Keith Snyder
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What is literature?

My latest contribution to an exchange with Jane Haddam on rec.arts.mystery. Jump in here, or join on-newsgroup under the subject heading "glossary poll."

When you're done with that, here's dessert:

_ _ _ _ _

in article, JaneHadd at wrote on 8/20/03 5:42 AM:

> A vision isn't enough if you don't
> have profound insight into the human
> condition.

My view--which is autodidactic and therefore canonless and framework-deficient, and that's not archery--is that there are no materials that can't be used to make art. Leftover 55-gallon drums? Calypso music. Non-dairy creamer, tapioca, and shrinkwrap? Boba tea. Broken, scratched CDs? Glitch music.

I'm at something of a disadvantage, but also something of an advantage, in the "what is literature" department because I honestly do not care what literature is. I only care whether materials are used as well as they can be used, and I consider "understanding of human nature" to be only one of millions of materials. This is also my objection to writers and writing instructors referring to "the craft of writing" as though only one such craft exists. Just because it uses words, and they end up printed on paper or glowing on a screen, that doesn't mean we're all practicing the same art.

I recently read Cypress Grove by Jim Sallis, and he's got a line in there about the next generation's music being the first thing you stop understanding as you age. This got me thinking a lot, and what I concluded was that it's simply because you stop listening. A non-Generation-Y listener's first encounter with an excellent piece of glitch music, to use an example I already used, is likely to result in "I don't get it." But if you listen to a lot of glitch music, you start to hear which is good and which is mediocre, just because you become acclimated to the materials and naturally begin to hear which artists use them most sensitively and imaginatively. (My favorite right now is Mouse On Mars' Agit Itter It It.)

> My problem with Chandler is that his
> understanding of human nature is entirely
> stereotyped--it consists of posturing
> set pieces.

Yeah! His material is "posturing set pieces." Who uses that material better?

> Having a big emotional moment because
> you're face to face with a serial
> killer who's just done in your entire
> family is drama. Having a big emotional
> moment because you can't stop watching
> the drip from your faucet because
> you've just realized it's a metaphor
> for your whole life which so far has
> consisted of growing up, getting a good
> education, getting married and having a
> nice house in melodrama.

Not necessarily!

Melodrama is simply the sacrifice of true emotion in favor of false ones that serve the machinations of plot. If the moment of watching the faucet drip reads as true, that's drama. If the moment of coming face-to-face with a serial killer reads as false, that's melodrama.

> I think it's very hard to say
> anything worthwhile, never mind create
> literature, if you think 9/10 of your
> fellow human beings are either mindless
> assholes or (if you've got a generous
> spirit) secretly alienated and unhappy
> in their lives too, no matter how much
> they might seem otherwise.

If I had tenure, I might indulge in the luxury of alienation too.


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