What Is Literature?

canonIn defense of the canon

By Arthur Krystal

There’s a new definition of literature in town. It has been slouching toward us for some time now but may have arrived officially in 2009, with the publication of Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America. Alongside essays on Twain, Fitzgerald, Frost, and Henry James, there are pieces about Jackson Pollock, Chuck Berry, the telephone, the Winchester rifle, and Linda Lovelace. Apparently, “literary means not only what is written but what is voiced, what is expressed, what is invented, in whatever form” — in which case maps, sermons, comic strips, cartoons, speeches, photographs, movies, war memorials, and music all huddle beneath the literary umbrella. Books continue to matter, of course, but not in the way that earlier generations took for granted. In 2004, “the most influential cultural figure now alive,” according to Newsweek, wasn’t a novelist or historian; it was Bob Dylan. Not incidentally, the index to A New Literary History contains more references to Dylan than to Stephen Crane and Hart Crane combined. Dylan may have described himself as “a song-and-dance man,” but Marcus and Sollors and such critics as Christopher Ricks beg to differ. Dylan, they contend, is one of the greatest poets this nation has ever produced (in point of fact, he has been nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature every year since 1996).

The idea that literature contains multitudes is not new. For the greater part of its history, lit(t)eratura referred to any writing formed with letters. Up until the eighteenth century, the only true makers of creative work were poets, and what they aspired to was not literature but poesy. A piece of writing was “literary” only if enough learned readers spoke well of it; but as Thomas Rymer observed in 1674, “till of late years England was as free from Criticks, as it is from Wolves.”

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