What is Literature or: Hello, Horse

posted in: Day In The Life | 42
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.

H’yah!

 

*  *  *

 

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.

Exactly.

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.

Why I’m Staying In Washington.

posted in: D.C., Day In The Life, Paean | 1
It's you and me, Link. Photo: Wikipedia
How can this be wrong? Photo: Wikipedia

This blog is honest. Everything I tell you is real, and it’s true. Okay, it’s my truth — everyone has their version — but I come to the mat every time with the real deal.

But of course I can’t tell the whole truth, all the time. Sometimes this is because it would be inappropriate — someone else’s privacy needs to be respected, my privacy needs to be respected, it ain’t ready for prime-time, it’s too racy, it’s an over-share, etc. — but sometimes it’s because I’m scared.

Telling just how hard it’s been to move through my life in the past few months, this is something I haven’t been as honest about as I could’ve been. There was a moment of it, but I’ve held back the truly wrenching experience that has been choosing my next step. I am a naturally decisive person, so this back-and-forth has been nothing short of excruciating. Deciding where to live in a matter of weeks — Chicago or Washington — has made me realize that to be a woman with no boundaries presents as many challenges as someone who feels stuck in one place. I have no baby who needs to be fed. I have no husband with whom I make major decisions. I don’t even have a desk job. To be so free, I say unto you, is not so easy.

I haven’t been entirely forthcoming about how my heart has ached. For love lost, love found, love lost again. No one wants to read some maudlin, whiny girl mope about her love life — and this maudlin, whiny girl wouldn’t dare write the stuff — but perhaps I have over-pruned. Sharing that I find myself aching, longing, thrilled, excited, devastated, and confused in matters of the heart almost daily might help someone else out there. If you are that someone else, it’s high time I tell you that I understand.

Today, I turned in my lease. I’m staying in Washington, DC for another year and I’d like to tell you how I finally chose this. You might think what ultimately pushed me in this direction is odd, but to me it was perfect, it was right on time, and I was so grateful I cried.

I’m working on memorizing a Longfellow poem called “The Day Is Done.” Please take a moment to read the whole thing sometime. It’s about a person who wants to hear a poem in the evening — but he doesn’t want anything fancy or difficult (e.g., Homer). He says:

“Read from some humbler poet
Whose songs gushed from her heart
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start.

Who, through long days of labor,
And nights devoid of ease
Still heard in her soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.”

That poem is why I’m staying in Washington. Oh, for heaven’s sake it’s more than that — perhaps I’ll detail more tomorrow so you don’t think I’ve lost my mind and am making choices entirely based on dead poets — but those verses were my tipping point.

Long days of labor? I know about labor. Nights devoid of ease? Yes, those. But through it all, I keep hearing these melodies. If I keep up the labor, if I’m not afraid of the night, I feel like the melodies will keep coming to me. And I can’t live without them. I wouldn’t want to.

So I’ll honor the melodies by laboring longer. I’ll give them new sights to see, here in the almost-South. I can’t wait to tell you all about the apartment I found on the 10th floor of a beautiful historic building. It looks over a valley so lush and green right now, you can’t imagine how beautiful it is. I’ll stay and watch the leaves in that valley turn to bronze and gold, then fall, then grow again.

Then we’ll see what the melodies want me to do next.