Literature’s Purpose?

The weekend is as good a time as any to think about literature — what it is, what it means, whether what we write counts. As such, I bring you some thoughts from jota:

Is the message that literature implores important as it attempts to convey some type of meaning of why we are here? Is that the purpose? Is it the ability to kindle thought, to remind us that there are nobler pursuits? Is it the autobiography of the human condition? Maybe.

Or else, instead, it’s just a flight of fancy, taking us to places we’ve never been before and will never go, except inside our reading heads. Or is it nothing more than plain ego stroking of the self-absorbed (read: tortured writer) artist?

Is it art?
Is it fashion?
Or, just plain embarrassing entertainment?

Does writing equal literature?

How? Why, or why not?

Why do you write?

8 Responses

  1. as far back as we can
    as far back as we can remember

    It’s a hell of a thing, Jota Jay. I’m in that continuum there people eating apples, nothing unusual about that and we think nothing of it – right? No odd thing, eating an apple, reading the paper, or a magazine, or maybe he pulls little folded paper from his wallet. List, maybe? Little reminder of things to do? Or maybe the Lord’s prayer or the 12 steps, or the teams I bet on – the odds.

    “What are the odds?” she says, they say, looking – who won the lottery; how many people were born today? For example. Look back at the newspaper. Cup of coffee or a coke or bottled water, sitting in a diner, sitting in a break-room, in a waiting room somewhere, whatever – say, a laundry mat.

    She put her clothes in the dryer and sat back down at the rickety table with the linoleum surface – table rocks a little from uneven legs – she has a bottle of water and a cigarette and there are magazines, of course, different kinds of magazines – People, Reader’s Digest, Field & Stream, and also a slant-folded backwards newspaper opened and inside out, flattened and ready want ads cars for sale somebody’s lien on some brick structure – and

    The birthdays of the celebrities, so “What are the odds?” that so-and-so was born on the same day.
    Next table over, guy eats apple and watches TV while his jeans and T shirts spin in suds plash suds plash round chug smell of laundry soap and he tosses the apple core into the trash can – you don’t even think much of it – he reads the sign “Not Responsible For Lost Items” because he naturally is, too, drawn to written word; he sees the words on the girl’s hooded jacket, “2002 River Run” it says.

    “What are the odds?” he says and tells her his cousin ran in the River Run in 2002.

    My point being about the apple…but here, this is better…did you ever notice how we accept the most screwy facial expressions if the person otherwise seems ok? I mean, say the guy is telling the girl about his River Running cousin and the man lights a cigarette and his face goes all squinched and pained, rough smoke in the face, but she accepts this as normal because looking up years gone by grown-ups and her brother all the same squinching.

    Because we’re in it, you know? In this like fish in a tank; the fish don’t ponder, “The little deep-sea diver is made of plastic but does it represent a larger, living being?” They don’t contemplate it that way, at least I don’t think or else I’ve got it all wrong and it still…it still…does it still matter. It’s what I was trying to say about literature, anyway; it just is, is who wrote it and who reads it is who we are, who they were, predestined or not, I don’t know but here now, so who knows?

  2. Passing It OnI’ve given up on
    Passing It On

    I’ve given up on how to define what is and what is not literature. And whether literature is only a select few writers. Is that 10 year old’s diary literature? Eh, I don’t know.

    But why do we write? Everybody has a different reason. I think the main one is in fact that if you don’t do that artistic pursuit you go for, if it is on page or canvas, or stage, you will simply explode. I think people just have to do it. This is evidenced by the fact that most people in the arts do not get paid to do it, and don’t even do it full time or even as a part time job. I think most writing stays in dark corners of people’s rooms, and never makes it to a publishing press.

    It is an expression. I think a marginal amount of people don’t like to write but are good at it, so they do it. It is to entertain; if you are writing about aliens who eat humans and blueberries or whatever it is you think is delgihtful for others to read. It is to inform, teach, and pass down stories to our future people.
    And yeah, about 1% of it is ego, no artist would like to admit it. I think half the people cowering in cafes jotting down sprigs of inspiration are fueled by a bit of ego, even if their stuff comes from and stays near their own head.

