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January 02, 2007

Comments

msb

NB: I think that's Joseph Bottum writing.

Jeff Miller

I believe the original post was by Joseph Bottum, not Fr. Neuhaus.

SDG

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey would both count as works of fantasy literature. So would Virgil's Aeneid. So would the Divine Comedy.

The Divine Comedy, in fact, contains a perfect science-fiction effect, at the end of Inferno.

When Dante reaches the lowest circle of hell, he finds the enormous figure of Lucifer, suspended immobile at the center of the earth. Continuing his journey through the earth, Dante proceeds to climb down Lucifer's upper body -- but when he reaches Lucifer's midsection, which coincides with the exact center of the earth and thus the gravitational epicenter of the planet, Dante has to turn around and climb up Lucifer's legs in order to continue. From that point on, his journey is an upward one, as he proceeds out of Inferno into Purgatorio.

H. G. Wells couldn't have done it any better!

A. Williams

It is no wonder that formulating a definition of what exactly 'literature' is, would be a very difficult task, considering that the scope of idea of 'literature' is so great.

In its most fundemental form, literature is only one of many types of communication which uses the written word as its medium. And the most important aspect of whether a written work qualifies as literature or not, I think, is whether or not it indeed 'communicates' something. A second consideration might be, what is the end, purpose or reason for communicating? Without, knowing these motives, or not being able to recognize them in any particular work, it is pretty difficult to classify a work as 'literature' or not, much less 'good' or 'bad' literature.


Bad poetry, for instance, might be just complete non-sense, devoid of any meaning what-so-ever...the work af a very bored mind. So too, some writings might be likened to many works of modern art paintings, which, because of their totally abstract nature, don't convey any intended messege at all, but rather, leave it to the fantasy of the viewer to find a 'meaning' in his own mind, to the colors, forms and textures in the so-called 'work of art'.

However, I do like the distinction between a good work of Literature(and any other art for that matter), and a bad piece, being drawn at the line that Jimmy seems to describe. That is, a good piece of literature conveys,illuminates or analyses, in a particular way, one or more aspects of the 'human condition', and does so in a skillful way.

In so doing, good literature is not similar to the abstract modern art, or non-sensical poetry, which lack 'specific' themes. If, so called 'literature' is written in this fashion, without any particular idea in mind, then the result would really only be 'mindless ramblings', 'scribble','doodling' or 'nonsense'.

And I think these same principles can also be applied to music, dance and any of the other of the visual arts. To skillfully communicate a noble messege, and in a beautiful way, I think, is to make literature or any work of art, 'good'.

Kevin Jones

"Homer's Iliad and Odyssey would both count as works of fantasy literature. So would Virgil's Aeneid. So would the Divine Comedy. So would multiple plays by Shakespeare (Hamlet is a ghost story, Macbeth has witches, The Tempest is built around a wizard, and let's not even go into the fantasy elements in A Midsummer Night's Dream). Faust would also be classified as fantasy based on its subject matter."

To claim these works as fantasy suggests these authors didn't believe in the reality of what they were depicting. For Homer and Vergil, this is doubtful. They really believed the gods were involved in wars. They really thought reality was strange enough as to have sea monsters come at the bidding of a deity and grab an inconvenient seer and his children. The sea really was a dangerous place, with all sorts of creatures threatening mankind. For the ancients, the cyclops was more a living monster like a ravenous grizzly or a Great White Shark than the monster under the bed.

As for Shakespeare: might not Shakespeare and his audience have really believed in ghosts and witches? Testing the reliability of Hamlet's ghost is a key point of the plot of Hamlet. His indecision isn't just that of some angst-ridden self-doubting modern, but that of a man worrying he is being tempted into regicide by a demonic apparition!

I am unsure whether Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream relies upon his taking seriously the folk belief in fairies. Yet it came from a time when the Faery Folk were not entirely discredited, but rather blamed for things like dead livestock and missing children.

Though Dante invokes fantastical creatures, he does so in a highly stylized and allegorical way: the Griffin, for instance, is an image of the two natures of Christ, and it's pretty obvious his poem is theological, not fantastical, in purpose.

The Faust stories present demonic temptation as a very real phenomenon. Though perhaps its later retellings segue into Romantic agnosticism, it cannot be classed with, say, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Faust stories, like modern exorcism movies, derive much of their creative energy from pre-existing belief in demonic activity. Only the nuttiest of Buffy fans believe vampires really exist, let alone pose a threat.

