“To write is to make an appeal to the reader that he lead into objective existence the revelation which the author has undertaken by means of language.”
The Writer of Literature
Why is important to read literature? What draws you to a particular piece of literature? Is it the Author? The Title, Genre? How important is Medieval Literature or French Literature? Science Fiction? What is literature?
Some define literature as the quest of truth which takes place in language or writing of instrumental prose; those who make use of words in a language that is a particular moment of action in the real world. “The purpose of writing this language is to disclose the world with the intention of changing it—to speak is indeed to act” (What is Literature, Sartre, 11).
Others view literature as a poetic attitude more focused on the “materiality of language”. Poetry is a means of generating self-awareness and liberation within an alienating culture (What, 13). A poet dwells upon words as does a painter with colors or a musician with sounds. Their work causes one to flow into the word, become absorbed by its sonority or visual aspect as one would to a concert piece or a canvas.
For both writers of literature, prose and poetry, can be defined as one who makes use of words. The words of a writer are like traps to stir up feelings and reflections. Sartre said it best:
“The writer is a speaker; he designates, demonstrates, orders, refuses, interpolates, begs, insults, persuades, insinuates. If he does so without any effect, he does not therefore become a poet; he is a writer who is talking and saying nothing”(35).
The Origins of Literature
Where did literature begin? Most Literature has its origins in oral forms; for example, the literature from the Medieval era was written to be heard and not read. These stories were created to be performed instead of the silent and solitary reading of it.
The word “literature” which derives from Latin litterae, “letters”, implies an existence in writing. Western “letters”, or Literature, became manifested when English had taken its place alongside the culturally more prestigious Latin (the language of the church) and French ( the language of the court, of law and of administration). After the advent of printing in the later fifteenth century, books became even more widely available, and language became more standardized; linguists refer to this language as “Modern English”.
Why write literature? According to Sartre, some writers of literature ask themselves these questions: ”What aspect of the world do I want to disclose? What change do I want to bring into the world with this disclosure” (37)? When words organize themselves freely, they will make sentences which point men into action.
The Reader of Literature
Of course, the author does not exist alone. Sartre reminds us that the operation of writing implies that reading will take place—
“it is the joint effort of author and reader which brings upon the scene that concrete and imaginary object which is the work of the mind. There is no art except for and by others”(53).
This is where I come in, as a Reader. I have often thought about changing my blog domain to “Come Learn With Me”. I write about the things that I read; I synthesize, analyze, cauterize (edit is a nicer way to put it) as a Profession and as a hobby. It is my raison d’être. The literary object has no other substance than my subjectivity.
As each reader has their own point of view, life experience, lexicon, interpretation, however, then this connection of the writer and reader will be different each time. What is Literature? Is it then the interpretation and impression of the one reading it?
“Reading is directed creation” (53).
The reader creates while he reads. The more he reads, the further he creates. A story does not end on the last page—it begins! A work of art does not have an end. You are perfectly free to leave a book on the table, unread. However, if you open it, then you must take responsibility for it. It is now yours for the reading, interpreting, synthesizing.
However far the reader may go, the author has gone further. Whatever connections he may establish among different parts of the book, the chapters and the words, they have been expressly willed by the author (60). But can even the most experienced reader fathom the author’s intentions?
“Reading is a pact of generosity between author and reader. Each one trusts the other; each one counts on the other, demands of the other as much as he demands of himself” (61).
Why Read Literature?
As a Professor of World Literature, I teach a survey course from the times of Homer to the present that have been influential in shaping and expressing values of Western culture. We analyze and interpret selected texts following traditional genre forms and identify the worldview of the author and culture and compare it with a biblical worldview.
One goal of this course is to give students an exercise in observing and relating talent and style from different authors. For example, observe the dichotomy of Ernest Hemingway in writing short, concise strokes to Proust who stretched one sentence into a full page [ see my blog post]
Or Victor Hugo, who wrote both poetry and prose. In the 1500-page tome Les Miserables, Hugo combines the history of the French Revolution with a poignant love story. He followed this masterpiece with a book of short poems of daily walks in Jardin des Plantes of Paris with his Grandchildren in “The Art of Being a Grandfather” [see my blog post]
Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huck Finn after sailing around the world and documenting his travels in Innocence Abroad [see my blog post]
Can my students still “connect” with these authors, some from 1,000 years ago? Is there still a “pact of generosity” between the reader and the writer? Can reading Homer’s Iliad or Shakespeare’s Macbeth still point these students “into action” with a universal theme that people change over time and through trials and circumstances? One of my students had this to say about Homer’s epics:
“Good literature preserves what is true and universal to humanity and conveys it beautifully, and therefore what is timeless and universal in The Iliad and The Odyssey will also speak saliently to our human experience, even in the twenty-first century if we allow ourselves to mull over and try to understand it richly.”
Copyright 2021 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com).