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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Who Gets to Decide What's Good Literature?

(Originally found this question here).

This question seems fitting considering my post yesterday about 1984 and genre fiction. One of the problems I think many of us have with literature is that there's no consensus on what is good and what isn't--not one, at least, that can be quickly and adequately discovered. Literary critics may say one thing, academics will say another, best seller's lists will say something else, and finally readers themselves will say something either in tune with one of those previous groups, or something entirely different--and it's usually a toss up.

All of these, with, perhaps, some exception to best seller's lists, have, I think, a discernible influence, in the long term, on definitions of "good literature." It wasn't too long ago that we all would have thought it impossible to have college courses dedicated to science fiction or fantasy, let alone high school or college courses that at least included in their curriculum at least one novel in those genres. Now we are seeing them in more regularity, even if programs focused on these genres are scarce at best. This is, to me, an example of how these three groups (literary critics, academics, and readers) have unintentionally worked towards redefining "good literature."

I don't think that there is any one group that gets to make this decision. I also don't think that there is really a way for the three to intentionally work together. Literature has to progress on its own, without people from diametrically opposed positions meeting in the middle and attempting to work it out on their own. Readers must state their opinion, and so too must literary critics and academics. In time, we'll see those statements shift and adjust to accommodate new literature into their circles.

This is how science fiction and fantasy have found their way into literature curriculum and into the hands of serious literary critics who, in previous generations, would have scoffed at the idea of treating genre fiction with any seriousness in the first place. As an example: one of the courses I am currently taking has The Road by Cormac McCarthy on the syllabus. Clearly this is an example of how the public can have influence on everything else, and how the times are changing. But the public didn't decide that McCarthy's novel was good; they formulated an opinion while another group started to pay attention, and without either intended it to happen, The Road achieved its "good literature" status--with sufficient help from Oprah, of course.

Literature simply evolves and works that were once considered of low quality suddenly gain attention. This has happened numerous times in history, and I don't think many of the most staunch and stubborn of "literary" readers realizes this. Some of the works we consider to be classics were, at one time, the equivalent of what genre fiction is to the literary community: trash. This is particularly so of some of the romantic poets in France and other areas of the world, yet we now devote academic study to such work and treat it with the utmost seriousness. We don't really think twice about the rise of such work from the catacombs of "trashiness." This is the same path science fiction and fantasy is taking, and will continue to take as they work their way into every circle.

I think I've rambled quite enough. What do you all think? Do you agree that no one group decided what good literature is and that it is an unintentional process involving the groups I mentioned above? Or do you have another opinion? Whatever thoughts you have, feel free to leave a comment!


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