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So, What is Literature, Anyway?

Every once and a while someone on a HP board brings up the rather touchy subject of whether or not the Harry Potter series qualifies as “Literature”. This often sparks a lively debate. The following is my own take on the subject.

Which ultimately hasn’t all that much to do with the Harry Potter series itself. But I'll wrestle it back around to that by the end.

Often enough the proceedings are further enlivened when someone decides to chime in on the matter with the rather fretful question as to why childrens’ fiction is “never” regarded as “serious” literature. (Which presupposes that adults’ fiction automatically is — which is obviously not the case.)

This second issue tends to fluctuate with the social perception of childhood. In some eras children’s literature is regarded as more deeply “true” than the general run of (adult) mainstream fiction. And certainly more true than mainstream “popular” fiction of the “best-seller” variety. Unfortunately this is not, at the moment, quite one of those eras.

I think the real sticking point in many people’s minds is that, at ALL times, there is little respect for genre fiction, and there is a strong tendency for the uninformed and unreflective to misperceive childrens’ fiction as being a genre. Which of course it is not — although the divisions between genres in childrens’ literature are thinner and more permeable than they are in books written for the adult market.

Other, more obviously ignorant and unreflective persons have already decided that children’s literature is just all simple exercises for inexpert readers and consequently beneath their notice. These are the people most likely to be blindsided when they do read a “children’s” book as a result of a major publicity buzz and are astonished at how engaging it is. There are a lot of current Harry Potter fans who fall into this category. One is led to suspect (wrongly or not) that these people must have never been avid readers when they were children. Otherwise they’d know better.

As stated above; in children’s fiction the various genres are not so distinct and well-defined (and definitely not as specialized) as they are in fiction marketed to adults. And, for that matter, so far as the genre barrier goes, that barrier is oh-but-definitely real. You are several hundred percent more likely to find a children’s novel classified as “literature” than, say, a murder mystery.

Certainly, if you go hunting, you will find recognizable mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, westerns, horror and even a rudimentary form of romance in the children’s section of the bookshop, or the library. But you will generally find them all lumped together in a general fiction area, rather than culled out and shelved in their own little ghettos — as is the case in the library’s adult fiction section; so the busy adults can go directly to what type of story they have already decided that want to read, grab it and not have to ferret it out from the “sea of books”.

But, as has been pointed out elsewhere, by other people, “literary” fiction itself is also a highly specialized genre. Still, comparatively little of the published adult fiction available on the shelves of either bookshop or library was deliberately written to any kind of an objective “literary” standard (whatever that is).

Occasionally, but rarely, a novel that is written to this kind of “standard” will manage by some fluke to hit the best seller list and everybody makes a big fuss over it when that happens. I think ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ were a couple of such. I pay too little attention to mainstream fiction to be able to recall a lot of others off the top of my head.

And just how often does anyone remember that ‘1984’ or ‘Brave New World’ (or, for that matter, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’) are actually science fiction? Even academia seems determined to try to represent them as examples of “social satire”. Satire, apparently is much more respectable than SF, being designated as a style, not a genre.

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Which raises the question of whether the current description of “young adult” sometimes applied to various novels marketed to parents and young people is merely a marketing category or actually a genre in its own right. This is a comparatively recent debate, for the designation of YA itself is quite recent. As little as 40 years ago, hardly anyone had ever heard of YA. It was still a budding marketing term. And in its absence, despite a little ghetto of what were designated as “teen” novels, any distinction of the divisions within the broad field of books designed to be marketed to young people were more likely to be dependent upon such issues as vocabulary levels, or reading skills, or whether they were picture books as opposed to chapter books.

The following extract is from a posting, several years ago that a reader named Melissa Proffitt made to a listgroup of followers of the work of British fantasy author, Diana Wynne Jones. This group has a history of periodically taking this particular issue out and running it around the block a few times. Ms Proffitt’s contention is that a YA book is more about the experience of “being” a young adult, than that of being a child. The treatment of the subject consequently is less whimsical and far less subject to flights of fancy than a book on the same subject intended for children:

“When people study children’s or YA lit, they are referring to a kind of literature that ironically has little to do with the age of the the reader. In other words, calling a book “young adult” is more like calling a book a “fantasy” or a “Western.” It is absolutely NOT proscriptive, except where insecure people think they need to bolster their self-esteem by not reading “kiddie books.” Such people deserve their fate.

