Tuesday, June 05, 2007

What Is Literature Anyway?

Over the last five years, I've belonged to dozens of writers' loops online. I discovered early on that, when you spend the day alone in front of a computer, it's nice to take your breaks with other writers who understand what you mean when you talk about wanting to change your POV or that you're worried your hook isn't strong enough.

Invariably, someone on one of these loops raises the question of what exactly is the definition of literary fiction. Usually a good-natured argument ensues and then ends when the Potter Stewart definition is dragged out.

For those of you not familiar with his name, Potter Stewart was an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court for twenty-three years. Wikipedia has this to say about Justice Stewart: "To the lay public, Stewart may be best known for a quotation . . . from his opinion in an obscenity case . . . Stewart wrote in his short concurrence that 'hard-core pornography' was hard to define, but that 'I know it when I see it'."

Many writers approach the definition of literary fiction in the same way that Stewart viewed porn: it's hard to define, but we recognize it when we see it.

Yesterday, The New York Times had a charming article titled "The Novelist and the Curious Cabbie." Novelist Roxana Robinson did as good a job of defining literary fiction or literature as I've ever seen.

Go here to read it. Be aware that the Times only gives you a week to read its articles before you have to pay for them. I've printed the article because I think it's a keeper.

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