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Old 03-04-2013, 11:22 PM   #16
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From time to time there seem to have been discussions about what is (or isn't) literature. As you are planning an update to the opening post in this thread, sun surfer, could I suggest that it includes a definition or at least guidelines for what we mean by literature?

I know that's hard to do, but I think it would include things like having lasting merit, having themes of universal interest, illuminating a culture or a period, and of course being well written. (No Nevil Shute in this Book Club!)

My Concise Oxford Dictionary says:

"Writings whose value lies in beauty of form or emotional effect."

My Macquarie Dictionary (a very good Australian dictionary) says:

"Writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic and essential features, as poetry, romance, history, biography, essays, etc; belles-lettres."

And thanks again, sun surfer, for all your work in making the Literary Book Club such a good place to be!
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Old 03-05-2013, 06:53 AM   #17
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From time to time there seem to have been discussions about what is (or isn't) literature. As you are planning an update to the opening post in this thread, sun surfer, could I suggest that it includes a definition or at least guidelines for what we mean by literature?

I know that's hard to do, but I think it would include things like having lasting merit, having themes of universal interest, illuminating a culture or a period, and of course being well written. (No Nevil Shute in this Book Club!)

My Concise Oxford Dictionary says:

"Writings whose value lies in beauty of form or emotional effect."

My Macquarie Dictionary (a very good Australian dictionary) says:

"Writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic and essential features, as poetry, romance, history, biography, essays, etc; belles-lettres."

And thanks again, sun surfer, for all your work in making the Literary Book Club such a good place to be!
I agree. Their have been some selections recently that I would not have call literary.
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Old 03-05-2013, 07:34 AM   #18
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Agree with 'possum on the need for guidelines and sadly with Hamlet that a few selections have missed the mark.
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Old 03-05-2013, 08:54 AM   #19
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I think Sun surfer's approach in his opening description of the club is really very good indeed. But possibly, the literary angle could be further tweaked. I'll share a few of my thoughts though I don't know if they really add anything significant. Perhaps they might form a platform for further discussion--if anyone wants to do so. If not, well, here they are anyway.

Defining "literary" is difficult because "literature" itself is such a vague term. But if we are using the term qualitatively--personally, I would say that a literary evaluation--at least for the standard literary genres-- depends on excellence of writing, significance of theme, and an effective formal development.

Of these (IMO} the most important factor is the first.

I went to A Dictionary of Literary Terms by J.A. Cuddon who makes an attempt to define "literature". Here's what he comes up with.

"If we describe something as 'literature', as opposed to anything else, the term carries with it qualitative connotations which imply that the work in question has superior qualities; that it is well above the ordinary run of written works. For example, George Eliot's novels are literature, whereas Fleming's Bond books are unquestionably not."

However, for our purposes in the club it would seem that sometimes the works chosen may not be from a traditional literary genre. Cuddon again:

"However, there are many works which cannot be classified in the main literary genres which nevertheless may be regarded as literature by virtue of the excellence of their writing, their originality, and their general aesthetic and artistic merits."

Among the many examples given in this latter area he includes such works as Augustine's City of God, Gibbon's Decline and Fall . . ., and Runciman's A History of the Crusades.

So clearly we should always be looking for something special in our choice--whatever genre it comes from. I feel that there are touchstones we can use to evaluate whether or not a work fits the definition of "literature" as Cuddon expresses it. We can examine some of the features mentioned such as originality, beauty, vision, etc. If the proposed book is only another example of a particular topic--even if competently written--and doesn't add something special to our understanding--then it probably isn't suitable for the literary club--though it may still be eminently worth reading for anyone interested in the area.

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Old 03-05-2013, 09:24 AM   #20
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So clearly we should always be looking for something special in our choice--whatever genre it comes from. I feel that there are touchstones we can use to evaluate whether or not a work fits the definition of "literature" as Cuddon expresses it. We can examine some of the features mentioned such as originality, beauty, vision, etc. If the proposed book is only another example of a particular topic--even if competently written--and doesn't add something special to our understanding--then it probably isn't suitable for the literary club--though it may still be eminently worth reading for anyone interested in the area.
I think that is what we should be looking for. As hard as quality is to define, we all seem to know it when we see it.
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Old 03-05-2013, 09:41 AM   #21
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So clearly we should always be looking for something special in our choice--whatever genre it comes from. I feel that there are touchstones we can use to evaluate whether or not a work fits the definition of "literature" as Cuddon expresses it. We can examine some of the features mentioned such as originality, beauty, vision, etc. If the proposed book is only another example of a particular topic--even if competently written--and doesn't add something special to our understanding--then it probably isn't suitable for the literary club--though it may still be eminently worth reading for anyone interested in the area.
Excellent. And applying some self-criticism to the current nominations, I feel confident that Incas qualifies, but France probably does not.
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Old 03-05-2013, 11:31 AM   #22
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Excellent. And applying some self-criticism to the current nominations, I feel confident that Incas qualifies, but France probably does not.
From the descriptions given, I believe all of the works are safely within the literary zone--though I know that Hemming's book on the Incas is the major contribution on that subject in over a century and very impressive.

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Old 03-05-2013, 05:38 PM   #23
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I love the way we can have serious and courteous discussions in this Club! Thanks, everyone, for your responses to my suggestion.