"It was wonder and dread that fired the ancient imagination and led to the creation of the gods and monsters of the classical age, as we find them in the Iliad and the Odyssey and the Aeneid."

I tend to the speculative view that the such deities were in part also the result of demonic meddling. For our forefathers, this was not so idle a speculation. The old translation for one of the psalms went: "for all the gods of the nations are devils, but our God has made the Heavens."

True fantasy or sci-fi literature is not found on the fantasy/sci-fi bookshelves. Rather, it is found among the magical realists: Viktor Pelevin or Jorge Luis Borges. Borges is as stylized and allusive as Dante. Unlike the idle diversions of the fantasy genre, his work also aims for the impression of verisimilitude, either through well-wrought first-person narration or by presenting fantastical situations mediated through the credibility structures of modern scholarship.

SDG

To claim these works as fantasy suggests these authors didn't believe in the reality of what they were depicting. For Homer and Vergil, this is doubtful. They really believed the gods were involved in wars. They really thought reality was strange enough as to have sea monsters come at the bidding of a deity and grab an inconvenient seer and his children. The sea really was a dangerous place, with all sorts of creatures threatening mankind. For the ancients, the cyclops was more a living monster like a ravenous grizzly or a Great White Shark than the monster under the bed.

This may be true of "the ancients" at some times and places; I am not at all sure that this is the case for Homer and Virgil. My impression is that these poets had a fairly sophisticated understanding of the nature of their subject matter.

As for Shakespeare: might not Shakespeare and his audience have really believed in ghosts and witches? Testing the reliability of Hamlet's ghost is a key point of the plot of Hamlet. His indecision isn't just that of some angst-ridden self-doubting modern, but that of a man worrying he is being tempted into regicide by a demonic apparition!

I'm inclined to agree with C. S. Lewis (An Experiment in Criticism) here: Hamlet is shown reacting credibly to the ghost in order that we the audience may credit the ghost's existence. I doubt whether Shakespeare believed in witches in the stylized "Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble" way that they're presented. These are literary witches, not real creatures.

Though Dante invokes fantastical creatures, he does so in a highly stylized and allegorical way: the Griffin, for instance, is an image of the two natures of Christ, and it's pretty obvious his poem is theological, not fantastical, in purpose.

It is theological in purpose, but often fantastical in form and presentation. Dante was a good enough Thomist and theologian to know that Lucifer doesn't really have a body, but that didn't prevent him from vividly describing the science-fiction effect involving Lucifer's body noted above.

Pseudomodo

Ultimately most of the great writings of the past were written about us as humanity. It is written by us, for us and about us.

Science Fiction is not about science and not about fiction - it's about us.

bill912

Pseudomodo is right. Good sci-fi stories are about people; bad ones are about technology("Star Trek: The Movie" comes to mind).

Beau

I like Jimmy's definition...that literature speaks to and of the human conditions.

I'm a huge sci-fi fan, and most of it is just fun to read and would not count as literature. On the other hand, I've read some that I would classify as literature, and that I think would stand the test of time.

Heinlein's Star Ship Troopers comes to mind (the BOOK! the movie does NOT count).

Mark Twain's Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven is another.

That raises another thought...the literature writers of history tend to have all of their works defined as literature (did Shakespeare write anything that wasn't literature?).

Sci-fi on the other hand...well, I've read other Heinlein works that would not qualify as literature.

arthur

When I was in college lo these many years ago I took a class in Science Fiction as Literature. Probably one of my favorite classes of all time.

We compared "Starship Troopers" to Joe Haldeman's "Forever War" (an anti-war response to ST) and Harry Harrison's "Bill the Galactic Hero" (an ST parody).

We read such classics as the Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness", Clarke's "Rendezvous with Rama" and Zelazny's "Lord of Light".

All these books deal with people, relationships and the human condition and they are great literature by anyon'e definition of the term.

David B.

In their time, the work of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne were believed to be entirely impossible. Yet some of their stories, such as "From the Earth to the Moon," portray some things which we now know are scientific.

perhaps, as Jimmy stated, what we now consider to be Sci-Fi will turn out to be true in the distant future.

Esau

To claim these works as fantasy suggests these authors didn't believe in the reality of what they were depicting. For Homer and Vergil, this is doubtful. They really believed the gods were involved in wars. They really thought reality was strange enough as to have sea monsters come at the bidding of a deity and grab an inconvenient seer and his children. The sea really was a dangerous place, with all sorts of creatures threatening mankind. For the ancients, the cyclops was more a living monster like a ravenous grizzly or a Great White Shark than the monster under the bed. [Kevin Jones]

This may be true of "the ancients" at some times and places; I am not at all sure that this is the case for Homer and Virgil. My impression is that these poets had a fairly sophisticated understanding of the nature of their subject matter. [SDG]


SDG:

I tend to agree with Kevin Jones on this one, SDG.