    I think writers partly live inside their own heads, but share their art with the world so others can experience through their own eyes stuff they wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Your inner thoughts becoming part of the world’s. It’s odd. Everyone has a story. Some are crazy enough to write about it.

  3. It was a great feeling of
    It was a great feeling of freedom when I realized that I don’t have to explain why I write. Maybe, like you say, I “just have to do it.” I know I really enjoy doing it, so why shouldn’t I?
    By the way, I enjoyed your Tama Janowitz article.

  4. It is a series of strange
    It is a series of strange questions to ask. Why do “we” write? What is literature? How can you attempt to answer these questions without being too mysterious (while sounding ridiculous of course) or too cliche or just plain annoying?

    Creating life through words is an experience that cannot be put into a few words or into a few explanations. Literature’s purpose serves us well. We read, we dream, we become inspired and we lose our minds in the process. The reasons are plentiful. Whether you fantasize of being published or just do it to release tension writing feeds each of us a different source of nutrition. Whatever the reason we still find one or two to keep on writing.

    What if you couldn’t generate a concrete reason as to why to feverishly move your pen across 8 1/2 x 11 paper? Would you stop writing? What difference does it make why we write? For Pete’s Sake just keep writing!

  5. Why I Write Is Because I Am
    Why I Write Is Because I Am Alive

    I most want to write one decent novel yet.

    I write to download the mental register and deliver my point of view.

    I used to try to bear witness to the injustices I saw.

    Nowadays I hope to have that mystical experience of a novel delivered but until then I keep on writing and revising and doing new stuff because this is part of my being.

    I’m happy to say that my third novel really works as a novel. Now I got to do a good one.

  6. wordsI enjoy writing because

    I enjoy writing because I like to see, perhaps, how my erratic or random thoughts gel in an understandable and readable way. I think that writing perhaps doesn’t equal literature, because this answer itself to mechanism of writing and so, therefore, it moves in a different zone that we are not necessarily interested in. But, perhaps, in certain way, both end up blending themselves. Because I enjoy writing, I sometimes also enjoy spying on the “secret” ways in which poetry, for example, comes to me.

  7. Literature that writes
    Literature that writes itself

    My high school english teacher taught me the hard and fast rules of writing an essay, which is simply this: present your thesis and then support it with observations or facts. No rambling, no room for unsupportable hypotheses. But when it comes to literature, specifically creative fiction and poetry, there are no strict rules.

    There are plenty of literary “classics” which ramble, such as the technical jargon of whale-hunting in “Moby Dick” (which does little to support the essential story line), and “Les Miserables”, which is so heavy with Hugo’s politically-charged tangents that most high schools prescribe the abridged version of the novel, without the tangents that would only resonate within a political atmosphere that no longer exists. And then there’s “On the Road”, the great transfiguration of “rambling” into “literature.” I believe that any endeavor at writing creatively is literature…but this does not mean that a John Grisham novel is on the same level as say, “The Great Gatsby”, or that any high school poem is comparable to “Leaves of Grass”. There is “good” literature, which is enduring and transcendent, and there is “mediocre” and “poor” literature as well…but using the terms “good” or “poor” makes it seem as though there were a kind of morality in art, and this is a wrong assumption.

    Literature is encompassed in aesthetics, not morality. The aim of aesthetics is beauty. And, considering the very different styles and subject matter of the “classics,” there is no formula for beauty. Beauty is a mystery. Aesthetics, in philosophy, probes the nature of beauty. I lean towards the idea that beauty is an unconscious force that manifests itself in many different ways. In a mysterious way, beauty, or visions of her, seem to “find” a writer or poet, who happens to be in the right place at the right time when this lightning strikes. A poet can refine his / her skills by seeking beauty, but ultimately it is the other way around.

    My friend once asked me, “How do you write a book?”
    “I write until the book finds me, and then the book writes itself,” I answered.

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