I hadn't realised there was another thread (to which fantasyfan refers) opening the Club, unless of course this is it and those introductory remarks have since been edited out to make way for the list of books.
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Old 03-05-2013, 08:37 PM   #24
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For my part, I may have taken back the nomination Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. I determined "literary" mainly by the reputation of the author and the fact that some of her other books have won literary awards including a Pulitzer Prize. However, on reading it I felt in the end that it was more historical fiction/drama.

This can often be a case of 20/20 hindsight as, for the most part, I don't nominate a book I've already read.

So is there something wrong with our process? Do we need to apply a more rigorous filter somehow? Perhaps have some kind of justification for nomination? Eg. this won the blah blah literary award, or this has been classified as "literary" by the following resources etc..

Must be difficult to apply such a scheme to non-fiction though I would think.
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Old 03-05-2013, 08:49 PM   #25
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For my part, I may have taken back the nomination Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. I determined "literary" mainly by the reputation of the author and the fact that some of her other books have won literary awards including a Pulitzer Prize. However, on reading it I felt in the end that it was more historical fiction/drama.

This can often be a case of 20/20 hindsight as, for the most part, I don't nominate a book I've already read.

So is there something wrong with our process? Do we need to apply a more rigorous filter somehow? Perhaps have some kind of justification for nomination? Eg. this won the blah blah literary award, or this has been classified as "literary" by the following resources etc..

Must be difficult to apply such a scheme to non-fiction though I would think.
I'm minded of Justice Potter Stewart's famous comment on pornography, "I know it when I see it." I think that's probably best. Reasonable people can disagree, of course, but I think thoughtfulness combined with a gut reaction might be the best litmus test.

Frankly, I think winning a prize is a dreadful test. There are so many undeserving prizewinners, IMO, and so many factors including hot topics, political correctness, connections, etc, etc, that winning a prize means very little in terms of literary quality.
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Old 03-05-2013, 09:07 PM   #26
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I'm minded of Justice Potter Stewart's famous comment on pornography, "I know it when I see it." I think that's probably best. Reasonable people can disagree, of course, but I think thoughtfulness combined with a gut reaction might be the best litmus test.

Frankly, I think winning a prize is a dreadful test. There are so many undeserving prizewinners, IMO, and so many factors including hot topics, political correctness, connections, etc, etc, that winning a prize means very little in terms of literary quality.
Yes, I'm with you there, issybird. There have been some odd winners of the Man Booker prize over the years, and some very deserving ones too. No doubt that is equally true of the Pulitzer too, though we don't hear so much about that down here, probably because Australians aren't normally eligible. (Nothing parochial about us!) Geraldine Brooks' father was an American, so that made her eligible, as I understand it, but we still claim her as an Aussie of course.
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Old 03-05-2013, 09:20 PM   #27
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I'm minded of Justice Potter Stewart's famous comment on pornography, "I know it when I see it." I think that's probably best. Reasonable people can disagree, of course, but I think thoughtfulness combined with a gut reaction might be the best litmus test.
A bit difficult if you haven't actually read the book though. You may well know it in the end, as I believe I did with Geraldine Brooks' novel, but it's too late by then.

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Frankly, I think winning a prize is a dreadful test. There are so many undeserving prizewinners, IMO, and so many factors including hot topics, political correctness, connections, etc, etc, that winning a prize means very little in terms of literary quality.
Perhaps, but it's also a very simple measure. At least one body has classified it such and that body is probably no less qualified than we are in this book club regardless of mistakes they may or may not have made.

Are we happy that sometimes a book is selected that is thought by enough people to be sufficiently literary to be voted in as a book club read only for us to find out later that perhaps it should not have qualified? Is the possibility something we should just accept gracefully? Or is there something we think we need to address to improve the selections going forward? If so - how would we go about it?
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Old 03-05-2013, 11:03 PM   #28
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Perhaps, but it's also a very simple measure. At least one body has classified it such and that body is probably no less qualified than we are in this book club regardless of mistakes they may or may not have made.

Are we happy that sometimes a book is selected that is thought by enough people to be sufficiently literary to be voted in as a book club read only for us to find out later that perhaps it should not have qualified? Is the possibility something we should just accept gracefully? Or is there something we think we need to address to improve the selections going forward? If so - how would we go about it?
I do agree with the Prize not being a foolproof guide - it may cut out bad writing, but I am sure commercial issues do matter a lot, too, as e.g. for the Man Booker prize it is publisher who decide which books to put forward.

I think we do have to accept that we will make mistakes every now and then, as unless we have read the book we can only go on a hunch interpreting what others have said - and on Year of Wonders specifically, sure Caleb you proposed it, but the rest of the group voted for it.

Perhaps if we all agree we should collectively accept with good grace if somebody else says "not quite literary enough", and at least have a rethink, and be more forthright if we believe a selection is not up to it. So far it seems to me we are an harmonious bunch with aligned interests, at least for the purpose of this club, so hopefully we will be able to accept criticisms gracefully
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Old 03-06-2013, 12:02 AM   #29
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So far it seems to me we are an harmonious bunch with aligned interests, at least for the purpose of this club, so hopefully we will be able to accept criticisms gracefully
Them's fighting words!
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Old 03-06-2013, 01:50 AM   #30
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Them's fighting words!
Ha! As I said earlier, what I like about this Club is the courtesy of the members, and speaking personally, I would be happy to accept the group's verdict that a book does not qualify as literature.

Of course, the other way is what happened with this month's vote, where a book perceived by people as not qualifying as literature simply didn't get up.
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