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?

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I’m a Gullible Sap After All–or–How to Sell Books to Cynics

Yesterday’s Indiespensible delivery was its usual treasure trove of literary fun. The main attraction was Naomi Benaron’s Running the Rift; and judging from the two pages I’ve been able to read since it arrived, I anticipate an emotional but engrossing journey. The dust-jacket describes the book as the story of Jean Patrick Nkuba, “a Tutsi in a world that has become increasingly restrictive and violent for his people.” The novel “follows the progress of Jean Patrick from the day he knows that running will be his life to the moment he must run to save his life.” It doesn’t sound like it will be a light and easy read, but I’m certain it will be an enriching one.

Of most interest to me thus far in the shipment has been The Algonquin Reader, Volume 1 Issue 1, from Algonquin Books. When I first caught sight of the small, creamy, cardstock-covered folio I thought it was a new literary magazine and my heart leaped with joy. Upon perusal I discovered that it was not a literary magazine after all, but a “periodical in which [Algonquin] authors introduce their new work in their own words.” My initial response upon reading this was to be disappointed; after all, I already get too many e-mails and ads from everybody and their brother trying to sell me something. This marketing overload has made me cynical and wary of every sales pitch, even the ones from the publishers I like! As I read that first page of The Algonquin Reader my jaded cynicism reared its ugly head and whispered we aren’t gullible enough to get trapped by this clever bit of marketing.

But gullible I was, because I kept right on reading; and trapped I am, because it turns out The Algonquin Reader focused on the authors, not just the books–a strategy which sucked me in completely. The Reader contains excerpts from five forthcoming Algonquin books, with each excerpt preceded by an essay written by the author, in which the author gives some background about how the book was conceived, the process of writing it, how it relates to other books or life events, etc. Because these essays are written by the authors, they are much more interesting than a dust-jacket, and are somewhat reminiscent of The Paris Review interviews (although not nearly as long, and not quite as focused or in-depth.)

What was particularly interesting to me was to read what subjects the author considered important and chose to address, rather than what subjects an interviewer might choose to address. Robert Goolrick’s essay about “The Passion of Place, The Place of Passion” made me think of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Brandon W. Jones’ untitled essay about his growing interest in how Westerners view North Korean society resonated with my own recent curiosity about the strictness and sadness of that same country. And Ted Heller’s description of his addiction to online poker had me utterly fascinated.

At the end of the day, The Algonquin Reader is just a very interesting and well-done marketing tool, so I’m not sure I would pay money for it; but I did find myself enjoying it very much, and ruminating on it after I finished. I suspect it has paid for itself, because I am already resolved to purchase Ted Heller’s Pocket Kings and Robert Goolrick’s Heading Out to Wonderful when they come out in March and June, respectively; and I’m on the fence about Kris D’Agostino’s The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac, but liable to be easily persuaded by a good review when it comes out in March.

Getting back to the Indiespensible shipment, I was delighted by the little notions pertaining to the forthcoming Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith: scraps of pretty cotton cloth, a bag of Earl Grey tea, and some lovely vintage postcards of Amsterdam (which I have already decided to send to my brother-in-law, who lived there for a while.)

And so the shelf of TBR books groans under the weight of yet another new book or two. If only I could read them as fast as these evil and crafty publishers are able to sell them to me, my shelves–and my pocketbook–would be so much healthier.

Happy Reading!