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Thread: A bit of an odd question- what makes a book "literature?"

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    A bit of an odd question- what makes a book "literature?"

    Why is Brave New World generally associated with sipping coffee in a campus cafe while Card's "Ender's Game" is not?

    I have always been very curious about this- I personally am not learned enough to know if there is a definite answer or not or what it would be, rather that some books give me a certain feeling of intellectualism while others don't- so think not of this as a criticism, but a sincere question.

    Why are some books in the "Literature" section of the book store, while others are elsewhere?

    Also, do any books come to mind that are in the sci-fi/fantasy/western/romance sections etc. that maybe you would make the argument that they should be in the literature section?

    Thanks everyone for your feedback!

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    My guess is that the publishers decide what authors they include in their series such as the Penguin classics, Dover classics, Signet classics, etc. Usually those books have come under critical review. They must make some form of contribution to the Humanities discipline.

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    Cool Besides being reviewed by such critics as Harold Bloom ....

    they meet certain criteria such as universal theme, similes and metaphors which give the book a lyrical quality and make it enjoyable to read, and allusions which elevate the book to a certain standard(s) of society.

    Sci-fi books which are generally found in the literature section include Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles and older works by H. G. Wells such as The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds.

    Literature in the western genre include The Prarie by Fenimore Cooper, Owen Wister's The Virginian, and, lately, a few of Cormac McCarthy's novels such as Blood Meridian.

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    Works that enter the canon of literature must have (almost) universal support from "the gatekeepers" of literature. Such gatekeepers are, in modern culture, centred on the university. Who else would you trust to keep this gate? The most admired (or noisy!) gatekeepers often 'get known' in wider culture -- e.g. critics like John Carey, Harold Bloom and Germaine Greer. But their canonical choices (Shakespeare, Dante, Wells...) have to have (almost) universal backing from all other literature professors in the universities. A work counts as literature if is of the highest 'aesthetic value', that is, if it generates vast amounts of pleasure in the reader. They are often 'intellectual' because intellectual pleasures can be great pleasures. Coffee may help to generate the required amounts of energy and concentration required... Writers like Card are so recent that either (i) the gatekeepers have not come to consensus (ii) Card is not very good...

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    All books that contain writing are literature.

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    Skol'er of Thinkery The Comedian's Avatar
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    Oh, I'd say that the difference between an ordinary "book" and "literature" is a quality judgment. It's kind of like the difference between the grades of "A" and "C"; sure they're both grades, and they both pass you along. But "literature" and the "A" are of a higher quality than the others.

    And, no, I'm not going to go all Zen and the of Motorcycle Maintenance on the "quality" issue at this point. I'm content with knowing that ideas of quality shift from culture to culture and that some elements of quality do seem to have a transcendence that rises above the fickle values of cultures both ethnic and temporal.

    Like you, I'm not smart enough to draw any clear lines here around the literary from the non-literary. But I trust my mind and my guts enough to tell the difference.
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    lit⋅er⋅a⋅ture
      /ˈlɪtərətʃər, -ˌtʃʊər, ˈlɪtrə-/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [lit-er-uh-cher, -choor, li-truh-] Show IPA
    –noun
    1. writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays.
    2. the entire body of writings of a specific language, period, people, etc.: the literature of England.
    3. the writings dealing with a particular subject: the literature of ornithology.
    4. the profession of a writer or author.
    5. literary work or production.
    6. any kind of printed material, as circulars, leaflets, or handbills: literature describing company products.
    7. Archaic. polite learning; literary culture; appreciation of letters and books.

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/literature

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    Quote Originally Posted by The Comedian View Post
    Oh, I'd say that the difference between an ordinary "book" and "literature" is a quality judgment. It's kind of like the difference between the grades of "A" and "C"; sure they're both grades, and they both pass you along. But "literature" and the "A" are of a higher quality than the others.
    Well put Often books that are considered literature have more complex themes than mass market stories. Take Dan Brown as an example. His stories have break neck plots that can turn on a dime, but the overall themes of the book are not terribly deep. They're also becoming very predictable in that they sort of follow a formula. Now think of Lord of the Flies or something similar. The themes within the book are deeper and more integral to the story.

    One thing that I do find interesting. Most of what we consider to be "classic" literature was basically the equivalent of our mass market books now. Take Shakespeare as a perfect example. His plays and poems were basically the standard of his time. There was not really anything more or less important or significant in his works than those of other play writes. What makes him famous and the others forgotten? His works happened to stand the test of time. His books were the most complete set of works found that had not been destroyed or simply fell apart with age.

