I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a long while but never gotten around to it. So now when I am on the verge of passing out due to exhaustion, my brain decides it has to write this piece or die. So while, as always, I shall try to make some sense, if I don’t, please blame my brain. Now on to my thoughts.
Literature: What is it?
The widely accepted definition is (thanks Wiki) that Literature is “the art of the written word, not confined to published sources.” I am going to take it one step further and say that literature is narration which can (and, indeed, does so frequently) include pieces which may have begun and completed several cycles as strictly performed oral traditions.
The beauty of literature is that every culture, no matter race, ethnicity or location, has their own literature, in vernacular or the official language.
Debates are still raging whether literature can be seen as an accurate reflection (and representation) of culture.
In the context of this blog, let me reword this.
Say a person 500 years from now found a book, (God forbid), Twilight and after reading it, decided that it was an accurate representation of males and females and, hell, society of the past.
What would you say to that?
Apart from “OH HELL NO!,” I mean.
Therein lies the dilemma. While I don’t think literature can wholly be seen to reflect society, I think what it does do is reflect the tastes of the society and the culture in which it was written.
To put it in a contemporary context, looking at the dystopian novels flooding the market right now, it would not be inaccurate to assume that North American society at the moment loves dystopian novels – to go deeper into this and explore why dystopian novels are so popular, one must understand the economics and the instability contemporary people are struggling with at the moment. To take it even further, dystopian novels offer contemporary people not just escape from difficult lives but a peek at solutions should the worst come to pass.
Stuff like that.
Today in one of my classes we were talking about the nature of the novel and the role of the author in a novel. The book we were discussing is “Paul’s Case” by Lynn Crosbie which talks about the serial murderers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka.
What I found profound about the discussion was the gradual realization I had that writing a book really is not so simple as picking up a pen and some paper or opening up a new page on Word. Writing, personaly, is the continual recreation of selves.
When writing a book, you cannot simply use YOUR voice to write a character and present it as Character A. You have to create Character A, give her Voice A that is distinct from your own voice in not just the way she expresses herself but also in the opinions that she expressions. And then you have to create Characters B, C, D, E, F and so on and give them their own voices etc. This is complicated stuff, you guys.
And then, as was the case in Crosbie’s novel, comes the case of appropriation of a voice that does not belong to you.
Now things are going to get the slightest bit technical because I have to drag in some post-colonial theory.
Okay, for example, you have Draco Malfoy and Dobby. What if one day Draco decided to write a book as Dobby? Write down Dobby’s experiences as though he knew exactly what Dobby went through?
You would scoff at the idea that Draco could, in any way, understand and correctly express the trials and tribulations of Dobby’s life, yeah? What is more likely is that he will project what HE thinks Dobby went through and thought onto Dobby who doesn’t have a voice.
So that’s the theory behind “the appropriation of voice.” When people write from the perspective of other people who are unfamiliar to them or who do not have a venue of their own in which to speak.
In Crosbie’s case, she appropriated the voice of a rape/murder victim. She projected her own thoughts about what the victim might have gone through, thought and felt and wrote it as though the words belonged to the victim.
And she pissed off many, many people by doing so.
I am always very wary when I see North American white authors (yes, I might as well go out and say it) writing from the perspective of people outside their culture. Can an American, Caucasian author really represent an African American or an Indian or Mexican or whatever? Should they even try?
Personally, I am rather skeptical when I see authors trying to do so. It is not that previous authors haven’t successfully done so but that took ages and ages of research and a carefully constructed understanding of not just the foreign culture but also the motivations that may be very different from the author’s originating society and culture. One author spent 20 years living among a tribe of First Nations people before she wrote a slim volume called “I Heard the Owl Call My Name” and her experience, her understanding of the people she wrote about is very apparent in the novel. However, if you are going to write about a different culture and your research is limited to “travelogues,” well then.
I often feel that Children’s Literature, being a new genre, is often passed over in talks of “serious literature.” I feel that most scholars do not give much credence to the kind of stories that populate the crowded bookshelves in the YA genre. I think that’s a mistake. I think that to find the true meaning of literature, one should not look at obscure literary texts that are read once in a blue moon but at popular novels that give dreams, hope and entertainment to vast numbers of people. I think understanding culture, society and people is a natural result of studying the literature popular with the culture, society and people.
And next September when I start my Master’s degree (iA), I intend to do just that.