Who Decides What Becomes Literature? Understanding Literary Fantasy (from an outright amateur’s perspective)
If a masterpiece of artful and amazing prose on the human experience never reaches the public eye, is never praised by academics, never sells a single copy, is it still literature?
Who decides what is literature and what isn’t? Elitist assholes or literary experts? If you wish to skim through this blog post, I’ve bolded the juicy bits for your convenience. If you wish to read normally, please keep in mind that by “literature” I don’t simply mean “literate material,” but Merriam-Webster’s 3rd definition: “writings in prose or verse; especially : writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.”
What we need to do to understand literary fantasy is make a line between realistic literary fantasy for adults, like A Game of Thrones, and unrealistic literary fantasy for children and young adults, like The Hobbit, Cinderella and books similar to Harry Potter, because by doing this we’ll notice there’s a middle ground between these two extremes, and, for a reason I’ll explain, this middle ground isn’t considered literature. Bear with me if you can. This is just theory for the mind, so bring a bucket of salt and we’ll have some fun.
In a previous post I claimed the biggest difference between literature and non-literature (genre fiction) is that the latter serves as a means of taking you away from this world to be entertained. Literature, on the other hand, draws you deeper into this world to be educated on life matters, because literature is what we would use to teach planetary aliens about us and our history. I still hold strong to this argument, but now I’d like to share a more obvious divide between the two: literature is performed by trained professionals who’ve dedicated their lives to learning how to express their thoughts and feelings into magnificent word-craft without common errors and without other amateurish expressions like passionate misconceptions overriding well-thought-out research. Another criteria is being accepted by a literary journal of some kind, but not all literature from history has had to go through this gatekeeper, and, let’s face it, many literary journals today are less professional than this mediocre blog post. With that ghastly intro out of the way, let’s now dig a bit deeper into two distinct niches (I will argue three) which I’ve studied enough to feel comfortable teaching at entry level: Literary Fantasy for Adults and Children’s (or Young Adult’s) Fantasy Literature (the third one being a mixture of the two which I will later refer to as the middle ground between the two extremes).
I don’t wish to be the angry ogre when I put such titles as the classic Conan and Lord of the Rings in the Children’s Fantasy Literature category. Some of you may hate me for doing that, but theorists and expressive thinkers like myself are supposed to be hated, and I argue that all the moral lessons learned from Lord of the Rings should already be known to adult readers, even though the book can still be appreciated by adults and considered literature for its artistic merit.
Literature is just like modern art with its auctions and galleries. Without establishments to bolster literature and let it breathe, everything becomes non-literature, and for anyone to say something IS literature and the next thing ISN’T makes them either an asshole or an expert.
Not one of us gets to make the magical decision anyway. The decision on what becomes great art is made collectively like a modern painting when it hits the auction. A dozen people may say this here painting only took one hour to make and is a disgrace to the classic masterpieces which took years, but then this same modern painting, on this very same day could sell for millions of dollars! Who made that decision? The fancy, mincing buyers in the auction collectively and the people who organize the auction! That’s who! Similarly with literature, the decisions are made by editors for literary journals, agents in publishing circles and professors in universities, along with consumers in established society whose tastes are respected by such professionals. Without these authorities on the matter, nothing could possibly rise to the standard of being elegant literature as opposed to amateur genre writing. With these academic authorities in existence, we’re able to take a newly written book and make comparisons. Slowly over time, definitely not overnight, a book that was shunned years ago for being grotesque and gruesome can rise up the taste-buds of the public tongue to resurrect itself as classic literature for future centuries to admire and be proud of, like Frankenstein. Now accepting that, individually, we each have little control over what becomes literature, let us now compare Children’s Fantasy to what is currently considered Literary Fantasy to grasp the handle a little tighter.
Fantasy for children is supposed to be black and white with predictable villains and cliche heroes for the better development of the child’s self-identity. It’s said that a good fairy tale should make a kid want to be like the good guy because he or she would never want to be like the bad guy. And indeed, younger children who still think mostly in images and have little understanding over the true, gruesome aspects of human existence are able to draw conclusions from things that adults can’t. Fantasy for children is not supposed to be academic or “literary.” Being so would ruin the whole point of being a children’s story. Stories deemed as Children’s Literature like Three Little Pigs, without elegant description, without artistic prose and without being at all realistic, teaches a child what it means to be brave, what it means to build a house out of the right material and so on. The evil step-sisters in Cinderella are studied as representing many deep symbols that, while adults try so hard to understand them with words, children pick up on right away using images in their subconscious minds. For more info on why fairy tales are important for children consider The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim.
With all that said, let’s now dive on over into the middle ground between children’s fantasy stories and academic fantasy for adults. This middle ground is where most fantasy books are currently sitting. Before some major professor in some high-end university decided to pick up The Hobbit and scream “these armies have no commissariats! This is literature for children, not adults!” The Hobbit, too, dwelled in this middle ground. But forgive that creative metaphor. The truth I assume was a lot different. Adults cherish The Hobbit and they have good reason to. Now I ask you, if The Hobbit was never picked up by traditional publishers, if it just ended up on Amazon today because some grandson decided to self-publish an old stack of paper he’d found in his attic, would it still be considered literature? Hmm? Now that is a good question to ask here because it reveals a sad truth about elitism. I wouldn’t be surprised if the book flopped just like all the hundreds of other books flopping on Amazon daily.