That is, you must consider the fact that to both Homer and Vergil, the Greek gods and the various mythical creatures depicted were as true to them as God and his angels are to us as Christians.

In fact, I believe one of the very reasons why the Greeks were so accepting of Christianity was the fact that Jesus resembled so much the Hercules of their myths.

Sifu Jones

We also need to take into consideration the subjective impressions of the reader, or more to the point, discount those impressions. Plenty of people, for example, hate Jane Austen's work, but much of it should still be considered literature.

Likewise many people simply "don't like" science fiction, and their attempts to separate sci-fi from literature are really veiled attempts to justify their personal preferences. Bottum alluded to the same occurrence, but from the other direction, when he mentions the attempt to gut the meaning of literature in general because it isn't "common man" enough.

Literature needs to carry that human insight, but is that the only point? Must literature be didactic? I submit for your discussion Edgar Allen Poe.

Finally, regarding the idea of literature communicating, we need to define what's accidental and what's substantial, in terms of communication. Language, for example, is obviously an accidental -- writing in Spanish doesn't mean Don Quixote isn't literature to English-first-language folks. But what about issues like cultural background? We often say literature should "transcend cultures and times", but what does that mean?

The aforementioned Jane Austen: her culture's beliefs about men and women were different from ours in substantial ways. Does that make her work less accessible, and therefore "less" literature because it dealt primarily with ideas that have largely changed? I'm sure some people would say it speaks to the society we live in rather than the one she wrote from, and maybe there's something to that.

But let's take it all the way back to Homer; pretty much everything was different back then. How do we know we're relating to his work the way he intended us to? Jimmy implies that time in the historical cooker is important to the definition of literature, but is it possible that whether something is or is not literature can change? Could Illiad have NOT been literature in its age, but is now because of the way we look at it? Is literature a permanent designation?

Perhaps being literature is like being king. You are only it for a certain time, but history always remembers that you were it, even if you aren't anymore.

Now I don't intend to sound like those literary intellectuals who are ready to abandon the concept of literature altogether. It just seems to me like the definition of literature is not all that needs to be determined: we need, first, to determine whether that definition should be based on something objective to the work itself, or something objective to the viewpoint of the reader, or both.

It's easy to say it should be something inherent in the work itself, and there seems to obviously be something to that. But how much of the definition has to do with reader perception?

Esau

I believe Jimmy Akin did a marvelous job in his article.

His bringing up Frankenstein as an example is superb considering the fact that the wisdom that is contained in this modern promethean tale has great significance for humanity as a whole especially in these times of great modern technological advances as in DNA cloning and the like.

In the modern world we live in today, our techonological capabilities has advanced far ahead of our collective wisdom that only time can tell whether our current actions in terms of certain heinous practices as far as cloning is concerned (such as in the cloning of human individuals) what dire repercussions lie in wait for us in the future.

We have made ourselves gods without the wisdom necessary to tame its power.

Chris

Most folks have heard of "Sturgeon's Law": which states that nearly everything (expressed in percentages ranging from 90 to 95 per cent) is crud.

I was amused to discover, when using Google to find out more about Sturgeon's Law, that Sturgeon actually originally stated his "law" in a discussion about whether or not science fiction is literature.

Some critic was claiming that 90 (or 94, or whatever) per cent of science fiction was awful, and so science fiction could not be considered literature. To which Sturgeon responded by allowing that 90 (or 94, or whatever) of science fiction is indeed crud; he then countered by saying that 90 (or 94, or whatever) per cent of everything is crud (or some stronger pejorative), so by that standard, nothing should be considered literature.

SDG

Chris, that's a fabulous bit of trivia. Thank you.

SDG

That is, you must consider the fact that to both Homer and Vergil, the Greek gods and the various mythical creatures depicted were as true to them as God and his angels are to us as Christians.

That may be true as regards Homer; I'm not sure it accurately characterizes Virgil.

AFAIK, from at least the 5th century BC on, if not earlier, more skeptical and rationalizing attitudes toward mythology became increasingly common in Greek culture. Homer may have been early enough to have been unaffected by these trends, but I'd be surprised if Virgil were unaffected by them.

