By Lindsey Collins
Before I get into my point, there are a few things you should know about me.
- I was an English major, which means I’ve been forced to read the classic literature canon for school (a.k.a. “The Dead White Guy Author List”).
- I love to read. I read all kinds of stories, but young adult books are my favorite, and I’m not ashamed of it. I probably own more YA books than “classics.”
- I am very stubborn, and I don’t back down. Someone of authority who tells me “It has to be this certain way” without a good reason why is just asking for an argument.
I’ve posed the question “What is Literature”—with a capital “L”—many different ways, and I’ve had conversations about it more times than I’d care to admit. Most of the time those conversations have been in the form of arguments with my English professors. Sometimes they were just conversations with friends.
In the vast reaches of the Internet, there are more definitions for literature (little-“L”) than I knew was possible, but we‘ll stick with Webster’s definition for my purposes of explaining the larger concept of Literature.
literature–(n): writings in prose or verse; especially: writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.
Despite my arguments and conversations, I still can’t get a consensus on what Literature is anymore. And here’s why:
I think all writing is Literature, because it’s all worth something to different people. From that collection of Fitzgerald’s short stories, to the series you started that came out last week, to the compelling storyline of your favorite TV show, it’s all worthwhile to read and know if you think it’s worthwhile to read and know.
Somewhere between high school and college, when literature was shoved down our throats in the form of classics (a.k.a. the best stories), we’ve learned that a book can only be considered literature when it’s been exceptional for a long time. We read those stories because they have survived time, changing cultures, and sometimes even changing language. It makes sense that we look for stories that will last. The difference, for me, is that the story doesn’t have to be a best-seller or put into school reading lists to be Literature—it needs to have staying power, either in ideas or characters, either to me or to someone else.
The people with whom I have had this argument like to say that there is no point in reading something that doesn’t have endurance, like Shakespeare or Tolkien. But how can you know that the Literature we are reading now won’t last? Is it because they were or weren’t on the best-seller list for a year or two? I had one teacher tell me he hasn’t read anything that’s been published after the year 1900, and all I could think about were the incredible stories and poems he was missing out on because he (mistakenly) decided that there has been nothing worth saying in the past 100-plus years.
I’m just not entirely convinced that there is a quantifiable way to discern that a book will one day be literature. So until it’s read and a hundred years have passed, we don’t get to decide what isn’t worth reading (or what is literature). I think that everything is Literature until it’s proven not to be. You and I can choose to think that the books we love or the books we want to buy are Literature. As a reader, isn’t that the whole point?
Many of the authors we read now as part of our school classic canon weren’t popular in their day. There was a time when Edgar Allen Poe couldn’t get anyone to buy his poems; now, they’re mandated eighth-grade curriculum. I’d like to think that the stories I love will last, that I have good taste, and the ones I love are the great ones, like “Harry Potter.” I’d also like to think that some stories (*cough* “Twilight” *cough*) won’t last, but that isn’t up to me.
I’d like to think the hours and days I’ve spent toiling over a paper to turn in for a grade or a story that I had to write down to get out of my head were worth it, because what I wrote was worth putting down. Even if I got a C, and even if those stories never get published, I will continue to think my writing is important. It will be important even if I’m the only person that ever reads it. Basically, I mean this: Everything that’s been written was worth writing, and deserves to be considered Literature.[divider] [/divider]
Lindsey Collins is a recent graduate of the University of Alabama. She is a lover of all things nerd and sometimes can’t help how excited she gets about fictional events and characters. She apologizes for being really bad about aking selfies (something she is aspiring to fix). Lately all picture taking has been focused on her new gorgeous nephew—just ask her about him. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @bellelcollins.