Thursday, 16 September 2010

What Is This 'Literature' Of Which You Speak?

Last time, I outlined what went into my somewhat impetuous and misguided decision to single-handedly conquer the entirety of 'literature'. In this post, I come across my very first problem.

My very first problem is I'm not entirely sure what this 'literature' thing I've decided to tackle consists of.

I thought it was going to be so easy. I mean, look - it's got it's own department in the bookshop, surely I just start at the beginning and work my way around-

- except, no, that isn't going to work. That isn't going to work because a two second survey of the half-moon that makes up Literature in my bookshop reveals that there's something missing. Something big. Something that is easy to miss when it's not there.


I am not a massive fan of Shakespeare, it must be said, but something in my hind brain - the bit I thought had committed suicide out of self defence when it suddenly dawned on me that our teacher may well have chosen Of Mice and Men because it was the shortest text on the GCSE list - baulked at the idea that I could consider myself to be tackling 'the classics' without him. Plus I can always use more sex jokes. But at the same time, I felt I couldn't justifiably just shoe-horn Shakespeare into the 'S' section and ignore everything else that was getting left out of Literature.

So now I actually had to think about what I was doing.

In the shop in which I work, the line was drawn at 1945. If it came before 1945, it was Literature. If it came after, it was mere fiction.

Unless it was a play, poetry, written in Old or Middle English, translated from Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Greek or Roman (But not, for example, ancient Chinese or Arabic), crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, essays, a children's book or a religious text.

And then things got crowded, so they moved the date to 1960 and... well, actually, they're still working that one out. Some authors are getting split between floors, poor things.

So not that helpful, all told. (Which I simultaneously despise and order from, giving myself regular periods of well-justified and cathartic self hatred after which I can happily get on and read my absurdly cheap and hard to come by purchases) handily gives us tabs under 'Fiction' entitled 'Classics' and 'Literary Fiction', both of which immediately provide an obnoxiously organised cocktail of everything from Ovid's Metamorphosis to Charles Dickens, and absolutely no indication of how we got here.


Is it any easier to determine what isn't literature? Wikipedia (Online receptacle of facts that are always true enough but not quite totally technically true) handily informs me that books may be discounted from the canon of Literature on the grounds of newness, poor quality, or genre.

Well, I was born in 1988, so I don't think I'm in a good position to judge 'newness' compared to four thousand years of recorded human civilisation (The oldest qualifying text I've come across so far is, of course, the Epic Of Gilgamesh at a conservative 1900 BC) and I hardly think I'm qualified to start excluding people on the grounds of their literary skill - I don't even think the exam boards are qualified to do that, since they seem to sift through the aforementioned four thousand years of texts and come up with a lot of dead white male Christians. Besides, in order to do that, I'd have to read them first and that would be self defeating.

So, what about genre? This is pretty standard, actually - when you're asked pick a work of literature, very few people, knowledgeable on the subject or otherwise, haul out a copy of Murder on the Orient Express or The Worm Ouroboros. And thus, the is the one thing of all this rambling so far that has actually made me angry.

Ruling out books on the ground of genre is, for me, a complete non-starter - and it's not just because most of what I read could quite accurately be described as 'genre', although sometimes people seem hard pressed to figure out which genre, exactly. Actually, no, it is because of that. Genre is arbitrary. It's constructed.

Someone made it up.

To start off with, genre didn't exist. And then someone invented it, and it got incredibly complicated incredibly fast and it was all terribly awkward. I remember learning in school (I did do that, occasionally) that Shakespeare claimed to have two genres - comedies, where everyone got married at the end (Except for the bad guys, who would hopefully see the error of their ways) and tragedies, where everyone died horribly at the end (Including the bad guys, the good guys, the other guys, the guys who just wanted to go down the pub, the guys who just sort of wandered in by accident, and - if you were performing Macbeth - possibly also the stage hands). And then he screwed it up, because he started to write 'tragicomedies' which normal people called the 'histories', where some people get married and some people get horribly dismembered, and sometimes it's the same people and sadly, occasionally it's also the stage hands, but no one ever said working in theatre was easy.

Several hundred years down the line, we've got more genres than we know what to do with. I don't have a problem with that, necessarily - I don't even mind separating out the shelves based on genre, it makes it easier for me. What I dislike is that it's all so bloody inconsistent, even in the bookshop I work in, and then I start making unkind speculations on why that is.

Edgar Allen Poe and Dracula occasionally migrate into the 'Horror' section, and yet despite being solidly pre-War H.P.Lovecraft never seems to join them in the rare echelons of Literature. Arthur Conan Doyle is quite firmly Literary but Agatha Christie (Who sells massively better, by the way) never seems to make the jump. Last time I checked, some of Mervyn Peake's work - being pre-1960 - had started living in Literature but the Gormenghast trilogy stayed put. I'm willing to chalk all of these up to space constraints (Lovecraft is only available in a substantial special edition hardback, Agatha Christie has written more books than any human being should have been capable of, and you could kill a horse with the Gormenghast trilogy) and anticipating customers thought processes rather than dispersions cast upon the value of the authors or their work, but it just gets weirder. Alice In Wonderland gets to party with the big guns up in Literary Fiction but Peter Pan doesn't - and neither do The Chronicles of Narnia, and while we're on the subject of Children's Fiction, if you let that genre slip away you risk letting it take Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm with it, which rips an enormous hole in the history of Western European storytelling.

