Columns > Published on April 29th, 2020

The Good and Bad of Expanding the Definition of 'Literature'

What is literature? And what isn’t?

Labels like “literature” expand and contract as a medium like books breathes in and out. Right now, a lot of the talk seems to be about expanding the definition of literature. Expanding and including seem to be the way we’re headed.

Is this a good idea? A bad idea? Some of both? Does the expansion of “literature’s” definition accomplish the goal of bringing more readers into the fold?

The Importance of Genres

Genre labels are hard to get right, but easy to spot when they’re wrong. My library had Fight Club categorized as Sci-fi/Fantasy, complete with the little red spine sticker with a dragon on it. Non-spoiler alert: There are no dragons in Fight Club. Nothing remotely dragon-ous.

I’m going to start by saying that “literature” is a genre. Yes, I know it hasn’t always been that way, but in today’s book market, how would you better categorize books like A Little Life or Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom or Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad? I’m not sure how we package a book like Beloved without the tag of “literature.” I don’t know what you’d call a section in a bookstore where Jesus’ Son goes if not “literature.”

Lots of people use “literature” to mean “anything written down.” That’s fine, but that’s not how I use it, and not how I’m suggesting we use it going forward. Here’s why.

Expansion is Bad When It Muddies The Waters

Beloved and Carrie are both women’s stories. Both focus on mother/daughter relationships. Both involve a supernatural element. Both involve societal outcasts. If you go through the major plot points, there’s certainly stuff in common here.

And yet readers of both know that they aren’t the same thing. Reading Beloved and Carrie are not the same experience. It’s more than fair to say they were written with different readers and reactions in mind.

I see a benefit to keeping the “literature” genre tighter in this case. I like both books, but not in the same way. If I’m looking for something to read on an airplane, I’d go with Carrie. If I’m looking for a book to set on the nightstand and read over the course of a month, it’s Toni Morrison.

When books enter the “literature” genre when they may better fit as a thriller or a mystery or a horror novel, I think we’re breaking down a barrier, but we’re also removing a useful tool for decision-making. 

Expansion is Good When We’re Talking About A Quality Distinction

Come up with a better way to separate that stuff you like from an Edward Lee novel where a guy drills holes in peoples’ heads and has sex with them.

Expanding the boundaries of what’s considered “literature” is a good idea for people who use the term to denote quality. These are people who probably pronounce the word like, “lit-tra-tour” between sips from teeny tiny espresso cups, people who think their work for the New York Times Review of Books is interesting or relevant to anyone besides the writers of books and those writers’ mothers. Seriously, the only reason that thing exists is so writers can go home for Thanksgiving and convince mom and dad that their MFA was a good decision.

“Literature,” from where I’m standing, sets aside a kind of book, but it shouldn’t be about whether or not the book is any good.

Expanding the definition of “literature” is good when fighting against the word/label being used as a weapon in the quality wars. Sorry, snooty types, but you’ll have to come up with a new weapon. Come up with a better way to separate that stuff you like from an Edward Lee novel where a guy drills holes in peoples’ heads and has sex with them.

Expansion is Good When It Results In Individual Expansion

I was steered away from Stephen King by the “literature” distinction. I felt like a horror novel about vampires was beneath me. I was incorrect. Perhaps even stupid. A dullard. I’m still stupid, but I have relaxed my ideals and come out far better for it.

Expanding the boundaries of literature, perhaps to include popular materials or materials that are tough to place in a genre, might help readers expand out into books adjacent to their interests.

Expansion is Bad When It Confuses Occasional Readers

“Occasional Readers” is a term I use for people who consume books occasionally, maybe one or two a year, or maybe only when they do certain things like take vacations.

Occasional Readers need consideration on the issue of “literature’s” slippery definition.

While relaxing the definition of “literature” may bring heavy readers across genre divides, if one-book-a-year people are turned away from a good romance, which is what they want, because it’s being sold as “literary,” that’s a disservice to them and the book in question.

For Occasional Readers, books aren’t their entire lives. They don’t read ABOUT books all the time. We’re not doing them any favors by using them to make a point about flexing genres.

Expansion is Bad When It Bleeds The Genre

When movies like It Follows and Get Out and The VVitch came out, we watched news media do everything they could to not call them “horror.” They were “psychological thrillers” or “genre-bending statements.” To their credit, most of the filmmakers resisted these labels and went with “horror.” And they were right to do so.

When we expand great horror movies outside of the horror label, we end up cherrypicking the best examples of a genre and putting them somewhere else. So when someone attacks the horror genre, you can’t defend it by saying “What about Hereditary?”

Expanding “literature” can have the same effect. Taking books that are excellent out of their genre (for example, saying The Sirens of Titan isn’t really sci-fi) might elevate the status of a particular book, but leaves a genre without its best works and examples.

Last Analogy

When I go get Thai food, they ask how spicy I want it. They ask if I want it mild, medium, or spicy. While the cook might put in a different amounts of spice based on these labels, the person eating the food will interpret the spice level based on their own experience and palate.

Generally, I’m a medium guy. Well, my mouth is medium. The other end doesn’t always agree.

My “hot” and yours probably aren’t the same, but these are still useful labels. They aren’t perfect, but they’re a starting point. Something to consider when I go to the Thai place for the first time, then another time, and eventually get it dialed in.

To me, the worst way to go about this would be for the Thai place to be like, “We’re going to expand our 'medium' label to include a lot more dishes so that eaters will try them out."

The result wouldn’t be a bunch of satisfied customers. It would be disappointed spice-lovers and tender-mouthed folks going somewhere else.

When it comes to “literature” I don’t have a problem with the label changing. I just want us to do it thoughtfully. And we need to ask whether it’s the best way to bring more readers to the books they want to read.

Buy Header by Edward Lee at Bookshop or Amazon

Buy Beloved by Toni Morrison from Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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