Saturday, June 23, 2012

More on Literature

I realized that yesterday's summary definition of literature was too terse, and my connection with that excerpt from Plato's Charmides too obscure. Excessive obscurity is a sign of poor literature. Yesterday a friend had the gall to tell me of my list of read books not one of them qualified as literature! Now, I grant that my definition of literature is not conventional, but I stand behind it nevertheless, and, if it is sound, then I am correct in referring to all those books as literature. Let me expand a bit.

I am not an expert on literature, of course, but I am a guy who loves literature.

Literature is potentially any writing. Literature as a plain noun is just writing. But literature as implying quality excludes some or many pieces of writing, depending on how strict one's definition.

I wouldn't use the word as implying a certain quality. I would extend it to any writing whatsoever, and would require the attachment of a qualifier - usually 'good' or 'bad.' so we might say that O'Brien's Theophilus is good or bad fiction, while being good or bad history. I would deny that we should consider literature as exclusive of fiction. Some of the greatest literature to which I have been exposed are not fictional - Augustine's Confessions, of course, and why not, to quote English examples, Gibbon's autobiography, and, indeed, his Decline and Fall? I would have no truck with anyone who would exclude these as literature and, in fact, great literature.

So, then, I am not really talking about literature, then. My subject is good literature. Here are some of the things I would look to as making a work good literature:


1) It can be read smoothly. The 'physical' character of the words does not create resistance (as do technical manuals, that aim at logical precision rather than smooth reading).

2) Elegant language, suggestive diction, poetical and literary devices appropriate to genre. Even the difficult texts of Shakespeare constitute good literature for the 21st Century, not because of smoothness, which does not often stand the test of time or transition across cultures and languages (i.e. German sentence types) but because of the musical quality of the text, interesting imagery, etc.


1) It has a deliberate structure reflective of its goals and genre. This is admirable both in itself and is necessary for it to be considered a cohesive unit and aids comprehension. (Von Balthasar and his admirer de Lubac fell tragically short here. Many of the books of the Bible are astonishing for their structures.)

2) It is perceptive. This is the quality that elicits both emotional reaction (usually pleasure) and intellectual interest. This is the basis of moral edification. Edification is the result of perceptiveness. It is not a direct product.

3) Completeness. A complete thought. Book I of the Iliad is not by itself good literature since the profundity of its insights are only introduced in Book I, which depend upon what follows.


  1. Heh, heh. Well, my comment got you thinking, didn't it? And the definition you just produced has merit. I had the impression from the previous post that you hadn't really thought about your term. It was like: "Let's talk about literature, and here are all the books I've been reading, most of which are theological tomes." But now I'm with you. (I certainly would not exclude St. Augustine's Confessions from the category of good or even great literature.)

  2. So now I have a made a start. There is still a lot of room to cover. Perhaps installment three should be forthcoming wherein I apply my criteria to an 'unexpected' candidate... and then, finally, as promised to connect it with the quote from Charmides!