I think that the notion of literature and what constitutes literature is an idea that is relatively modern. The printing press was invented in 1440. Prior to this books were rare and expensive and hand produced. Even after the printing press was invented it took time to set the type and printing was slow and laborious. Early print books were editions of books already in existence that had been hand scribed. The number of different titles was somewhat limited at first.
Literature as a concept implies discrimination between works of great merit and those of lesser quality. This implies that someone who can decide, makes a judgement call. Only people who can read and who have a significant education in the culture are in any position to comment on the quality of a piece of writing.
Because of literacy levels and the availability of a enough books to decide amongst I believe a notion like “literature” is something that may not have arisen until sometime between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Further once the idea of literature developed a notion of a certain “canon” of writing that constitutes literature would also begin to develop. I think the way that a piece of writing becomes literature is that it is published, read, more widely read, commented on as being of quality, then studied and the quality is commented on, and then it begins to be taught. I don’t think a work becomes considered part of the “canon of literature” until it receives a certain amount of scrutiny resulting in literary criticism and then is taught to students. Another way that writing may get propelled to the phase of being scrutinized and commented on is to be given an award like the Pulitzer Prize. This seems to accelerate the rate of consideration, literary criticism, and admittance to the body of material taught in schools of higher learning.
Literary fiction is an entirely different beast. There are authors who write in a very literary style and are compelling to read. Alice Hoffman, John Irving, Jumpa Lahiri, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tracey Chevalier are all names that spring to my mind. But literary has come to refer to a style. A very cerebral style that is not always enjoyable to read but often is given a certain amount of praise for simply being “literary”.
Many colleges and universities are now offering creative writing classes, programs, and masters of fine arts degrees. These classes can be very rewarding and enriching for the participants. However, never in history has the idea of being primarily a fiction writer been an occupation to pursue. Most writers in the past either were part of the leisure class– such as the Victorians like Mary Shelley and Lord Byron– or they had another occupation. William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician. Often students pursue the master of fine arts degree in order to hone their writing skills with the dual ideas of becoming a published author and potentially teaching creative writing. I have thought about this as a possible path.
One of the problems that I see with masters in fine arts programs that are taught by a body of writing faculty is that this sets in place an idea of what constitutes literary, i.e. quality, fiction. The writer is not left to experiment and discover a poetics of their own. In order to “pass” the courses they must meet the criteria of the instructors and this potentially raises the issue of stultifying creative experimentation. Also, as the instruction is generation after generation removed from an original brilliant instructor it could potentially become more derivative and look to criteria to be considered “literary” that has nothing to do with complex thought or creative written expression of the highest nature.
Further, the percentage of people whose work is published every year is relatively low amongst the group who actually complete their projects. The masters of fine arts may help to complete the project and offer a forum for critique and having the work revised which certainly will enhance the quality of the writing–however it is no guarantee of being published. In addition, teaching opportunities for masters of fine arts graduates is limited. While many better universities offer graduate assistantships and fellowships to support a student pursuing a masters in fine arts, the degree can be very expensive and there is no direct career path that will make repayment of tens of thousands of dollars in student loans easy.
I would like to advocate for either that all genre and “literary” fiction to be placed together without discrimination or that “literary” fiction be re-named. Because of the similarity of words between the word “literature” and “literary” a certain amount of implied quality is inadvertently bestowed on literary fiction to the detriment of genre fiction which can be of a higher caliber than literary fiction in some instances. Both genre fiction as well as literary fiction encompass a grand diversity in terms of the quality of writing, literary fiction should not be given advancement by category and it should not automatically get consideration into the canon of literature by virtue of a cosmetic style. The bestowing of the honor of being called literature should only happen where the writing has reached a truly memorable level and/or been groundbreaking.
Another post I will discuss science fiction that I believe should be considered for further academic consideration and scrutinized by literary critics.