How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts
Oxford University Press, 2011
Who you gonna call? What's the style in fiction that works for you?
Get in touch with Genre Busters. Seek enlightenment then from a loose confederation of literary critics and snobbish writers who are all members of a vast imaginative conspiracy against dull facts, pointless perspectives, political dittoheads, greedy power brokers, habitual dogmatists, decadent materialists, profligate sex addicts, and cuckoo spiritualists. In short, free verse is not the same as sexual freedom. And the avant-garde is not a movement of anarchists. And critics and professors don't merely split hairs, but explain differences, the most basic of all is that which most students of literature know -- the literal and the figurative. No, it's not only the difference between a text in a book and texting on your I-Phone.
Everything belongs to a genre. But what makes a genre is a key concept that defines How Literature Works, a book published by Oxford University Press that is the point of view of John Sutherland who has been a columnist for the Guardian and a chief judge for the Mann-Booker prize. He is professor emeritus of Modern English Literature at University College London.
Summing up a career, Sutherland points out fifty key concepts that define what literature is and what it can be. You might say he's a Genre Buster any student of literature can rely upon if he wants to understand the multitude of styles and narrative techniques employed by fiction writers. He outlines what fiction is in a descriptive way and gives examples. And he makes me think that the common division of the book world, fiction and non-fiction, is like the two main categories of biology, plants and animals.
Well, is fiction more like a plant or an animal? As if giant redwoods could meditate and as if elephants could detect a pathetic fallacy from an objective correlative.
So what is a concept in fiction world? Is it not, as Robin Williams declared in Mork & Mindy, "Reality, what a concept?" If you understand a conception is it like an interception in the National Football League. Of course, if you stole the ball and claimed possession of the idea.
A literary concept is kind of like a guiding cultural idea that places the text in a category that makes sense to both critic and reader.
Can I have an example, please? Yes, you certainly may.
Sutherland's short summaries are divided into six sections. He covers the basics. Then, the machinery of how it works. And literature's devices, new ideas, word crimes, and literary futures.
Let's start with his list of basics:
Mimesis holding a mirror up to nature, sort of like imitation or representation, but not quite. "The key to the literary door [:] The problem mimesis raises is perennial, fascinating, and finally, insoluble. Is literature 'true,' or is it 'false"? Or neither -- some would argue that the question itself is a 'category error' (e.g., 'What is north of the North Pole?')."
Each brief chapter briefly sums it up. For mimesis, Sutherland writes:
"The condensed idea it's not real, but it can be true"
Ambiguity does a word mean what the author intends or what the reader reads into it? A perfectly contemporary example comes from our democratic arena this week in which a politician, who claims she is not a politician, declares "I mean what I say and I say what I mean." Never mind whether a candidate is like an imaginative writer making up things and what does Michele Bachmann mean when she claims Obamacare is a socialist heresy in the mind of constitutional conservatives. What does a conservative conserve or serve up to a constituency? Well, Sutherland merely points out that Alice disagrees with Humpty Dumpty and asks if words can mean so many different things. In short, fiction no more lies than does non-fiction. But, it seems there are many shades to the truth. He writes: "One reason that French ('lingua franca') is the preferred language of diplomacy is because it is inherently unambiguous, the least prone to double entendre. Picture a Frenchman leaning toward an open train window, unaware that a tunnel is coming up. 'Look out!' warns the Englishman alongside him. The Frenchman duly looks out and gets his head knocked off. The shouted instruction 'Attention, monsieur!' would forestall Gallic decapitation."
"The condensed idea: literature speaks with a forked tongue"
Hermeneutics not merely interpretation, but the "extraction of meaning(s) from words on the page," Sutherland advises. Once the written word is on the page, it is the reader who must make sense of it. "One plausible origin of the term is relevant -- and witty. Hermes was the messenger of the gods, charged with making divine utterance comprehensible to the less than divine human intelligence. But he is also the mythic patron of liars (don't believe a word this winged-heeled fellow says). Is fiction a pretty pack of lies or higher truth?," he asks. He quotes Jonathan Culler: "the task is not to interpret, but to interpret interpretation."
"The condensed idea: Reading literature and understanding literature are two different things."
With academic precision, Sutherland goes on to explain other key concepts, such as what are the classics, the role of intentionalism, what an affective fallacy is, and how stories have some kind of narrator (i.e. a participant, a witness, an objective third-person account). He brings up the epic genre, explores lyric or prosody, gets into the gothic style, and untangles the translation paradox.
What he calls the machinery of literature is covered under categories like culture, milieu, superstructure, the canon, and genre itself . He includes the idea of closure, what a paradigm shift is, and what ownership of a text is (does it belong to writer or reader or cultural treasure?). He then deals with what a critical authority is. And he goes into the influence of style (everyone has one and it comes from the self, but is rarely unique).
Sutherland investigates literary devices like allegory, irony, allusion, and metafiction. In another section he explores philosophical and sociological components in literarure, such as structuralism, deconstruction, postmodernism, postcolonialism, and semiology.
Then there are what he calls the word crimes that covers things like students who copy verbatim another writer's work (plagiarism), forbidden taboos (obscenity), and the role of ghost-writers.
So, who you gonna call? Reading Sutherland makes you want to pick up a book and read, asking yourself what kind of texts are happening.
With an eye on the future he brings up fanfic, what he calls "literature's Web-engendered mutations," or "going AU ("alternative universe). He considers the e-book from the p.o.v. of Marshall McLuhan who said the medium is the massage, in other words the way we get information (book, TV, radio, internet) affects how that information is received, perceived, interpreted, and understood. In other words the book touches us in a way the big screen at the cineplex can't and vice versa.
Lastly, he meditates upon what literary inundation is, that tsunami of information coming at us from diverse realms, the Hubble Space Telescope and the vast blogosphere on the web, quoting John Naisbitt -- "We are drowning in information, but starved for knowledge."
That said, I confess I channel surf with a remote, browse at books on the shelf, punch pre-set digital radio station settings in the moving car, try to remember something and then google it because I've forgotten; and touch an app on my 3G smartphone, the one with the complete text of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. And if I had a Nook or a Kindle I'd use it at the coffeehouse. And if I was younger I'd insert my earbuds and shuffle all the songs I'd want, up to 10,000 if I wanted to spend 99-cents on each of them.
Finally, I have to ask is a magazine still a magazine when you peruse it on an I-Pad?
Once in awhile I get a text on my phone. It looks almost like what I see on a page. But the screen is bright and dazzles the mind like life. Sometimes, the printed ink on a page seems more like a cave painting's hieroglyphics. Perhaps Sutherland has touched a nerve. How do we handle media bias? Or as McLuhan's pun attests -- the medium is the massage and the message. It is the medium itself that biases us because our sensory organs are not all equal. McLuhan, a bibliophile, understood that all our tools are media: "The wheel is an extension of the foot, the book is an extension of the eye, and electronic media is an extension of the central nervous system.
Like McLuhan, Sutherland is a Genre Buster. Who you gonna call? Consult the yellow pages or google it? In terms of faith as a quest time-wise, for instance, it's quicker to access a bible verse on the NIV app, unless you prefer to delicately flip onion-skin pages in a leather-bound bible. Does it make a difference? Believe it or not. It was McLuhan who claimed that the environment we live in appears to be invisible. Learned bookmen like Sutherland help us to see the contours as if we are in Plato's cave peering at the light in the mouth of the cave and seeing the shadows that are cast.