Actually, that's the crux of it - you take away genre work and you lose too much, which defeats the point of this exercise. In every genre we could strip away, there's books I feel I shouldn't leave out. Drop Science Fiction and Fantasy, and you're on shaky grounds for Verne and Wells, you can rule out The Lord Of The Rings right now, and I could throw some serious doubt on, say, Gawain and the Green Knight or the Divine Comedy. Crime Fiction covers a massive sweep from Edgar Allen Poe to the present day. Take away Romance and well, you might as well give up now, there's so little left it's not worth starting. Nothing much worth reading, at any rate.

More distinctions - lets go back to the beginning. I have to include Shakespeare. It's the done thing. I would feel like I was missing something I should be reading if I didn't include him, and that's the whole point. So now we have the whole problem of Poetry vs Prose vs Play, which can be either, but isn't.

Prior to a certain point in history, it seems they hadn't invented prose. This makes everything rather awkward, because now I have to examine things on a case-by-case basis, make broad, sweeping decisions, or take everything. We studied poetry, and plays, in school, and since the starting point for this was that there were an awful lot of books I felt I somehow should have studied in school and didn't... I'm backing myself into a corner on this one, but ultimately it amounts to; I can't think of a good reason why or how I could leave poetry and plays out and still include all the things I want to, or feel I should, read.

There is also nationality, since a substantial number of these texts are going to be foreign in origin, but lets be honest, this one was never going to fly. I am massively suspicious of any bookshop that distinguishes between works by British and American authors and works in translation. Lets just chuck the Vikings and the French and the Greeks and the Italians and the Romans and the Arabs and the Chinese and the Russians and everyone else aside from the moment and I will give you one book which makes the global perspective worthwhile. That one book is The Tale Of Genji (Which, to be fair, I'm being slightly biased in choosing since I actually speak the language it's written in, although it's so archaic I doubt I'd be able to make much headway - imagine a student of English trying to read the Canterbury Tales) which is quite possibly the world's first ever novel, written by a Japanese woman, and full of poetry, pretty clothes, and exotic sex. I'm damned if I'm leaving that out.

Having decided that I'm not going to discriminate based on genre, nationality, level of skill, form, place in the bookshop or anyone else's classifications, I had better discriminate somewhere or I'll end up trying to read every single book in existence, which last time I checked was physically impossible. I do need to sleep occasionally.

I like the pre-1960 rule. It's completely arbitrary and silly and yet, part of me thinks that if nothing else, still being in print after fifty years has got to count for something. So that's a rule. Anything before 1960 is fair game. Anything. If I find a copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh I'll read it (Although I have to admit I don't read a word of Ancient Sumerian or whatever the hell it's written in, so if you're going to send me a copy it better be a translation).

That's rules number two and three - it has to be available, and it has to be available in translation. If it's not in print, I can't be expected to read it. I can follow conversational French and Spanish and occasionally German and can reply in Japanese, but my literary reading skills are not up to much and if I'm taking on the entirety of world literature I'd need more languages than that, and that would extend the scope of this project by several decades. I'm open to parallel texts. I'm wobbly on how I feel about tackling Middle and Old English, which are nominally the same language but in reality fiendishly difficult, but we'll see how that goes if I can't find translations.

Rule number four is that for the kind of books I've been describing so far, we are dealing, more or less, with fiction or at the very least with the creative treatment of fact. This means texts on science, philosophy, politics, essays, religious texts, whatever - things that are considered by the powers that be or indeed myself (With good reason) to fall under a specialist subject - are off the list. This includes biographies, on the grounds that people are a specialist subject, and autobiographies and memoirs will be excluded except under rare circumstances (I can't think of any right now, but it may arise, especially given the dubiously self-centred nature of Literature). I don't anticipate there being a lot of these, but I'm covering all exits. On the plus side, this means I don't have to go anywhere near the Buddhist canon, which makes anyone who ever complained about having to read the Bible look like a pathetic weakling. On the downside, this means I do actually have to read Ayn Rand. Hmm.

Finally, rule number five is that is has to be noteworthy. This is the blurriest one - and largely cancelled out by the 1960 rule, since you have to be fairly noteworthy just to stay in print for fifty years. But, certainly around the 50's and 60's end, I reserve the right to give up on unpromising specimens on the grounds that nobody's ever heard of this and maybe that's a good thing. On the other hand, this requires me to finish things I find direly tedious and unpleasant because people have heard of them, and because they're significant in some way. The whole point of this project, as I periodically try to explain in a way that makes sense to anyone except me, is that for every single book I read there is someone, somewhere, who is appalled I haven't read it already.

I'm going to be going more-or-less alphabetically by author or title-if-it-has-no-author, but this looks like it's going to be 'A is followed at some point when I've run out of books, by B' rather than strict alphabetical. One book per author, no more, and generally speaking I will go for the most famous or well recommended one - or possibly just whatever takes my fancy, who knows? In the case that I come to an author who I have actually read before, I have to read a book I haven't read yet, unless they A. only wrote one book, or only one book that anyone cares about (If you think I'm tackling Lewis Carroll's maths textbooks, you have another thing coming) or B. I've read everything they ever wrote (That's you, Oscar), in which case I go back to the most famous/well recommended rule.


I thought it would be appropriate to start with a pretty impressive book - something that has 'classic literature' status that nobody argues about - partly to establish my own credentials and partly to see what the fuss is about, and, being in 'A' territory, there was really very little competition as to what that should be.

Come back in two weeks (Provided I get off my backside and actually read the thing) for my reaction to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Because you don't get much more classic that that.

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