A Fundamental Shift in How I Look at Literature

In the most recent issue of The Believer magazine there is an article by Colin Asher about writer Nelson Algren which states that “… every word Algren wrote was guided by the belief that writing can be literature only if intended as a challenge to authority.” I didn’t know much about Nelson Algren before this, but the article was very good, and it got me thinking about this idea that literature must challenge authority. My first reaction is to disagree. I believe that literature is complex and varied, and that putting parameters or limitations on our definition of it does the idea of literature—and ourselves as readers—a disservice. But. . .

. . . But then I started thinking about all the books and writing that I consider “literature” and I found that most of them DO challenge authority in one way or another, even those works that I consider the most tame. Pride and Prejudice challenges the social and economic conventions of the time. Lolita challenges the idea that a pedophile is a monster who can neither elicit nor deserve sympathy from the moral majority. The Hobbit challenges the assumption that the smallest and quietest among us can’t change the course of history. These are just a few examples, but the more I thought about it the more I began to convince myself that great literature does indeed pose a challenge, if not always to authority, then at least to the status quo.

I’m still not sure that I would agree with Algren’s purported belief that writing can only be literature if intended as a challenge to authority. What about non-fiction, beautifully written biographies, pieces of literature in which all the author wanted to do was write the truth? I don’t believe that writing has to be an act of revolution, or civil disobedience, in order to be literature. However, I’m not as sure, nor as quick to shoot down the assertion as I was. To be honest, I’m having more trouble than I thought coming up with examples of good literature that don’t support Algren’s belief.

I now can’t help but ask myself a question that could lead to a fundamental shift in the way I define literature: Can great literature be truly great literature if it doesn’t challenge our ideas about the world in which we live?


One thought on “A Fundamental Shift in How I Look at Literature

  1. What an intriguing concept! I love that you are talking about the grey area between two polarizing ideas. We have too much encouragement of late, I think, to cling to one "pole" or another when it comes to concepts, even though the truth is usually found somewhere between them. The members of my book club often ask if the book we've just discussed is "great literature." I find that I usually think it is, even if it wasn't my favorite. I think so much adds to what we think of as literature. For instance, our last book, Dracula, inspired extra discussion on the topic, probably because it's a classic. Although much of it seems to be a sensationalist novel, I think the way it's written, and the ways in which Stoker exploits that to drive the plot, give it a place in the canon of literature. It's way too broad a definition, but I think any book that has redeeming qualities of any kind is a form of literature. I love reading so much that to try to toss anyone out of the party seems like trying to get a mother to say which of her kids is really worth her time. You know? That said, I agree with you: the books that have stuck with me often have a sense of challenging the status quo. Even the Little House on the Prarie books, could be viewed as a way of trying to convince people to live in simpler ways like she did as a child. Or is that a stretch?

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