by Ellen Vallonga,
Grub Street Editor-in-Chief
I believe that literature is writing that has not only aesthetic and artistic merit, but also meaning that can be felt deeply, like a crack of thunder in your core that fades to a reverberating echo that never quite dies out but rather seeps into your life, long after your eyes leave the page.
What produces felt meaning? From what I can gather, felt meaning is created when various characteristics of literature come together perfectly in a piece.
Nonliterary works can of course produce a sense of meaning in readers, but only works which are free of gimmicks (e.g. sappy writing used to invoke sympathy in readers); representative of the human experience as a whole; unique and ambitious; and relevant over time; and create felt meaning in readers through the depth and complexities that lie beneath the surface-level story – these are works of literature.
Character development, plot, themes, and so on are crucial to good literature, but I believe syntax, grammar, and word choice are often most important in producing felt meaning. The ability to string together exactly the right words is an art, and if done well, the outcome can have an impact on the reader.
This is what great literature does for us. It breaks through the fog of ordinary routine, of mundane life, and shakes us up. It trickles in through the cracks of our aloof, sarcastic façade and makes us feel something. Literature means something to us in a way, say, pop culture novels do not, even if we are not sure why. Pop culture novels leave us feeling entertained; literature should leave us feeling as though a ghost is gliding through our veins, creating chills on our skin. It should provide us with a better understanding of ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies, and our world. It should attempt to capture some aspect of our shared human experience. It should motivate us to immediate, passionate action, or render us pensive and frozen in our chair for hours – the best works do both simultaneously.
I am no expert on literature, but I have learned about literature from experts who have helped me to identify the technique, aesthetic merit, depth, and meaning in works of literature. It is an exciting task, especially if the piece is undiscovered. This is my best attempt at explaining what literature is to me. This is what I believe.
The image above is "Flight" by Gillian Collins.