Of course I'm not a classicist and can't say with any real confidence. I'd welcome the input of someone who actually knows what he's talking about on this point... :-)

Labrialumn

Those who would reject science fiction or fantasy from the category _literature_ as a class seem to me to have no foundation upon which to stand.

So what if much fantasy is casual entertainment. So is every other genre of literature (see the discussion of Sturgeon's Law above).

Fantasy and science fiction are _particularly_ well-suited to highlighting the specific ideas or human characteristics you wish to examine.

Let us not forget that to Shakespeare's audience the time of the Romans or far away Italy were just as fantastic as Narnia or the Centauri homeworld are to us.

Thomas

According to my literature profs, what counts as literature is dependent upon what is valued by the "interpretative community." In other words, there's a sort of a cultural consensus about what works best serve to symbolize the collective beliefs/experiences/values/etc. This is because words on a page do not intrinsically have meaning, but rather are symbols that people use to stand for ideas and that must be interpreted. Therefore a discussion about what is literature cannot take place apart from a consideration of the culture.

I observe that people have an easier time deciding what is literature when the culture/interpretative community is anchored to religion, or nationalism, or something. It is easier to agree on a Western Canon when the West stands for something. However, many leaders of the intellectual community today do not profess (or try not to profess) any such thing that could serve as such an "anchor." The more things you are relativistic about, the harder it is to decide what ought to be considered "literature" and why. Many people even adhere to nominalist-type philosophies that do not even consider such a thing as "human nature" to exist, let alone any other transcendant values. Combine this with the fact that everybody wants to avoid seeming "narrow-minded," which could happen if you take a strong stance of excluding something, and I find it not surprising that so few want to commit.

Josiah

It is not so easy to produce a definition of literature, for the reasons Jimmy mentions. But, it is also no easy task to come up with a definition of science fiction and/or fantasy, and this is an issue I wish Jimmy had dealt with more. Several commenters, for example, seem to be of the view that whether Hamlet is a work of fantasy depends on whether Shakespeare believed in ghosts and that whether the Iliad is a work of fantasy depends on whether Homer believed in the gods. But this strikes me as being largely irrelevant. If it turned out that, say, Tolkien really believed in Orks and Hobbits and Elves, that wouldn't mean that Lord of the Rings ceased to be a work of fantasy. Nor does the fact that the makers of Miracle on 34th street didn't believe in Santa Clause make the movie a work of fantasy.

Esau

If it turned out that, say, Tolkien really believed in Orks and Hobbits and Elves, that wouldn't mean that Lord of the Rings ceased to be a work of fantasy.

Isn't it the case that even the great writer of the Sherlock Holmes series, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, seriously believed in fairies?

Kevin Jones

Labrialumn says: "Let us not forget that to Shakespeare's audience the time of the Romans or far away Italy were just as fantastic as Narnia or the Centauri homeworld are to us."

The Romans were(and are) more fantastical than Narnia, for the simple fact that they really existed. It is more fantastic to exist than not to exist.

Josiah writes: "If it turned out that, say, Tolkien really believed in Orks and Hobbits and Elves, that wouldn't mean that Lord of the Rings ceased to be a work of fantasy."

This might stir up a reaction: I deny that Tolkien wrote fantasy. Fantasy is a genre created by his deplorable cultus, to which the devotees are with little nuance trying to assimilate everything that came before it.

The Hobbit is a children's story. LOTR is, like the modern prometheus Frankenstein, an homage to myth and legend. His care for language and his immersion in myth and symbol makes him more a fellow-traveler of James Joyce than a companion of 99.9% of the Fantasy writers today.

Patrick

For some early sicence fiction try some of the Gnostic Gospels.

Esau

Da Vinci Code, anyone?

StubbleSpark

Fiction is included in the canon and, I think the majority of literature is in fact fiction. Because fiction involves the use of the imagination, I think it singular that someone who claims to enjoy works of the imagination to then put arbitrary limitations on what could be imagined in order for said work to be considered literature.

Is this not a little crazy? How would such a limitation be defined? How much machinery or technology would you need in order to disqualify a given work?

And since when has genre been a qualifying consideration in the first place? Moby Dick belongs to the now non-existent genre of travelogue and is probably the only book of that genre in the canon and yet there never was (to my knowledge) some preliminary debate on whether or not travelogue books belong in the canon.

This is especially important because the travelogue was the trashy fun pop-fiction of its day. So where was the debate?

