Books, reading

It’s all Literature

From the Encyclopedia Brittanica: “Deriving from the Latin littera, “a letter of the alphabet,” literature is first and foremost humankind’s entire body of writing; after that it is the body of writing belonging to a given language or people; then it is individual pieces of writing.”

It is only within that broad generalization that we see a breaking down into genres, styles, and subjective qualifications of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ literature. Jeffro Johnson’s comment on Kate Paulk’s post today got me thinking about this when he quipped “Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote literature.”

Yes, yes he did. Stuff that I loved to read when I was a younger woman, and can still go back to, although some of the shiny has worn off for me. But the core of it, the reasons I loved it… that’s still there. Someone recently dubbed it competence porn, and yeah, it can be that. But the heroes I love and come back to again and again aren’t perfect. They make mistakes. They fall down and have to be picked up or rescued from time to time – I think Dejah Thoris and John Carter took turns in who was rescuer/rescuee, although I’ve never totted it up – but in everything, they persist. They don’t whine, or quit, or dawdle in the grey mists of uncertainty (at least not for long). They do, and keep doing, and their reasons for keeping on are noble. Love, honor, duty, or sheer curiosity.

Sarah Hoyt’s article on a Dingy Patina today crystallized something I had been pondering. In a recent spate of reading (what else can you do when you’re sick and can’t sleep? It lets me open a door to another world and walk away from the pain for a couple of hours) I had run up against the dinginess she’s talking about here:

The problem is this feeling that no one is good, no one is honest, no one is even acceptable, and the detectives are often the worst of all.

Agatha Christie gave her characters foibles, sure, and often there was  a tight intrigue and not just the murderer but two or three other people would be no good.  BUT the propensity of the characters gave you the impression of being good sort of people.  Perhaps muddled, confused, or driven by circumstances to the less than honorable, but in general driven by principles of honor or love (even sometimes the murderer) and wanting to do the right thing for those they cared about.

You emerge from a Christie memory with the idea, sure, that of course there was unpleasantness, but most of the people are not horrors.

How did we get from there to now, where the characters aren’t even evil?  They’re just dingy and grey and tainted, all of them equally.  The victim, the detectives, the witnesses, will be vile and contorted, grotesque shapes walking in the world of men.

Sarah and I share an affection for mysteries, and we occasionally exchange author names as suggestions, so I knew precisely what she was talking about. In my reading I’d discovered that my local library has almost all the Charles Todd books, so I’d been binging on them, and coming up with the blues at the end of every Ian Rutledge book. I like the Bess Crawford books, and they leave me happy at the end. So what’s the difference? I think it’s that tainted feeling Sarah’s talking about. The Rutledge character is a moral relativist, and his personal haunt is simply a vindictive nag, not a conscience personified. The Bess character is, for all her fears and doubts, a very certain person, who tries to make her way with compassion and empathy, as Rutledge does. But at the end of the book, she’s got hope, where Rutledge is left in purgatory without end.

After deciding that I had to leaven the Todd books with something happier, I stumbled over an old favorite who is now on Kindle Unlimited. I was charmed and delighted to discover that DE Stevenson’s novels are still as readable as I remember them from 20+ years ago. They are little bits of nothing, full of living breathing people, unconventional romance, and best of all, sparkling Scottish scenery. The perfect antidote to depressing and grey, they epitomize a breath of fresh air. The thing is, I like both the Todd series, and the Stevenson books, and the other Indie short stories I’ve been fitting into the interstices (Uphoff and Chandler and Freer, oh my!). I don’t have to limit myself. I can read mind candy, and my text books, and the book challenging Forensic Science in the Courts, and it’s all literature. But knowing how I react to some books allows me to measure my inner self and keep that in balance. Because what we read does affect us.

So what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ literature?

I think I’ll leave that for another day – and perhaps the Mad Genius Club – but I’ll tell you now that I break literature into three levels: good, bad, and (most damning of all) indifferent.

5 thoughts on “It’s all Literature

  1. Definitely a good topic for MGC. I think it really ties in with a lot of the Human Wave philosophy. It’s charactersreal characters (for the fictional value of “real” that is).

    I made a post today over on Baen’s Bar, where (I can’t recall who) brought up the Xanth series. I noted that the characters in that are cardboard. Really, they are. You can hope that the cardboard good triumph over the cardboard bad, but not much else.

    That doesn’t make them bad books, though. Why? Because you can have that little bit of caring about some of them. The ones that turn me off are those where you don’t care about the cardboard at all – if someone comes along in the book and sets a match to them, you just say “oh well” and turn off the light. (I have drywall – and hate patching holes in same. So these just get laid down, gently, and start collecting their dust quota.)

    The good books (for certain values) are those where you actually have a real character. I used the example of Melissa Mailey in Eric Flint’s 163x – she and I would almost certainly come to blows if we met, among screams of “radical socialist nutcase” and “male chauvinist pig” [grin]. But she is a character that I want to read more about!

  2. Speaking of literature, in the afterword to Vulcan’s Kittens you mention that you were inspired by a book your daughter read. Could you please tell me which book that was?

Comments are closed.