “as clean as a bone.” James Baldwin’s writing is “better” than 95 percent of all other writing ever produced, ever, so it’s gotta be literature, right? Now, you might not dig his writing, you might be ambivalent. But regardless of whether or not you like James Baldwin, it’s clear from the first sentence of any of his essays or novels or poems that when you read the man’s work, you’re reading literature. Another way to look at it is to lay a copy of Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time between an airport crime novel and a plucky beach read. Now point to the literary work.


Baldwin is obviously the literary writer but why? It’s not length. The beach read could be 500 pages and the Baldwin text just an excerpt; nothing changes. Does a literary work contain fancy words? Is that what makes it literary? Ugh, let’s hope not. As complex as his ideas are, Baldwin’s language isn’t florid or showy — one of the many reasons he’s so great. Is a work literary because it contains Deep Thoughts? Profound Themes? That’s not fair. A good trade paperback by a popular author can deal with topics like death, aging, or heartbreak, too, but that doesn’t make it literature. The criteria for distinguishing between literature and not-literature has always felt as elitist as it is subjective. Other people may have a crystal clear understanding of the difference, but not this nerd.

Then, just when I was not looking for it, the answer appeared. I found it in an article in Harper’s magazine a couple issues back. The article was entitled Like This or Die: The fate of the book review in the age of the algorithm and was written by Christian Lorentzen. Check this out:


“Literary writing is any writing that rewards critical attention. It’s writing that you want to read and to read about. It’s something different from entertainment. It involves aesthetic and political judgments and it’s not easily quantifiable.”


I was sitting in my black chair and had to set down my tea to pump my arms in the air and whoop. That was it! Yes! Literary writing is writing you can go to battle with! Literature gives as good as it gets! It’s not about long words or length; it’s about substance and resilience — and craft is kind of de facto at that point. Literature is a steak. Not-literature is a smoothie and hey: Maybe it’s a very good smoothie. There’s nothing wrong with a smoothie! Smoothies are a nice break from steak. But make no mistake: You can’t make literature in a blender and add wheat germ for texture. If you want to read — or write — literature, you’re gonna have to chew.

What does all this have to do with that horse?

Oh, I don’t know. It’s got something to do with how writing is hard. It’s got something to do with expectations I place on myself, probably. The first five months of this year have forced me to form a new relationship with expectations. It’s strange and not entirely comfortable for its newness. I used to either claw my way up to meet expectations or cry over them when they were dashed. I’m not even sure what they are these days.

PaperGirl is not literature. Never has been, never will be. Believe me, it’s a relief. If I had to figure out how cook and eat a steak sitting atop a horse, I’d fall off and never get back on. I’m good with my smoothie. I’ve even got a cup-holder.

43 Responses

  1. Glenda Barber Hoagland
    | Reply

    Oh Mary, so good to hear from you. I realized this week that I had not seen a post from you in a while. I hoped you were well and here you are tonight with a very poignant post. Thanks so much for sharing and keeping it real.

  2. Jo
    | Reply

    Consider all of us your extra cup holders. Or helping with a leg up. Whatever uou need. So glad to hear from you!

  3. Joyce Jackson
    | Reply

    I enjoy your posts and I am glad you are back in the saddle!

  4. Cindy Beal
    | Reply

    Great to see you again!!!! You have been missed!

  5. Stephanie Pennington-Grant
    | Reply

    Glad you are back, I have missed you.

  6. Molly Roberts
    | Reply

    Love ya, so great to see you back in the saddle again

  7. Veronica
    | Reply

    Hiya Mary – great to hear from you – about Anything , I realize !
    And I also am realizing , that that is a lovely aspect of Friendship .
    Thank you for sharing the ponderings on Writing- I find it to be a very perplexing question, & almost up there , for me , with Why Write? .
    It seems important to figure out whether this thing is of use or value, and what good it could do in the world.
    If it is , even in the most minuscule amount, any good to anybody.
    I think that I might have just made my definition, there. It fits your writing . x Veronica

    • Lizzieanne
      | Reply

      I write because I want to look at my thoughts and feelings outside of my body

      • Lizzieanne
        | Reply

        Correction: I want to GET my thoughts and feeling out of my body and then look at them.

  8. Betty Starkey
    | Reply

  9. Naomi Champagne
    | Reply

    O Mary , it’s wonderful to hear from you !!

  10. Kathleen BeBeau
    | Reply

    Nice to read your writing again.

  11. val larson
    | Reply

    I realized last night that we hadn’t heard from you in awhile-searched for posts I may have missed, and then today there you are!!!!!
    I watched an episode of Love of Quilting yesterday where you and your Mom were hosting, and she had made an enormous quilt! I love when you two are on!!!!

    Welcome back Mary!!

  12. elizabeth a hinze
    | Reply

    I love smoothies…
    and I think you sell yourself short..
    I think steak is in the eye of the eater

  13. Barbara
    | Reply

    Mary, you always lasso me in with your writings. Welcome back! I’m reading a book in which the author quotes Phillip Larkin, and I thought of you.

  14. Anni
    | Reply

    Giddy up!

  15. Liz Flaherty
    | Reply

    Great to see you here. I think I’ll stick with entertainment when it comes to reading and writing. I’m still scarred by reading Nathaniel Hawthorne in high school, but maybe the fact that I still remember The Scarlet Letter makes it literature–God knows it wasn’t entertaining. 🙂

  16. Teresa Dethloff
    | Reply

    I was suprised and delighted to see your post this morning. Welcome back!