The middle ground, for a passionate author who fears failure, is a dreadful place to be. For an amateur that doesn’t plan on ever becoming an expert, it’s a place they’ve never heard of. The middle ground is where all great works of literature come from, yet it’s always where all crap goes to die. With one extreme being Children’s Literature (or Young Adult’s Literature) and the other being Adult’s Literature, is the middle ground then for teenagers and adults who have yet to grow up? Not really. The scary truth is that being stuck in the middle ground means nothing more than your writing will never become literature. Even if you stand on top of a mountain, holding up your cherished art for the world to see, and scream “this is more than just genre fiction,” if no literary journals, agents in powerful circles or other authoritative figures agree with you, even if you have millions of non-academic followers being entertained, your work will remain in the middle ground, never to be whispered centuries from now as a bedside story for a curious little girl, never to be cherished by academics who wish to ride the waves of beauty in writing decades from now, to only be read in your own lifetime for the sake of entertainment. So what can you do to make your writing become literature, to make it something future generations would be willing to present to an alien race as “our great art,” and not just some hunk of writing, satisfying temporary tropes? The answer was never simple but it’s becoming so: you must either become Literature for Adults or become Literature for Children, because the middle ground is simply Writing for Entertainment.
It would be a shame if mankind’s greatest art was used solely for entertainment because there is so much about us to teach.
Understanding this, let us now ask “what is Literature for Adults?” I already have a post answering the question “what is medieval fantasy for adults?” but here I’m going to explain differently. The easy answer would be “well, it’s not literature for children!” We’ve already discussed how children learn in different ways than we do. Children get much use out of hearing unrealistic fairy tales. But would adults get use from them, too? Maybe we could go into Memory Lane or be entertained for a little while, but most life lessons learned in children’s stories are, well, lessons we’ve already learned. In order for us to go up a level and be taught something from what we’re reading, the writing itself needs to be much different. I’ve never learned much about the truth of historical Japan by reading manga or watching anime, genres in the middle ground for teenagers and youthful adults who wish to be entertained. However, I have learned a whole heck of a lot about real Japanese history by reading non-fiction and watching documentaries. The difference between a documentary and an anime is the difference between being in the middle ground and being of academic use to adults. But simply being of academic use to adults doesn’t mean you’ve suddenly got literature on your hands. You still need to go through the great gatekeeper of time, through the circles and schools who collectively make the final decision.
Literature for adults like such writings by Shakespeare and Cervantes have passed the gatekeepers with fabulous success. They’ve moved out of the middle ground. With their insights into the matters of daily life, their elegant styles, prose and artistry, no one can argue that they’re not literature because they’d be arguing with thousands of famous dead people and would look like an idiot. And after studying this stuff for long enough, calling much of today’s popular fantasy “literature” also looks quite idiotic, and only uneducated students on the matter who love to be entertained would agree with you. If a fantasy novel is going to be of academic use for future generations, if it’s going to be considered some of mankind’s best art, it must not thrive on contemporary tropes but on timeless ideals like preserving truth, presenting culture and teaching history, ethics and morals!
When the writing’s purpose becomes more than just simple entertainment, when it has the ability to teach even a professor something new, I will argue that it deserves to enter the immortal field of masterpieces, not the graveyard of entertainment, to become literature! But deserving and becoming are two separate things, which is why anything written in the last half-century must wait for the collective, final decision–“is this literature worthy of being passed through the ages?” Only time can tell.
To recap I will leave you to answer the very first question I presented at the top of this post, but in a slightly different way: If there’s a great masterpiece of writing full of inspiring truth about history, full of marvelous prose and literary words, and it doesn’t contain a single error, yet no one ever gets to see it because it’s buried beneath a rock, is it still literature? The answer is becoming clearer, but really who’s to say? An asshole or an expert? After all, literature as we know it has only been around for a very brief time in human history. Like modern art, it’s evolving everyday.
3 thoughts on “Who Decides What Becomes Literature? Understanding Literary Fantasy (from an outright amateur’s perspective)”
hmmmmm………. these things have purpose. imo.
A nice post, Timothy! This is one of the basic questions of modern lit theory… minus the fantasy aspect, maybe. 🙂 As you say, the categories are somewhat amorphous and fluctuate as time and opinions change. As such, and unlike you, I prefer to draw the line nowhere. But, we each must do as suits us best!
Thanks. I got into a weird vibration while writing this and had to edit it a lot the next day. I’m glad you didn’t call me a crazy person lol. Hopefully it’s easier to understand now. In reality there is no lines. Lines, like nation borders, are made by us. The one I drew here is just candy for the mind.