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  1. #1
    Elder Member jesse_custer's Avatar
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    Default Cormac McCarthy's definition of literature.

    From a New York Times article on Cormac McCarthy:

    His list of those whom he calls the "good writers" -- Melville, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner -- precludes anyone who doesn't "deal with issues of life and death." Proust and Henry James don't make the cut. "I don't understand them," he says. "To me, that's not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange."
    The implication from this quote is that McCarthy defines literature as writing that deals with issues of life and death.

    First thing's first: McCarthy's writing suggests that he lives up to what he believes. Blood Meridian is a commentary on how people live off the deaths of others. The Road attempts to give us a reason to continue living even when death is all around us. No Country For Old Men follows a Sheriff whose life is a failure in a violent postmodern world.

    When I first read McCarthy's idea, I started thinking about all the literature I love. Edgar Allan Poe. Ernest Hemingway. Hunter S. Thompson. Irwin Shaw. Every writer I love seems to fall under McCarthy's definition of literature.

    I have two questions for everyone.

    1. What do you think about McCarthy's statements?

    2. Can you think of any "literature" you enjoy that McCarthy would not consider literature?
    Last edited by jesse_custer; 02-23-2009 at 12:50 PM.

  2. #2
    Idaho Spuds Slam_Bradley's Avatar
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    1. He sounds like a pretentious git.

    2. The vast majority of what I read wouldn't meet his criteria. I suspect I'll still sleep at night.

  3. #3
    OMG!!! INTERNET! Agent Helix's Avatar
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    I find whenever you ask a writer to define literature, he'll give a definition of literature that no one else would use.

    So whatever.
    Broke down laughing and screaming for more/If this changed your life, did you have one before?
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  4. #4
    Were You There? Michael P's Avatar
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    Well, his definition is pretty damn vague, and I have a hard time seeing where writers like Proust and James don't fit into it.

    Also, I think it's pretty specious to base the definition on subject matter rather then on the quality of the writing.
    "If you can't say anything good about someone, sit right here by me." - Alice Roosevelt Longworth, on manners

    "It's not whether you win or lose, it's whether I win or lose." - Peter David, on life

  5. #5
    OMG!!! INTERNET! Agent Helix's Avatar
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    And yeah, that is pretty pretentious, not to mention presumptuous. I like McCarthy, but he's not the be all and end all of prose.
    Broke down laughing and screaming for more/If this changed your life, did you have one before?
    sketches - Updated 2/26/2012

  6. #6
    Elder Member jesse_custer's Avatar
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    Well, this isn't about McCarthy being the Ultimate Authority anyway.

    My feelings are somewhat in line with Michael P. I'm not sure how most writing wouldn't fall into McCarthy's definition.

    But Michael's post brings me to another question: Is literature defined by quality?

  7. #7
    Elder Member jesse_custer's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Slam_Bradley View Post
    2. The vast majority of what I read wouldn't meet his criteria. I suspect I'll still sleep at night.
    But would you consider the vast majority "literature" or just fun reading?

  8. #8
    Swing your razor wide. Grazzt's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Michael P View Post
    Well, his definition is pretty damn vague, and I have a hard time seeing where writers like Proust and James don't fit into it.
    Yeah, I mean didn't James write "The Turn of the Screw", a story dealing with ghosts and a governess' attempts to protect her charges? How does that not count as dealing with life and death?

  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by Agent Helix View Post
    And yeah, that is pretty pretentious, not to mention presumptuous. I like McCarthy, but he's not the be all and end all of prose.
    I don't think he's being pretentious as long as he's saying that James and Proust are simply "strange" to him and that they're not writing about what he considers important.

    It depends what you look at too, since DAISY MILLER does certainly involve life and death.

  10. #10
    Idaho Spuds Slam_Bradley's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jesse_custer View Post
    But would you consider the vast majority "literature" or just fun reading?

    That kind of brings us back to what is literature? Is it simply the art of expression through written word? Is there some connotation of quality? Both are dictionary definitions of the same word.

    Overall, yeah, they're probably just fun reading. But how many critics have to dance on the head of a pin before Dashiell Hammett becomes "Literature?"

  11. #11
    Cruel and Unusual Sound Silence's Avatar
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    "Issues of life and death" is kinda broad.

    I mean, I'd be hard pressed to find a book without someone living or dying.

    Maybe "Toy Story" if you took out the real people.

  12. #12
    Elder Member jesse_custer's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Slam_Bradley View Post
    That kind of brings us back to what is literature? Is it simply the art of expression through written word? Is there some connotation of quality? Both are dictionary definitions of the same word.

    Overall, yeah, they're probably just fun reading. But how many critics have to dance on the head of a pin before Dashiell Hammett becomes "Literature?"
    I am aware of the two definitions, but your last sentence seems to say that it's neither, which I can agree with. Literature often means what a bunch of scholars have jacked off to.

  13. #13
    Cruel and Unusual Sound Silence's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jesse_custer View Post
    I am aware of the two definitions, but your last sentence seems to say that it's neither, which I can agree with. Literature often means what a bunch of scholars have jacked off to.
    I hate making accusations of pretention, but you pretty much summed it up.

    I still can't discern my professors' distinctions of "literary" fiction and "genre" fiction (like, wtf, everything has a genre, guys).

    I mean, there's an obvious difference in quality between say, the kind of books they teach in your English classes, and some cheap romance novel, but what irks me is when you have a work of fiction that has just the same qualities, the same depth of character and theme, or even more so, but it's not considered "literature" because it's got "spacemen and giant robots", or because it focuses primarily on being a source of comedy or entertainment.

    I don't want to say that the term literature is pretentious and boring, because a lot of stuff the scholar jack off to is really good.
    But I'm just saying that the common folk's entertainment fluff novel is no less capable of being literature in the hands of a good writer.

  14. #14
    Essayist and Gadfly Bradley's Avatar
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    Well, I do think there's a distinction to be made between literature and other forms of writing (like genre fiction), but I still don't care for McCarthy's definition. It seems to me that any type of writing is going to be about life-- assuming there's a narrative inhabited by characters or people. It won't all be literature, though. On the other hand, literary writers may choose to not write about death-- nobody dies in "Hills Like White Elephants" or "The Lady With the Dog" or The Tempest, but these works are still "literature," I think.

    Of course, it's possible I'm being too literal in this understanding of what McCarthy means by "matters of life and death." Maybe he's just suggesting that literature needs to have something to say to and about people who actually live and die in the real world, and the literature that he doesn't like is stuff that's too mannered or experimental or that has a style that calls attention to itself at the expense of such insight. I could kinda get behind that definition of literature, I think. But then, what's "too mannered" or "too experimental" is entirely subjective.

  15. #15
    Elder Member jesse_custer's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bradley View Post
    Maybe he's just suggesting that literature needs to have something to say to and about people who actually live and die in the real world, and the literature that he doesn't like is stuff that's too mannered or experimental or that has a style that calls attention to itself at the expense of such insight.
    Yes, he could have meant that. The idea that literature should connect humankind through that which we all experience: life and/or death.

    And couldn't a mystery fall under that? Couldn't a western? Sure, those types of stories are characterized by specific themes and archetypes, but they also deal with life and death.

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