Like Jimmy said, the fundamental issue has nothing to do with the genre -- it has to do with how the work in question relates to the Great Dialogue.

Talk about judging a book by its cover. Sheesh!

Maureen

Nonsense. Fantasy existed as a genre, with genre expectations, before Tolkien was even born. He and Lewis wrote fantasy that was strongly influenced by works as diverse as Grimm's fairy tales, E. Nesbit's socialist fantasies, and MacDonald's Phantastes. All of them were very clearly part of the same thing, even back then.

Now, if you intend to narrow fantasy to "boring and clueless pseudo-Tolkienesque quests for various McGuffins and wars with various cardboard villains", the proper term is not fantasy but Extruded Fantasy Product (EFP for short). Similar but science fictional extruded products are best known as Skiffy (from a purposeful mispronunciation of sci-fi).

Esau

He [Tokien] and Lewis wrote fantasy...All of them were very clearly part of the same thing, even back then.

Actually, I wouldn't class Tolkien and Lewis together. That would seem insulting to Tolkien, to say the least. After all, didn't Tolkien despise Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia because of the fact that Lewis indulged in the mixing of several different myths in his stories?

bill912

I think that's part of it, Esau, but I think Tolkien's dislike of the Narnia stories was due more to his dislike of allegory.

Esau

I think that's part of it, Esau, but I think Tolkien's dislike of the Narnia stories was due more to his dislike of allegory.

Thanks, bill912, for that bit of info!
Oh yeah, Happy New Years!

StubbleSpark

Just because the two had differing opinions regarding style does not mean they cannot be classed together. In fact, they were both cohorts who wanted to infuse the new genres of scienti-fiction and fantasy with supernatural Christian overtones.

They both succeeded marvelously.

I would hold the same criticism of Lewis' Narnia that Tolkien expressed but there is a lot more to Lewis than Narnia. What about Until We Have Faces or The Great Divorce? Narnia was targeted for a younger audience than Tolkien's work generally was so the insertion of bright, colorful characters that children would easily recognize makes sense stylistically.

Personally, I can see the historical St. Nic, the old bishop of Myra, passing out swords to children as more plausible than Father Christmas acting as armorer.

Jared

In college, I had a couple of "creative" writing profs who refused to let me write sci-fi. This, they said, was because it would just be about "whiz-bang" technology and not character studies.

Now, first off, ain't nothin' wrong with whiz-bang technology. Not every piece of literature has to be a character study. Character is only one aspect of literature, joining theme, plot, etc.

Second, while "hard" science fiction is mainly about technology, "soft" sci-fi is more people oriented.

Third, to pre-judge an entire genre is incredibly small-minded, especially coming as it did from those who claim that traditional morality is far too closed-minded and prejudicial.

And last, the story that I'd intended to write for one of the two profs was actually an adaptation of a piece written in a contemporary setting and was, in fact, about the characters. It just happened that the expansion of that earlier work would work better in a more futuristic environment, as the characters could be pulled from the ordinary everyday mileiu and given something else to with which to contend.

Esau

Just because the two had differing opinions regarding style does not mean they cannot be classed together. In fact, they were both cohorts who wanted to infuse the new genres of scienti-fiction and fantasy with supernatural Christian overtones.

Actually, I meant that in jest.
But, good points all around.

Esau

In college, I had a couple of "creative" writing profs who refused to let me write sci-fi. This, they said, was because it would just be about "whiz-bang" technology and not character studies.

Jared,
Have you ever read Isaac Asimov's The Foundation?

Scott Lyons

Even if Homer and Shakespeare believed that such creatures as they wrote of existed (which I highly doubt), or could exist, these creatures/situations were not Homer and Shakespeare's reality. It merely proves Jimmy's point. Much of SciFi is what is plausible, not what is implausible. Therefore, if there is any contention that Homer or Shakespeare did not write fantasy due to their beliefs, then at the very least we must classify it as speculative fiction - literature about what might be, and about how it might be.

And speculative fiction - the What If that helps unveil the What Is - is the demesne of Fantasy and SciFi.

For my part, there seems to be plenty of modern SciFi that will one day be esteemed as classic literature: Asimov's Foundation and Herbert's Dune are as literary in their fields as Lewis or Tolkien are in theirs.

And of course, the examples of Shelley, Stoker, Poe, Hawthorne (who wrote several fantastic - scientifically fantastic - short stories), and their like more than repudiate any kind of genre exclusion in the halls of literature.

The classics are not defined by genre: that perspective is simply untenable.