There are certain characteristics usually associated with a young adult book. The main one is erroneously assumed to be “age of protagonist.” This is true, but not a given; ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is not a children’s book, and neither is ‘Ender’s Game’ regardless of how old the narrator/protagonist is. Notice that I haven’t said anything about whether or not children could read such books; that’s irrelevant to this classification.

Having talked with others who actually do study this stuff (one of whom is the English department chair at BYU, and I strenuously disagree with a lot of his assumptions, but he is at least current on the literature) this is a partial list of those characteristics, NOT in any particular order of importance:

1. Singularity of plot line
2. Age of protagonist
3. Well-defined themes
4. Importance of character development, particularly growing up or learning to change
5. Relative simplicity of prose style--NOT overly simplistic
6. Age-appropriate content (not really very important, given that nobody agrees on what “appropriate” for an age means; but many mainstream YA books feature teenagers in typical (or atypical) home and school situations)

The real point is that in calling something a young adult book, or a children’s book, you’re really not commenting on the *appropriateness* of the book for any one age group. Particularly since most of us are well out of our teens and yet we’re all still devoted to DWJ.”

With an actual list in front of us it is easy enough to see that in most respects Rowling’s story of Harry Potter does appear to qualify as falling within the definition of YA novels. I would tend to question that “singularity of plotline”, however, as well as the matter of character development, growth or change. But there is nothing about either this list or this definition which would preclude the possibility of the work one day being classified as literature.

Which opens up the can of worms on the question of just what is meant by the term; “Literature”.

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In general, and in the long run, “literature” is a label which gets applied to something that has “stood the test of time” or, more bluntly, hasn’t sunk without a trace in ten or twenty years. So it is far too early to make any sort of predictions on the matter insofar as it relates to Harry Potter.

Particularly given my contention, stated across the rest of this collection, that in the end Rowling failed to satisfactorily pull off what she had undertaken.

“Literature” boiled down to its essentials (or maybe glue) seems to be defined as those works which have enough substance to withstand and endure both the vagaries of the popular market, and subjection to the “critical process”.

And every one of these considerations depends a good deal more upon the work’s commercial viability than anyone involved really wants to admit.

Think of it as an endurance triathlon.

First: the work has to be able to continue to attract readers whether the popular market is hot or not. Right off the top; this is where most ‘best sellers’ fail to make the cut. A high percentage of these works are marketing phenomena only; they have just enough substance to support one major sales campaign and make enough money for their publishing houses to return their investment. The minute the media hoop-la ceases the whole vehicle loses steam, grinds to a halt, and eventually collapses.

The rare book which continues to sell after its publishers can no longer be bothered to promote it has passed the first step toward being ultimately recognized as Literature. You will notice that most of the works which have been awarded this accolade have rarely been out of print. Their popular demand has remained high enough to make it worth their publishers’ while to continue producing new editions. Without the expense of sustained publicity.**

This pays dividends for the publishers after the work has survived long enough to enter the public domain; when it becomes possible for any publishing house to produce an edition of the text without fear of litigation by rival houses or the necessity to pay royalties to the authors or their estates. This is why most of the recognized “Literature” you have had pushed at you in school is by dead people from at least a generation or several ago.

With the most recent changes in copyright laws (designed to extend the ownership of such properties as media figures used as corporate identification for such companies as, say, Disney) it is expected that in the future it may be a good deal harder for a work of fiction to survive as a viable commercial property long enough to reach this state. It is uncertain what the effect of the hitherto unexamined or analyzed entry of ePublishing into the equation is going to be, either. No new work that has been introduced first in an ePublished edition has survived long enough to be even remotely viable for evaluation of its potential as literature yet. It is quite likely that the essentially ephemeral nature of ePublished works is going to be held against them, rendering them into the equivalent of pulp fiction, regardless of individual merit. It is much too early to assume that ePublishing is necessarily going to prove a game-changer in this particular segment of the applications of commerce upon literature. It will certainly not uncouple the two. Not in my lifetime, anyway.

Second: There has to be enough substance to the story, or the style of the telling of it, to generate a genuine interest in the reader in the motivations and conditions/situations represented in the story or, the technique through which the story is conveyed. This includes the characters as well, and, in the case of non-mainstream settings, the specific world-crafting also. What this comes down to is that there will be people subjecting it to close examination, and it has to be able to stand up to this examination without falling completely apart.

