Literature: To Be and Not to Be

The definition of what qualifies as literature is an oft-debated topic amongst scholars from all fields, and despite the volumes of articles and essays that have been written on the topic it seems as though we are no closer to an answer now than we were when the question was first asked. For some, literature might be what is in western literary canon, although this opens the debate for what the canon does and does not include and why. For others, literature might be any written work — a range that spans from Joyce’s Ulysses, to E.L. James’ modish Fifty Shades of Grey. But what about works that go beyond the written word? Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is a graphic memoir that weaves together the threads of her life as well as her father’s and uses eloquent literary technique to explore topics such as homosexuality and suicide. Surely this is deserving of literary merit. The case for literary status is slightly easier for Fun Home because of Bechdel’s extensive narration that could potentially stand on its own two feet. So while Bechdel’s illustrations are a large part of the story, they aren’t strictly vital. But what of shorter comics? Take Garfield, a comic strip by Jim Davis that is immensely popular and has generated a plethora of stuffed toys and action figures, video games, a handful of television series and two blockbuster movies. Literary? You’d be hard-pressed to find a layman who would consider it as such. There seems to be a consensus that literature should have artistic merit, or at least be informative, and Garfield was created by Davis strictly to as a marketable concept, not a vehicle for social criticism. I, however, believe that if one were to conduct a case study of Davis, I believe that it would be necessary consider his Garfield strips literature, as they inform you of his life, as it most definitely affected his artistic output. Similarly, if one were studying the zeitgeist, Garfield could be used to inform them of our culture, since Garfield, being a marketing scheme, would need to conform to broad social ideals unique to the time period. My definition of literature is any work that presents useful information in a novel way. I am satisfied with this definition as it allows for flexibility. Because I do not glean any useful information from the Garfield strips and is not a part of my personal canon, I do not need to define it as literature, however a Jim Davis scholar likely would. Contrarilly, the tweets of my best friend are useful to me and I would consider them the literature of my friend’s life, although my friend’s life would not be of interest to the vast majority of people and therefore are not considered literary on a broad scale. The question, “What is literature,” boils down to “What is good?” And this question, I believe, comes down to “What is useful?” As long as any work is useful to a single person, it has its purpose and is therefore good. This definition does not make the mistake of defining every work as literature while simultaneously avoiding the exclusion of any work.

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