“Little men are covering my street with political ‘literature’,” Liz Arden complained this morning.
I’m maybe the wrong writer to tackle this. After all, my high school English teacher made us memorize John Donne’s birth date and Stevens Institute of Technology didn’t even know how to spell the word in the 70s.
Miss Spocketpump, the high school English teacher whose name I have changed to protect myself, taught a “Survey Course in English Literature” for us kids in college prep. I don’t remember much from that course other than a dense textbook with reams of writings by the greats of history. When she told me I would fail the final exam, I did something unparalleled in my academic history before or since. I anticipated how she could structure a test that would trip me. Then I memorized exactly what I needed to beat the test. It was half the grade.
I spent all day on the Sunday before the exam at the Quarry, our “swimming hole,” reading and rereading the quarter-page biographies of more than 100 writers included in that tome. I knew Donne’s birthday (sometime between January 24 and June 19, 1572). I could tell you who Robert Browning married and when Tennyson died. I knew how much Dickens earned per word. But I had no Great Expectations stored about Morte D’Arthur or any words of metaphysical poetry.
Not a great introduction to literature or literary pursuits, I’m thinking.
“Little men are covering my street with political ‘literature’,” Ms. Arden had said. “Why can’t they just call it spam?”
Literature has a much broader definition than I remembered:
Literature (from Latin litterae (plural); letter) is the art of written work, and is not confined to published sources (although, under some circumstances, unpublished sources can also be exempt). The word literature literally means “acquaintance with letters” and the pars pro toto term “letters” is sometimes used to signify “literature,” as in the figures of speech “arts and letters” and “man of letters.” The four major classifications of literature are poetry, prose, fiction, and non-fiction.
The art of written work. Art. That’s more what we mechanics think of as literature. The O.E.D. points us to written works with “superior or lasting artistic merit.” Expression and form, topics of universal interest, and some degree of permanence are essential to my definition and to Ms. Arden’s.
But there is more. We allow the writings of a country or on a particular subject in the broad category of literature. It can be English or scientific or music or it can concern a group of items such as automobiles.
When my mom earned her B.A.-English, she read literature from Shakespear to Saroyan. She used the word properly.
When your doctor says he’ll “consult the literature” to determine if your symptoms show you have sarcoidosis (They do. Trust me on that.), he uses the word properly.
When I need to know the allowable deflection in a frimjamb or how to hardwire a network conniption, I “consult the literature.” OK, I Google but the results are the same. And I used the word properly.
The four major classifications of literature are poetry, prose, fiction, and non-fiction. Both Homer and Herodotus explicitly excluded spam, the fifth element in the written classes, from the list. After all, there may be considerable art in selling a sexual aid by email or a candidate by door hanger, but literature it ain’t.
I write but I rarely write about writing. I think about writing. I sometimes talk with friends about writing. I have written once or twice about writing*1*. Thank goodness I don’t do it very often.
See, the first piece of advice a young writer gets is, “Write what you know.” Unfortunately for readers, most writers know most about writing so they tend to, well, write about it. I’d rather write about nude wimmens or careening to the inside of turn 7 at Lime Rock or whether I can catch a cow on a hook in the deep blue waters of the Gulfstream.
But the sun is shining. Life is good. And Duma Key the place is, for now, very far away.
I’m reading Duma Key the book right now and have been thinking about why I like Stephen King and, as a broader question, why we all like Stories-with-a-Capital-S and the people in them. See, I don’t read fantasy. I don’t even like horror stories. I never told ghost stories around the campfire nor believed them when I listened but I like Stephen King and he tells some serious ghost stories.
I have just two simple truths to share here:
1. We want to spend our time with interesting people.
2. Characters in novels are always busy.
The USA Network peeps have it right with their “Characters Welcome” promotion. The books I like best, the movies that grab me, and the television serials I keep going back to are all peopled with interesting characters. It doesn’t matter as much what they do in the stories as it matters what makes them interesting.
I may be an interesting person. Or not. You may even like me as a person. Or not. No matter. Neither of us particularly wants to share our time with someone doing what I did today. I brushed, pooped, showered, and wandered around my office in my underwear for a while. I spoke to a couple of clients. I researched a strategic plan. I wrote this blog and my weekly column. I worked on a couple of photo images. I checked that I have a band booked for the weekend concert. I may have passed gas. I ate lunch and will eventually eat supper. Tonight I have a heavy evening planned with the t00b.
That was a busy day. Absolutely no part of it moved this story forward. In the novel we could have skipped directly from finding the red picnic basket in the attic to catching the cow on the hook.
Any writer who can create someone we like and keep us hooked with his or her day-to-day puttering is a treasure.
1 My 10-1/2 Hot Tips for Small-Town Op-ed Writers was commissioned and published by Inklings in 1997.