I just started my literary theory class this week, and it’s not going well. I was savaged by both my professor and another student for my definition of just what, in my opinion, literature is. I am kind of a no-bullshit kind of person. My definition was, “Fiction that is written to entertain, and by entertain I mean divert from reality.” More or less. I said other things, but my professor seized on this the way mean Miss Minchin in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess misunderstood Sarah Crewe when she said she did not need French lessons. She meant that she already knew how to speak it, but the villainous headmistress thought she was seeing a child’s resistance to a distasteful, potentially boring class. My professor made a similar assumption, that I was saying literature is meant to be fun.
I have no resistance to reading classic works of literature, and I understand that writers of different eras have written with social, moral, and personal agendas to be heard for a variety of reasons. However, this is all entertainment. Why is entertainment both a dirty word and a vital necessity in our culture? Entertainment, as I posted in my class’s online forum, simply means that fiction is rubbing your feet, tickling your scalp, giving you so much pleasure you don’t feel the need to ask your spouse how their day at work was, or call your grandmother on the phone, or go to yoga class that evening. Or it can mean that you are so hard at work that you feel no compulsion to change streams until the task of understanding the author’s words is complete. Whether you are trying to demystify Hardy’s themes in Tess of the Durbervilles or biting your nails along to a tense scene in a Stephen King horror novel, whether you are cheering Bella on to choose Jacob or Edward (your choice!), or reading Dostoyevsky, what does it all have in common? Well, in my opinion it is all the same because it’s not real. We can argue about different literary movements, the influence that the author hoped to have on society at that time, but at the end of the day it’s just not real. And things that are not real distract us from what is.
That’s okay! It’s healthy. We need to escape from who we are sometimes. Sometimes the very ideas we do not hold in real life can be the most fascinating to explore. Or, conversely, they can help us cope with reality in a safe space. My brother, a high school senior ,had to watch “Apocalypse Now” for an English assignment. I was excited to watch it with him and my sister, it was one of my favorite movies in high school. I hadn’t seen it in about ten years or so. As I watched it, I got reacquainted with my teenage self, who was struggling with big questions of faith, identity, and ethics in the post 9/11 Bush era of public lies and constant paranoia. What was true, what was the very limit of evil,and how can good ever sustain itself as a dynamic force in the world? I couldn’t find those answers in my rural Baptist church, from my workaholic mom or abusive stepdad, and not in the body count and terror threat alerts on the nightly news. But I found them in the music and films, books and art I engaged with. It might seem that I proved myself wrong here. Wasn’t I tuning into life rather than tuning out? Well, I would say no, because I was turning from a world of lies and chaos to one that was orderly, and said what I wished to hear. That was not life in the early aughts.
Anyway, I broke down, cried, and ran out of the room at the scene in which Laurence Fishburne is shot down as his mother’s recorded message is playing. I saw the bane of my youth, the war that wheeled over our heads like a carrion eater, the stories of boys who’d graduated a couple of years earlier lying in hospitals in Germany with mangled legs, the uncertainty for a while over whether conscription would be an active practice again and the war would last so long my little brother was drafted, being out of work myself after graduation and considering joining the military even though Iraq and Afghanistan were the likely destinations. I sobbed not for Fishburne’s character-who was a cocky shit-but for wasted youth and the shadow of war. Real life had not given me the opportunity to unburden myself-fiction stepped up where reality had not.
How many fictional frights, griefs, orgasms, and friendships do we experience in our lives? And aren’t we happier people for it? I once dated a guy who had grown up in a home so conservative the only television show the family watched was “Star Trek”, occasionally, and he also didn’t read or listen to popular music. For lack of conversational topics, he once described to me the various laws regarding taxes on gasoline in the state of Wisconsin. This is conversation absolutely devoid of the shared anachronisms of fiction ,without the release of fiction.
I suspect I have landed in a class with people who have a hard time admitting that. Oh, yes, they would say, I enjoyed “Star Wars”, but only the first one because, Han Solo and that Wookie aside, Luke Skywalker’s arc is a perfect example of Campbellian tropes. Oh, I don’t read anything, they would poo-poo, with a love story, vampires, aliens, superheroes, cops, lawyers, kids, pets, or anything that might cause me to smile visibly or laugh out loud on the metro, recommend it to a friend, or reread it. Reading must be an intellectual challenge and chore to them. To be entertained would be common, soft, unprofessional, and immature, so they pick books that will give them no pleasure so as to seem some kind of martyr for the cause of literature.
Literature is fiction. Fiction is not real life. If these people never escape their real lives and do not trust the allure of fiction even when they read, I do wonder if even their dreams bring them any respite.