The Definition of Literature

The other day, a few coworkers and I found ourselves in a raucous debate about literature. We bantered back and forth – what does that term encompass? What does literature really mean? It started good-naturedly but, before long, the conversation got heated. One teacher in particular, an accomplished reader and educator of 10+ years, had a clear cut definition – true literature is classic, elevated; a long-lasting contribution to the world. Fitting with his definition, very few of the books that we teach or work with in elementary and middle school are true literature. Picture books are not literature. Graphic novels are not literature. There’s only room for Shakespeare and his friends up on that pedestal – the rest of us can wait at the bottom with our copies of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.

I should clarify – this coworker is not a bad guy. He’s smart, dedicated, and a delight to work with. He is driven and gifted in working with tweens and teens and has a vast knowledge of childrens’ and young adult books across the spectrum. He developed his definition of literature and his philosophy on education, just like the rest of us, through a summation of his experiences. His most rewarding and memorable experiences with literature occurred with classic, elevated, time-tested texts. So when he designs curriculum or dreams of his students reaching their full potential, that is where his brain goes. This literature is what matters – this literature is what kids need. My story, however, it quite different.

In my undergraduate days, I worked toward a dual degree. Studying to be a music teacher, I missed the reading that I did during school. I loved to read, loved books, loved to write, and saw it as part of my future – it made sense to me to study English, too. So I added an English degree to my plate, looking forward to the seminars, workshops, and reading marathons on my schedule. And you know what? I hated it.

My English professors shared the above definition of literature – elevated, classic, important. Their opinions were law – anyone else was Wrong, with a capital W. Some of them said it directly, some through pursed lips, some with their silence. But I knew. I didn’t belong. I read books differently than my classmates, noticed different details, came away with a different train of thought. As a chronic ‘out-of-the-box’ thinker, I was shamed in class for not picking up the same themes or fully understanding symbolism without the help of a group. I started to resent Beowulf  and Tess of D’Ubervilles. (Don’t even get me started on Chaucer.) I finished that program nearly ten years ago, but I can still recall the visceral humiliation I felt in those classrooms. Whether it was the style of teaching, the peer group, or the texts themselves, those years alienated me from “literature”.

After semesters working through the reading portion of my English degree, I entered the writing phase. And here was a light in the dark. My creative writing professors approached literature from a completely different direction: literature is the art of written work. It can be a poem, a zine, a novel, a comic. If it moves you, if it finds its way irreversibly into your person, it is literature. After reading a copy of Denis Johnson’s short story collection titled Jesus’ Son, I remember coming to my advisor in tears, explaining that a scene had upset me so much that it had given me nightmares. “That’s literature,” she said. “You found it.” They taught me that the only way you will find literature is to read, read, read. Read picture books. Read blogs. Read billboards. Read everything you find with an open mind. Take all of the world’s words in, let them wash over you. Help them to make you a stronger reader, a stronger writer, a stronger human being.

Earlier this month, I read Sharon Creech’s Love that Dog. A beautiful and sparse book of poetry written from the point of view of a frustrated middle school student, it touched my heart. This book, to me, was art – it made me feel, taught me something, found a permanent place in my soul. It was literature. But looking at the yellow, cartoonish cover, the short length, the lack of sophisticated vocabulary – I knew it would never pass the “literature” test of some of my peers. The book focuses on a boy learning to understand and experience poetry, inspired by a very patient teacher and famous writers like William Carlos Williams  and Walter Dean Myers. Are these authors creators of literature? Is Sharon Creech? Are their works good enough? Or are they only taught in classrooms as a stepping stone to help students get to something more legitimate?

The main character in Love That Dog found literature in his poetry. Throughout the book, it changes him. What a truly wonderful experience for a reader to find new meaning in old words that have been read and reread millions of times! Every student should get to have this lightening bolt experience, when some previously undiscovered synapse in their brain suddenly lights, forever changing the way they think. No teacher worth their weight in salt would ever tell a student, having an emotional response to something they’ve read, “That’s great and all, but you’re wasting your passion on that lowbrow book. Please, save your epiphanies and affection for a more lofty text.” It should be our goal, as educators, to help our students reach that golden moment. But to do that, we have to accept that not every student will get there the same way. And not just with the words that we say – we all know that kids are smarter than that. If you don’t respect your students’ choices, they will feel it. And it will change them as readers. I hope that you’ll take my word for it.

Who are we teaching for? Should we be pushing students to aspire to literary greatness, making the “classics” the finish line? Or should we be pushing students to have deep, meaningful, lasting experiences with reading, regardless of the “quality” of the text? Can these two different attitudes coexist, or do we have to choose one? Is the point of teaching reading to make every child a scholar? Or is the point to make every child the best version of themselves? In a world where the shining, standardized beacon of excellence is the common goal and a shockingly small percentage of applicants get into top-rated colleges, I have no idea.

My experience being pushed to aspire literary greatness nearly pushed me out of the English and reading world. I was a square peg being forced into a round hole – no amount of pushing or pounding could make me fit, and it hurt me. I keep these memories at the forefront when I teach; I remember the feelings of shame, the patronizing, the silent rolling of eyes when I asked clarifying questions. I don’t ever want to treat my students that way. Your definition of literature is your own. Literature is what touches you, shapes you, changes you. Be it Sharon Creech’s young protagonist mourning his lost dog through choppy lines, JK Rowling sending Harry off to Hogwarts to find himself, or Jeff Kinney navigating Greg, Wimpy Kid extraordinaire, through the murky waters of middle school. I feel that every interaction with literature is worthwhile – not just those made into Penguin Classics. Some readers will grow to find themselves in Julius Caesar and The Oddessey. Some will find themselves in the Hunger Games. Who are we to discount either of those experiences? As educators, we have to ask ourselves – who are we teaching for? Do we all need to teach for the same thing? And what role does this play in deciding the definition of literature?

Is aspiring to literary greatness really worth it if we lose our students along the way? Better they get to the peak of their ability their own way than quit being forced down the required path. Not every child will swoon over Black Beauty, and not every college student will find the beauty in Hemmingway. My coworker isn’t wrong – Shakespeare and James Joyce are literature. But they don’t have to be alone in that category. The Amulet graphic novel series, Scott Westerfeld’s young adult science fiction thrillers, Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever… they get to be literature, too. Literature doesn’t have to be an exclusive club. There’s enough room for everyone.

What is your definition of literature? Were you pushed to achieve literary greatness? Did it help you become a better reader, or did it turn you off from the literary world? I’d love to hear your point of view.

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