Authors, of course, are fallible; such examinations generally do uncover details that do not hold up to close scrutiny. But if the work resonates deeply enough within its times or the human condition this will only add to the debate. All works which are awarded the status of Literature have survived this debate, and have continued to reward subsequent examinations of theme and structure well after the “story” is no longer fresh. It is usually a considerable bonus if the work can reward examination on stylistic grounds as well.

This is the stage at which a work draws the attention of academia. To do so does not automatically transmute a work of fiction into “Literature”. A close examination of popular media is also fair game for academia. Particularly in the context of comparisons with other works of popular media, or in a dissection of what exactly is the cause of the popularity, and the identification and exploration of the universal themes upon which is draws.

Still, a work which is subjected to this attention may or may not become a candidate for inclusion into the standard academic curricula for that generation, and if so may be retained as such for future generations. In the process of a work’s qualifying as “Literature” it is of course almost essential for this to take place.

The primary deciding factor of a work’s viability in this regard tends to be the reliability of the text continuing to remain available. Which throws us right back to our first consideration, above. The market.

A publishing house is not going to keep a book in print merely because some teacher in some school might like to teach a class on it sometime this year. Teachers teach classes on works which are already out there where their prospective students will readily be able to get their hands on them. Ergo; stage two depends upon a work’s successfully traversing stage one.

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Which reminds us that we also need to draw a distinction between “Literature” and a work which is merely regarded as a “Classic”.

Third: A “Classic” and a work of “Literature” are not necessarily the same thing. But they frequently tend to occupy the same space. And while comparatively few examples of genre fiction have officially made the cut as Literature, rather a lot of them have been awarded the cachet of being regarded as Classics.

And, for some reason, to qualify as a Classic is a much more attainable goal if the work has originally or for an extended period of time been marketed as a work for children.

‘Robinson Carusoe’ is an undisputed work of Literature. Is it a children’s book? Well, certainly not in it’s original iteration. But has it been regarded as a children’s story? Yes, it has. Still is, too. ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’? Yup. May have to have been taken apart, retold, and heavily illustrated to be made palatable for modern children, but it was certainly regarded as children’s fare in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

What about more recent works that were originally intended for children?

Okay then: ‘Treasure Island’ is another Classic. Is it also a work of Literature? Yes. It is. What about ‘Alice in Wonderland’? Yup. No question about that. Well, okay, what about Anne McCaffery’s Pern stories? The Harper Hall ones? They are at the very least YA novels. Are they Literature? Er, well...

Only a handful of McCaffery’s total output of novels were marketed as children’s, or, rather, YA stories, but they’ve stayed in print. People continue to buy them. They have been being read for the past 30 years. People discuss them. They show up in college English classes. Are they Literature?

Well, maybe. Someday. It’s too soon really to tell. Even if they are not, they are certainly classic representations of a particular kind of science fiction — or science fantasy — of the late 20th century. They are going to be referenced in any overview of the work of the period for that genre. But I can’t guarantee that they will ever be regarded as Literature.

But McCaffery is a living author (well, she was when I wrote this essay, and I don't feel like substituting someone else), you tell me.

Well, okay then. What about the works of Georgette Heyer? Heyer died in 1974. That’s over 30 years ago. She virtually invented the sub-genre of the “Regency romance” and much of her work is still in print, or is still being periodically reprinted. I don’t think the benefits of public domain status have kicked in yet, so we are seeing publishing houses that still have to get permission to reprint these works and pay someone for the privilege to do so. The books are also also tame enough to be read by teenagers, and even sub-teens without anyone batting an eye, even if they aren’t, strictly speaking, childrens’ stories. Is it Literature?

Well... I doubt it. But it is certainly closing in on “classic” status, and once it is public domain it could start gaining a whole new head of steam which would carry it through another couple of generations. And if Academia decided to adopt it...?

However; regardless of how “classic” they may be, Heyer’s work is still regarded as “mere” genre fiction, as is McCaffery’s. And finding genre fiction which has been awarded the cachet of being enshrined as Literature is as scarce as hen’s teeth. The “genre barrier” is real.