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    Haribol Acharya blazeofglory's Avatar
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    A book will be a piece of literature only if it has something: a good style, a philosophy and much more than them it mus have the gravity some other cheap thrillers are devoid of. I call Shakespeare's dramas literary works, not James Hedly Chase's. Others may have different opinions. In fact there is no standard to measure perfectly which is literature and which is not. Many a time it is the readership that comes as a common denominator. General acceptance is another yardstick in point of time. Literary works endure straits of time. Today most of cheap novels or books or un-literary work evaporated and literary work remained and survived the saber teeth and nails of time. We have many books of literature written a thousand years ago but the books that were not literary are almost forgotten and maybe in some library and worms maybe feeding on them.

    That said today the success of a book is mainly determined by the amount of readership the book enjoyed. Harry Potter is not necessarily a book of literature yet its massive readership or the number of copies it sold determined its value. So is Da Vinci Code of Brown, for even if this book has not earned literary acclaim it is still deemed a successful book.

    “Those who seek to satisfy the mind of man by hampering it with ceremonies and music and affecting charity and devotion have lost their original nature””

    “If water derives lucidity from stillness, how much more the faculties of the mind! The mind of the sage, being in repose, becomes the mirror of the universe, the speculum of all creation.

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    You can decide for yourself as another way to differentiate and I don't think that it is very hard to see that there is a difference between the two. It doesn't mean that you can't read either, and the non literature was not bad at some point in time. If they do not have the depth in language use or plot that tells a full and broad story, it is a lesser work, but it remains for the reader to decide what they are going take the time to read and modern culture does not appear to be very strong so there is no more literature. We are just trying to stave off its destruction.

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    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    All books that contain writing are literature.

    That's just relativist nonsense. The phone book is not literature. The ledger books for a corporation are not literature. The instruction book for my new phone is not literature. Quite likely Dan Brown is not literature. The term "literature" assumes a creative or artistic writing. In general usage it also assumes a certain level of aesthetic or artistic achievement. Every person who writes may be a "writer"... but few go about declaring that they are the creators of "literature". The term "literature" suggests something akin to the term "classic" and as mal4mac suggests, literature (or classics) are something defined by the audience: the academics, the critics, the future generations of writers, and the not-so-common "common reader" (or passionate reader). Posting the dictionary definitions is just a play at semantics... ingenuous at best and quite likely a form of verbal Onanism. Yes, we all know that the term "literature" is bandied about freely (not unlike the term Art). I've just returned from meetings where several speakers began their session by announcing they would be "passing out some literature". But lets not mince words. We all know that this is not the definition of "literature" being referred to in the OP. We don't expect to be studying the assembly manual for a bicycle, the 2010 revised tax code, a teenager's journal, a conspiracy theorist's blog posts, or the latest volume in the Twilight series when we study "literature". The fact that those most involved do not always agree as to what is or is not "literature" does not denote that everything (or nothing) is literature, just as rare exceptions do not negate the rule.
    Last edited by stlukesguild; 02-12-2010 at 06:09 PM.
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    Not to create an uproar, but to the OP: The majority of literary works are usually both didactic and diachronic, meaning that they have something to teach, or a particular worldview, with a symbolic frame of reference, and they can be studied over time. I know someone will come along and challenge didactic, and I myself may find it a simplified descriptor, but you really can't shrug it off, as most literary writers have something to say, and most suffer in order to get it said.

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    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    JoZ!! Please!!! Not the Romantic "suffering artist" stereotype!! Or as John Ciardi... the great Dante translator/poet put it:

    “You don't have to suffer to be a poet; adolescence is enough suffering for anyone”
    Beware of the man with just one book. -Ovid
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    Quote Originally Posted by stlukesguild View Post
    JoZ!! Please!!! Not the Romantic "suffering artist" stereotype!! Or as John Ciardi... the great Dante translator/poet put it:

    “You don't have to suffer to be a poet; adolescence is enough suffering for anyone”
    Well geez! Someone has to uphold the stereotype!

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    Quote Originally Posted by waryan View Post
    Also, do any books come to mind that are in the sci-fi/fantasy/western/romance sections etc. that maybe you would make the argument that they should be in the literature section?

    Thanks everyone for your feedback!
    I collect some Conan titles that don't appear to be literature, but I would read them instead, or when taking a break from some classic horror novel or short story.

    I tried to look at one of Dickens books recently but it was too difficult to read. The language was obviously attractive, but it would be too much of a battle to try to understand, and it was not a horror. If it was a horror, than that might be different. I could spend years trying to read it.

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