A. Williams

One quick consideration. I would expect that most devout Catholics would have some respect for St. Theresa of Avila, and consider her opinion regarding such a topic--on the nature and benefits of fiction or literature--to hold some value.

It is interesting that, when she was young, she says that she was fond of reading ficticious novels and stories of knightly chivelry, etc.. Yet after a profound conversion experience, she began to loath the former works, and considered them a great impediment to true spiritual advancement.

So, my opinion is that literature needs to be very good to justify studying or reading it..lest it become a bad habit suitable only for wasting precious time....sort of like TV.

I'm recalling this from some works of St. Theresa that I read over 20 years ago. I think it might have been from "The Way of Perfection"? Anyone have more info., or a further elaboration on this opinion of St. Theresa regarding such literature?

Esau

Even if Homer and Shakespeare believed that such creatures as they wrote of existed (which I highly doubt), or could exist, these creatures/situations were not Homer and Shakespeare's reality. It merely proves Jimmy's point. Much of SciFi is what is plausible, not what is implausible. Therefore, if there is any contention that Homer or Shakespeare did not write fantasy due to their beliefs, then at the very least we must classify it as speculative fiction - literature about what might be, and about how it might be.

Actually, as had been mentioned previously, most of the things that certain Sci-Fi literature has presented to us (as in the past century) has ultimately become reality.

Moreover, I don't believe that just because Homer or even Shakespeare for that matter had actually believed in certain mythical elements present in their respective writings that this would actually automatically disqualify their works as a piece of literature. Far from it.

I don't even think that this was the point of the preceding posts that revolved around this topic.

Ry

A. Williams, perhaps you are thinking of this quote from St Teresa: "My mother, as I have said, was very good herself, but, when I came to the age of reason, I copied her goodness very little, in fact hardly at all, and evil things did me a great deal of harm. She was fond of books of chivalry; and this pastime had not the ill effects on her that is had on me, because she never allowed them to interfere with her work."

You can read the quote in context HERE

Mary

True fantasy or sci-fi literature is not found on the fantasy/sci-fi bookshelves. Rather, it is found among the magical realists: Viktor Pelevin or Jorge Luis Borges. Borges is as stylized and allusive as Dante. Unlike the idle diversions of the fantasy genre, his work also aims for the impression of verisimilitude, either through well-wrought first-person narration or by presenting fantastical situations mediated through the credibility structures of modern scholarship.

This is snobbery. Why is "impression of verisimilitude" the hallmark of literature? Good literature can be many, many, many things.

Randolph Carter

Great post, Mr. Akin! This is just the sort of thing I love about your blog; I can come here to both satisfy my spiritual questions *and* get my daily dose of geekiness!

On the subject at hand: in my mind, the definition of literature is elusive, and I suppose that is because there are many ways in which a book can be literary. I think, however, that the greatest works of literature are those which reveal some truth about the world, about man, and about man's place in the world.

Now, comparing any work of science-fiction to Dante, Shakespeare, Homer or Virgil, is inherently unfair; most science-fiction is, to my knowledge, a work of prose, while the works of Dante etc. are all written in metered verse, be they epic poetry (Dante, Homer, Virgil) or drama (Shakespeare), which would classify them all as poetry. One cannot compare a work of prose to poetry any more than one can compare a work of painting to one of sculpture. A more accurate comparison to make would be between those short-stories and novels that we already consider literary, and those short-stories and novels that we consider science-fiction.

I submit that, if we count the varied works of Dickens, Conrad, Joyce, Melville, Dostoyevsky, Orwell, Verne, and Poe as literature, then subject matter doesn't really matter in whether or not a book counts a literary. Whether or not I set a tale on dry land, or at sea, or in a dark jungle, or in a gothic castle, or on the dark side of the moon, or on the rings of Saturn, doesn't really decide if it is literary or not; it is the quality of the tale, what it is and the way it is told, that determine whether or not we can count it as literature.

Maureen

Re: Tolkien and Lewis

Look. It worries me deeply when people coin words which are part Latin and part Greek, because it offends my sense of aesthetics and general linguistic neatness. Similarly, it kinda bothers me to see different periods of history and myth mixed together, and Guy Gavriel Kay's first series nearly gave me a rash from that.

But I would scarcely claim that mixed-root words aren't really words or part of Language. And no matter how much Kay bugged me, his work was as clearly fantasy as Tolkien, Lewis, or anybody else's stuff.