  17. Sue
    | Reply

    So great to hear from you again! I hope you never have to leave us again

    As far as great literature goes, good for it. I feel it’s important to read during our young years to m fine-tune minds and encourages going beneath the surface of things. Literature has its place, to be sure. Being able to read with discernment is a vital skill in a complicated world.
    But, and this is a big But (), as I have aged, as a young senior, I felt so free when I let myself read whatever I wanted to, letting go of all “shoulds”! From a very strongly academic high school, I had come to feel guilty when I didn’t pick up or didn’t finish a piece of “great literature”. Now I read whatever I am in the mood for, and find I am reading much more, picking up a greater variety of subjects, and therefore, as a bonus, learning more in the process. The joy I found in reading as a young child has returned!
    I am a slower reader and know I will not have read all the greats before my time is up, but I no longer feel bad about that. There are many unsung greats to be found in the world of books!

    • Mark Hill
      | Reply

      Wise words!

    • Sue Higgins
      | Reply

      Agree, agree, agree! Especially about reading during young years – but also I felt you were reading my mind about how you read now and no regrets. I’m also from “a very strongly academic high school” and imagine my surprise when I looked up and saw I was reading the response from Sue. I am also Sue. And, Mary Fons, you are my comfort food of reading material! Always continue 🙂

  18. Mandy Laseter
    | Reply

    I am truly happy to to read you again, Mary! Welcome back!

  19. Nan R
    | Reply

    So glad to see you back! Missed you.

  20. Kathryn
    | Reply

    I smiled when I saw you in my inbox this morning. It’s so good to hear from you again!

  21. Evie
    | Reply

    Mary, I’m so glad you are back. I’m not sure I understand your posting, though. You are a wonderful, considered writer. You are not a “beach read.” You do ” go down like a smoothie” but I think that is a sign of gifted writer. I don’t want to have to struggle and turn myself into a pretzel in order to understand what an author is trying to convey. Just sayin’

  22. Kim Bourgeois Landry
    | Reply

    Mary Fons! I thought of you this very day! A ❤️+ envelope with a lovely thank you card in it that had been tucked into my favorite book on stitching fell into my hands. I thought, wonder if I will see a post soon? Boom! There you are! I love synchronistic happenings! I also love that your answer came to you! BRAVO!

  23. Ann
    | Reply

    Literature gets inside you in a way that other writings don’t. It makes your brain light up and dance while you are reading. Glad you’re back, Mary.

    • Kathy Hellesen
      | Reply

      Ooo, I like your definition!

  24. Georgia O'Neal
    | Reply

    Good literature makes you cry, laugh, think, feel, become a part of, feel indebtedness to the author, love, hate, fury, kindness – Great literature means all of the above, and it will be on the bookshelves for a long time to come.
    glad you’re back Mary – Ride ’em cowgirl !

  25. Nancy Horton
    | Reply

    i am liter(ature)ly delighted to read you again!! hold on to those reigns and cupholder and fly like the wind!

  26. Heather
    | Reply

    Girl, what you’re sayin’ is another example of balance and how important it is! Balance isn’t just for yoga or what you eat… A diet of only steak would likely make someone sluggish and ill over time, but toss a few smoothies in there and you get the bounce back in your step and, well, if your guts are like mine, you make room for more steak! And, a diet of only smoothies might leave you feeling hungry. LOL The way I look at it, the beach read is just as important as the literature, but you need both.

    And, I love that definition! Thank you for breaking it down for us!

    P.S. SO happy to read your words again. Hope to see more of them in the near future. 😉 Either way, we’ll be here for them, Mary!

  27. Sally Caldwell Nesser
    | Reply

    I loved this post very much Mary and was so happy to see it in my in box.
    I hope you are taking better care of yourself, we all care about you and selfishly we all need you in our lives for many different reasons.

  28. Bob Collis
    | Reply

    ‘Glad you’re back Mary. I was worried about you! I hope things are better now.

  29. Pauline
    | Reply

    You have been missed! I hope you are feeling well! I was relieved to see your post today! Looking forward to more in the future. I read purely for enjoyment. Sometimes I think I should be reading something truly great, but I’m an adult and I get to choose what satisfies my senses!

  30. Karen
    | Reply

    GideeUp Mary, So very happy to hear your words again.Ease into the saddle, keep writing and sharing your wisdom. Take care.

  31. Kathy
    | Reply

    Mary so good to hear from you!

  32. Bob Collis
    | Reply

    ‘Glad you’re back Mary! I was imagining the worst, and was worried.
    ‘Hope all is ok now.

  33. Barbara
    | Reply

    Welcome back!

  34. Robin Smith
    | Reply

    I am glad you are back and missed you. I wondering when you will fill in the blanks about what has been going on with you. Have you been having health problems? Are you been working more than usual? Is there someone new in your life- Phillip? Friend?
    I am curious about how you have been. ❤️

  35. Cathy
    | Reply

    SO glad you are back! Loved your topic. My brother and I have ourselves a “classic book club” as we call it. After reading a book, we ask ourselves, “What made this book a classic?” We have agreed that the content is timeless – the content can still be discussed and apply to present day. The content of the book provides a myriad of discussion. I loved your discussion of the topic and will share your post with my brother. Thanks for the intriguing read!

  36. Sue
    | Reply

    I too was thinking, just this week, that I haven’t seen anything written by Mary; perhaps she’s not coming back. So I’m delighted to see your name and your words on my page!
    You’ve made me very happy!
    I’m also glad that you give yourself breaks when you need them. That makes me very happy too!

  37. Janice
    | Reply

    I see you are going to be in Toronto in the Fall. We will welcome you with open arms!

  38. Anne Sommerville
    | Reply

    Great to hear from you, I have been worried, the fact you are the same age as my daughter I’m sure has nothing to do with it! I agree with literature and nonliterature, great quote, thanks. Be well

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