Friday, October 31, 2014

A skeptic's view of literature

I have been listening to a lecture series from The Great Courses called The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books by Grant L. Voth, professor emeritus in English and Interdisciplinary Studies at Monterey Peninsula College. Voth's idea is that the so-called Great Books, while they truly are great and worthy of study, intimidate most readers. If we have read them at all, chances are it was because they were assigned reading in high school or college classes. Few of us feel up to tackling them voluntarily.

So Voth suggests alternatives. Instead of reading Tolstoy's daunting War and Peace, try Gogol's Dead Souls, he says. Gogol's book is shorter, easier to read and more fun, yet its rewards are similar to those offered by Tolstoy, including giving an understanding of Russian history.

In the same way he proposes reading Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men in place of Joseph Conrad's greatest novels or Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita instead of Faust.

Voth goes further and advocates reading some popular fiction as serious literature. He specifically talks about Death of an Expert Witness, a mystery by P.D. James; The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a spy thriller by John LeCarre, and Yann Martel's runaway bestseller Life of Pi.

Voth raises the question of what is literary fiction anyway. There are those who seem to believe books need to be old, in some cases very old, to be any good. Popular fiction is not worth even mentioning in a college classroom or serious literary journal. Yet the novels of Charles Dickens were popular fiction in their day. So were the works of Sir Walter Scott, Anthony Trollope, Mark Twain and others whose books are now poured over by literary scholars.

I recall reading recently in The Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings that William Shakespeare deliberately tried to make his plays accessible to ordinary people. Some of his contemporaries frowned on him for, in effect, talking down to his audience. That these plays seem difficult for modern readers and audiences to follow says more about how the English language has changed through the centuries than about Shakespeare's writing itself. "(I)t was not the playwright's instinct to be difficult," Hitchings says.

If I may bring up Ann Patchett one more time this week, as a prelude to last week's Kenyon Review Literary Festival the review conducted a month-long online discussion of Patchett's State of Wonder. This discussion, mostly by literary scholars such as David Lynn, the editor of The Kenyon Review, makes fascinating reading for those of us who have read the novel and makes clear that, perhaps despite being one of the biggest bestsellers of the past few years, State of Wonder is also serious literature worthy of study and reflection. It is more than just a good adventure story.

Stories that cause us to think, that offer a variety of interpretations and that give us new pleasures and insights each time we reread them can be regarded as literature, even if they also happen to be popular fiction. That is Grant L. Voth's skeptic's view, and I agree with him.

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