Friday, May 28, 2010

Literary or Expository

I have been neglecting my creative writing again, what I call my ‘literary’ contribution. My friends know this, know I would like to be writing again. So when they read this blog, they say Congratulations ! You’re writing again!

A touched-up version of a portrait of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra Photo: Getty Images, Bettmann/Corbis

I try to explain that ‘literary’ writing is different.
They say But I like your blog!

I try to explain that what I’m doing here is journalism, not literature, and my ‘downfall’ embarrasses me. Instantly I am a snob.

I’m not saying that every nonfiction blog, essay, book is automatically unliterary. ‘Literary’ has creative style and meaningful content. Nonfiction can be just as literary (I am a snob but not THAT much); for example the poet Diane Ackerman’s fascinating A Natural History of the Senses.

I have in mind a hierarchy of writing. My Monarchy includes the ‘classics’ like Proust, Dickens- authors recognizable simply by last name; I add to that moderns I discover at the wonderful Battery Park Library such as Daniel Mason (The Piano Turner). Reading 'classics' exclusively feels a bit provincial, timid, uninspired, like only listening to NPR- It’s so much more fun to discover a new or unknown ‘classic’ and feel really smart for finding it.

I belonged to an exclusive writer’s group (which has folded), and many people were bringing in ‘pop’ type writing, and even worse, expository writing. Do you hate me for saying that? At the time I felt that if they’re hanging out with literary people, they shouldn’t bring us their journalism, no matter how well-written! That if I had my own group, I would ban it. Is that offensive? Do I really think journalism is ‘lower’ than literature, or just different? Hmm.

I complain about the mediocrity of neighborhood libraries. The one nearest to my house, as I’ve said, is largely mysteries, thrillers, romances. All the ‘classics’ are on one bookshelf, hidden away in one corner of the YA section, Young Adult. Most of the other books in YA are ‘pop.’

Here are my ‘classics,’ all rounded up on one small bookshelf in a corner-- labeled ‘Class Assignments’! Here are multiple copies of Jane Austin, a smattering of Hemingway, the occasional Dickens and one cheaply-bound Dostoevsky. It’s topsy-turvy when the most legitimized books in the whole library are labeled as forced reading for kids, rather than what adults read for pleasure and enlightenment. In the neighborhood library, 'literature' has an orphan’s place.

Below my Monarchy is my Aristocracy, basically where I lump everybody else I think is fantastic. They have some fatal flaw and thus narrowly sidestep perfection. Ian McEwan (for Atonement only), William Kennedy, Somerset Maugham (hey my spellcheck knows him, maybe he’s Monarchy), Patrick Suskind (Perfume: the Story of a Murderer-- which I found on Barnes & Nobles’ ‘Summer Reading’ display!).

My ranks go right down to Peasant (and even below, but not relevantly). Peasants are just like they sound: solid, serviceable, hard-working well-written journalism style. Some naively call themselves 'literary'- they were the ones taking up our time in writer's groups. It was a pet peeve of mine.

So when people tell me how nice it is that I’m ‘writing’ again, I say that actually I’m a bit embarrassed to be doing journalism when I used to be a ‘real’ writer.
Disclaimer, remember I said, nonfiction can be ‘literary’-- it’s just that, mine is of the sort that isn’t.

WELL . . .
I admire investigation. I admire intelligence. I admire writing to make the world better. So do I really think expository is 'lower’ than 'literary'? I suggested they may just be different, or perhaps, they don't deserve to be judged on the same criteria, by the same standards? Besides, the word 'literary' is starting to get on my nerves. No wonder I put it in quotes. Hmm. I'm curious what people think. . .

There is another side to the coin, there are people who are far too ‘literary.’ I first heard the term ‘lady poet’ as long ago as 30 years. Spoken in a voice merry with ridicule. I was so young that I imagined myself a sort of ‘lady poet,’ when this person’s tone of voice made me so ashamed that he cured me of it forever.


Jim Fossett said...

Not clear what you mean by "journalism" in this context--usual meaning is "first draft of history" and can be judged by its analytical sophistication, clarity of exposition, and other criteria more appropriate to social science than literature. Explain.

Eve Scherr said...

Beautiful definition! I am humbled! This was exactly the problem I struggle with in this essay, as to whether I am being snobbish and insulting, or have the right to be.

I'm speaking of a plain, solid style, as opposed to literature which shares with poetry a focus on the language as much as on the meaning. The style has its own point independent of the meaning.

Whereas in journalism the point is not the language but the transparency of the language, allowing the information to come through.

I am speaking out of personal sadness, as one who used to write in a highly intricate literary style and now writes only these plain, solid essays.

Jim Fossett said...

I don't know as I'd be sad-in my world, at least, "plain, solid essays" are things to be proud of--I'd even argue that plain,solid language makes good poetry and would point to Wendell Berry, Frost,Richard Wilbur, the King James Bible and even big chunks of Shakespeare as evidence

Eve Scherr said...

A journalist is good at inspiring and describing, but I am speaking also of originality of style. For me, Shakespeare is a perfect example of writing that invents every phrase with freshness and uniqueness, I suppose my definition of 'literary' style. A journalist uses 'plain and solid' language like everybody else, and occasionally does not even mind a cliche.

Shakespeare is practically the definition of "cliche": when a very inventive writer uses a phrase in such a gorgeous and startling new way that everyone copies him, until over the years- in Shakespeare's case over the centuries- his phrase becomes cliche (the Bible also).

Jim Fossett said...

I'm curious--who, since Shakespeare, would you hold up as someone who does "literary" well? For me, Shakespeare's appeal is that he almost always get the right word, not its second cousin--and remember he had to sell tickets like everybody else and played to the groundlings