Also, not to shock anybody, but Tolkien got overly sensitive about certain things. For example, he thought that even the most mannered and classical Irish poetry was too disorderly and adjective-ridden. I know that will sound contradictory to some, but... believe me, if you read a bunch of Tolkien, and then you read a bunch of filidh poems in Early Modern Irish, you will totally understand his aesthetic objections. You will still think he was on crack to love Finnish and hate Irish, and you'll still love the Irish poetry, but you'll understand his view.

A. Williams

Thanks Ry, for the excellent link on the Life of St. Theresa!

Somehow, this comment on the potential evil effects of worldly literature, stayed with me over these many years. Though I believe the passage I read was from another of her works. I was always impressed by these writings of St. Theresa, and they definitely steered me towards a holier way of living.

Relating to the topic of science fiction, I think one should take into consideration the opinion of the Saints. However good the fiction might be, it's probably best to avoid any sort of addiction to such reading. Everyone knows how fanatic some people... Trekkies, for instance, can be for Star Trek/sci-fi subject matter. The question is does this fantasy literature supplant, or take the place of good holy literature in their lives? And,how much fantasy is too much? etc...

In this regard I like the saying of St. Philip Neri, "Whether for prayer or for study, always choose those authors whose names begin with "S"."...That is, the lives and writings of the saints!

Pseudomodo

This whole discussion reminds me of the controversies surrounding the definition of what is art.

How we are to compare a Bougereau to a Picasso, Maxfield Parrish to Jackson Pollock, or a classically trained expert artist to an arrogant dolt who throws feces at the Virgin Mary.

Is bad art, ART?? Is bad liturature. LITURATURE??

Is evil, GOOD??

Tim J.

"an arrogant dolt who throws feces at the Virgin Mary"

Well, in the strict sense, Pseudomodo, I have called some examples of that sort of thing "anti-art". It's art, but it is anti-human and anti-God.

Esau

"an arrogant dolt who throws feces at the Virgin Mary"

I can beat that --

How about the so-called 'artist' who placed a crucifix in a jar of piss ("Piss Christ") or the idiot who placed fans in the middle of the desert and called that art (for the life of me, I can't seem to recall what this 'art' was called)???

Joy Schoenberger

I wouldn't call Tim Powers great literature, but Tolkien definitely qualifies, as do Ray Bradbury, and Patricia McKillip.

I think it requires a sort of poetry of expression to write great literature. Telling a good story that says something important about the human condition is not enough. The artful use of language is essential.

Karina Fabian

Ann Lewis (http://annmargaretlewis.blogspot.com/) and I were just discussing this post and she brought up a interesting point.

Literature makes you think.

Regardless of the elements it uses, the stories that endure the test of time (Thus meeting the Literature Lasts 500 Years Rule) and can be discussed for the merits of its ideas (thus meeting the Professor Rule--whether they admit it or not) are the ones that challenge as well as entertain.

If we use that as our definition--and how much more intellectual can you get?--then we definitely have to admit some of the classics of SF.

MissJean

Whenever the question of what constitutes literature arises, I automatically hunker down and wait for the scathing comments to begin. :) In nearly all my English classes, this question arose as profesors (or tenured "instructors") sought to justify why we had to read this or that; e.g. why read the sexist Taming of the Shrew by that dead white man? ;)

Now that I teach literature, I define it loosely as writing with themes or characters that last beyond its author's life situation or historical moment. That's the starting point for the real fun: discussing whether the literature is excellent or awful! Frankly, the problem of excluding a genre from being labelled "literature" is that you tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I knew a teacher who didn't cover Poe because he didn't consider horror "serious literature". Yet he had no problem with The Catcher in the Rye (the increasingly dated forerunner of the angsty-adolescent-who-needs-psychiatric-help genre). I think his beliefs had more to do with what he enjoyed reading in his youth than what is actually literature.

There's also the problem that some people will take great writers and throw all their writing into the "great literature" category. An example is Hemingway, who penned The Sun Also Rises but also wrote many amateurish Nick Adams stories before improving his craft. And there's "literature by association": "Wuthering Heights" is a rambling tale but its paired with the superior "Jane Eyre" because the authors were sisters. I won't even tell you what I think of my professor who paired Borges, Garcia Marquez and... bigoted rants of the Chicana lesbian feminist Gloria Anzaldua.

David

It seems to me that there are some pretty fine examples of Science Fiction literature out there, among them "Perelandria" by C.S. Lewis (who, in the centuries to come, may very well be called a literary giant at least on the level of Goethe), or "Dune" by Frank Herbert.