However; it may only be real because literary “genres” are themselves a comparatively recent innovation. The “novel” itself is generally regarded as an invention of the 18th century. Recognizable genres are far more recent yet. And the earliest recognizable genre that comes to mind, the “gothic,” is not one with a particularly high reputation. Its inherent tendency to take everything to quite ludicrous extremes, and wallow in them, works very much against attempts to award it any status as literature — although there are certainly ample examples of novels which have been awarded Literature status which fly the flag, unashamed.

Detective stories were invented not much later, although they appear to have been rare enough to simply get lost in the crowd. But Science Fiction? Modern Fantasy (as opposed to the endless retellings of folklore)? Those didn't show up until near the end of the 19th century. It's entirely possible that the issue of genre fiction is that it simply hasn't had enough time to establish itself as Literature. But the tendency of genre fiction to be plot-based rather than character-based works very much against it. Even in genres where you would expect the story to be weighted towards a character-based telling, the characters are often modified for the purpose of being masks for the reader to assume, rather than individuals to observe.

In this regard, Rowling, as a writer of fantasy (although for years she accepted that mantle grudgingly, and with a remarkable lack of graciousness) is exceedingly fortunate that her work is marketed as children’s fiction. Because I can guarantee you that 5 out of 6 works of fantasy which have made the cut over the past 150 years are ones that were originally marketed to children. And if you can name six off the top of your head you will be doing better than I can.

Ergo: for at least the foreseeable future, as the third “requirement,” to qualify as Literature, a work must outlive, or otherwise shed its original associations with any recognized form of genre fiction.

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So, do I think that the Potter series will eventually make the cut as Literature?

Well, I suppose it’s not absolutely impossible, however unlikely it may seem at the moment. Up to the release of DHs, the series had most of the necessary groundwork in place. But there is no dodging the fact that whole back half of the series did not live up to the expectations which had been raised by the preceding half. And the final book’s all but total lack of competent editing completely sank whatever good elements were present in it (and to much regret, one must admit that there were some. The sheer waste is painful). The utter confusion of focus of the final book is probably another kiss of death where academe is concerned. And that is a hurdle which I do not think that the process can readily bypass. Upon the whole, my verdict is, no. But I've only been right about one time out of three at best, so I suppose history will see.

We’ll just have to see how well the series keeps selling a decade or two farther down the track, once the publishers, having made their bundle, can no longer be bothered to promote it. Apart from the total failure of the final book, the lack of a strong, individual literary “style” is its biggest drawback as far as I can see. That won’t do it any favors in the groves of academe, either. And it just plain doesn’t have that. And it never will.

But, even failing that, despite the shoddy editing and scant attention to any number of fine points of continuity, it is still a damned strong performance for what is, after all, a “first published work” by a new author. But I’m certainly not going to predict that it will ultimately make the cut. I’d estimate that it is going to take another 40-60 years at least before the other shoe drops on that issue. And I’ll be long gone by then.

But, if you ask me whether Harry Potter will become an enduring classic?

That's another pair of sleeves, altogether.

For one thing, the public has a longer memory than it is often given credit for. The Harry Potter series was the point at which a series of books made the transition into a major media event. There had been blockbuster book releases before this. With blockbuster movies based upon them. But perhaps for the first time, it was all happening in an electronic age, all more or less concurrently, and it was sustained over the course of more than a decade. There is no way that the public is going to soon forget the media circus which was set off by this series of books.

But that in itself will not instantly turn the books into either Literature, nor will it award them the accolade of being regarded as classics. Or, at least not in any manner other than the sort of loose talk which prevails in the marketplace. A great many movies are made from books which are neither classics nor Literature.

Well, all right. The Narnia books are certainly regarded as classics. They are regarded as Literature, too, in many circles. Although that last designation is largely dependent upon Lewis’s reputation as a writer in other fields than that of childrens’ stories, which is an advantage that Rowling does not share. How long have we had the Narnia books on hand?

‘The Last Battle’, the final (and least successful) book of the Narnia series, was released in 1956. That's over 50 years ago. I would imagine that the Narnia series had been awarded its accolade as a classic some time ago. But it is uncertain just precisely when. There is no specific point at which one can reliably say that; “Oh, it’s been in print for 42 years. I guess it qualifies as a classic now.”

Consequently, we will probably not have to wait all the way to the year 2057 before it will be clear whether or not Rowling’s “first major work” has made the cut.

All I can say with any certainty, is that it will outlast me.