Two days ago a letter appeared in The Straits Times headlined: “English literature: Keep its beauty pure”. “Literature and fiction are not synonyms,” said the writer quite rightly but then went on to add: “My dictionary defines literature as ‘writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest’.” That may be a dictionary definition of literature, but it raises all kinds of questions. What is of permanent or universal interest? Literary fashions come and go. Yesterday’s literary lion is today’s dead bore.
“What about Shakespeare?” I can already hear some people asking. But Shakespeare as interpreted and performed today is hardly the Shakespeare of Garrick or Charles Lamb. And, frankly, how popular, how widely read, is Shakespeare today?
And let’s not even talk of the changing fortunes of poets and writers like John Donne and Anthony Trollope. Some may think it heresy to mention them in the same breath, but Donne’s reputation has risen and fallen just like Trollope’s. In fact, the whole business of literary criticism is not all that different from stock market trading in the sense that writers’ stocks rise and fall. Critics evaluate writers just like market analysts rate a company’s shares as “junk”, “bluechip” or “lacklustre”. And some critics can be awfully choosy. There was this joke about FR Leavis, the famous critic. His collection of books could hardly fill a shelf, it was said, because he liked so few writers.
“Excellent writing is as essential to the study of literature as accurate calculation is to the study of mathematics,” said the letter writer. But that again begs the question, what is excellent writing? To talk of literature and mathematics in the same breath is like lumping together apples and oranges; they could not be more different. There can be right and wrong answers in mathematics. Tastes and opinions change in literature. Even the language we use is different from our forefathers’.
The letter writer poured scorn on some of the current favourites: “Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling are popular writers. In comparison to the least writer in the English canon, however, their themes are shallow and their wordplay amateurish.” I don’t know what a “least writer” is.
But the letter writer had no doubt at all about what is literature and what isn’t. “Mass-market bestsellers belong in holiday reading or library outreaches. Inferior works that are only ‘culturally relevant’ belong in social studies class.”
Excuse me, then where should have been Shakespeare read in his day? In a social studies class? After all, he was a box office hit who wrote his plays to entertain the “groundlings” too.
I don’t think they taught social studies in school back then. But if they did, Shakespeare would have fitted right in — as well as in the literature class. There lies his greatness. And possibly of every other great writer, I think. They may have left behind “excellent writing”; but writing is not just a matter of craftsmanship; it is a commentary as well on people and society.