The distinction between genre and literature (or genre and *quality*, for that matter) seems to be a good one. The romances of Austen or Shakespeare vs. what you might typically find in the local Wal-Mart, for instance.

I would also agree greatly with others above who have said that literature has the ability to look at the human condition. How we relate to technology, our creative abilities, our desire to explore new lands, or any number of other things, can be looked at in Sci-Fi literature, perhaps even in a way that couldn't be done in another genre. Again, I would go back to "Dune", and say to those profs who might not call this literature to look at how the characters live, the examination of politics, what the book says about our reliance on technology and expendible resources, etc.

Esau

...our desire to explore new lands...

I thought you were about to launch into the Star Trek opening:

...to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilisations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.”


Again, I would go back to "Dune", and say to those profs who might not call this literature to look at how the characters live, the examination of politics

You mean spice might actually mean oil?

Tim J.

Ah, yes... Dune. With such memorable passages as "There's more to CHOAM than melange".

Esau

Actually, from what parts I remember from having read the book long ago, I always thought that the Voice that was used in the novel was almost analogous to Ben Kenobi's jedi mindtrick in Star Wars: Episode IV.

Maureen

Re: artful expression

The problem with this kind of definition is that it's not very useful. There's usually a good deal of personal, local, timebound prejudice in readers as to what forms of expression they consider "artful". There's as much art and craft in totally transparent writing styles as there is in the sort which uses every literary and poetic device. The art lies in using a style that serves and enhances the story and the author's intent.

Maureen

Re: authors starting with "S"

Then I assume you've read _St._ Thomas More's science fiction book _Utopia_, and fiddled about with his invented script.

derringdo

Homer is periodically claimed by critics as a skeptic about the gods; certainly Plato thought his take on them less than conducive to piety and thus to the social aspects of religion.

We simply don't know enough about his times to know whether this is the "canonical" version of the gods as most people of the period believed in them, or whether it was considered a religiously radical or purely imaginative portrait of them: speculating as to how their involvement in the Trojan war might have played out, as Lewis imagined how God the Son might have manifested Himself in a storybook world.

Leonard Porrello

In his essay, “A Standard of Taste,” David Hume argues cogently against subjective relativism. Among other things, he states that while we might not be able to agree that, say, Rodin is better than Michelangelo, we would all agree that either are superior to, say, Serrano (“Piss Christ”—actually a photo of a “sculpture”)—even though they are trying to achieve different ends. We would also have to admit that the ends of Rodin and Michelangelo are superior to the ends of Serrano, and we would consider anyone who did not agree with this judgment a fool or a lunatic. Hume’s essay is worth looking at for any who have an interest in the area.

Also, in thinking about what counts as art and literature, we need to remember the etymology of “art.” It is true that the meanings of words often change through common usage. For example, notice how “comprised” is more and more frequently used in place of “composed.” Many people are apt to say, “The book is comprised of several chapters” rather than, “The book is composed of several chapters.” However, it is arguable that the idea behind “comprise” remains untainted. Regardless of what happens to “comprised,” we can still think about the parts that are contained with a whole in relation to the whole. In other words, regardless of whether the meaning of comprised becomes completely identical with the meaning of composed, the idea of “comprised” will still exist—for as long as people can remember (and that’s the rub). And even if people forget that there ever was a definition of “comprised” that was not identical with “composed,” that does not invalidate the original meaning of “comprised.” For example, even if elephants become extinct and forgotten, and men come to call rats “elephants,” that does not mean that the elephants never existed. Likewise with “art.” Some people might call a crucifix in urine (or apple juice as the case may be) “art,” but it is art no more than a rat is an elephant. The thing that is most offensive about Piss Christ isn’t the sacrilege. It is the lie that it attempts to tell about “art.”

“Art” from www.etymonline.com: c.1225, "skill as a result of learning or practice," from O.Fr. art, from L. artem, (nom. ars) "art, skill, craft," from PIE *ar-ti- (cf. Skt. rtih "manner, mode;" Gk. arti "just," artios "complete;" Armenian arnam "make," Ger. art "manner, mode"), from base *ar- "fit together, join" (see arm (1)). In M.E. usually with sense of "skill in scholarship and learning" (c.1305), especially in the seven sciences, or liberal arts (divided into the trivium -- grammar, logic, rhetoric -- and the quadrivium --arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). This sense remains in Bachelor of Arts, etc. Meaning "human workmanship" (as opposed to nature) is from 1386.”

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