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Can Literature Be Defended?

Patricia Viera writes,

But if literature does not necessarily make you good and is certainly not the only form of entertainment that is good for you, what is it really for? Does literature still matter and, if so, why?

The problem with most arguments in the debate about reading is that they posit literature as an instrument used to achieve a certain goal: either the good of the individual (it is good for you) or the good of society (it makes you good). Leaving aside the issue of deciding whether what makes you good is not, ultimately, good for you, a more fundamental question arises: why does literature need to be defended at all?

The anxiety to justify literature is symptomatic of our age, when all activities should have an easily identifiable objective. The difficulty with literature, as well as with music or the fine arts, is that it has no recognisable purpose or, in Immanuel Kant’s elegant formulation, it embodies “purposiveness without purpose”. Reading certainly has myriad effects, but it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how it influences each person and harder still to translate this impact in terms of quantifiable gains.

Literature breaks the continuum of the everyday and makes us stop and think. The linguistic experimentation that is the hallmark of the literary estranges us from the most commonplace of tools, our language, while the fictional elements of novels, plays and poems offer us a glimpse into a reality that is not our own. In doing so, reading affords us an essentially human of experience: the realisation that what is does not necessarily need to be, that things can be different and that another world is possible. The struggle with or the embrace of a work of literature shapes our hopes and fears, dreams and ambitions. Literature matters, ultimately, because it makes us who we are.

But this defense of literature doesn’t work any better than the ones Viera rejects. “Linguistic experimentation” is not “the hallmark of the literary”; it is a hallmark of some kinds of literature. And if “plays and poems offer us a glimpse into a reality that is not our own,” isn’t it equally true that they often, and powerfully, offer us a glimpse into a reality that is our own, but that we had failed to see or to see clearly? Furthermore, it’s obviously wrong to say that “literature . . . makes us who we are”: at the most one might say that it is one of the many forces — along with family, religion, television, friendships, the late capitalist social order, and so on — that shape who we turn out to be.

It is not possible to come up with an adequate “defense of literature,” because “literature” doesn’t exist: too many wildly different kinds of plays and stories and poems and songs fall under that useless rubric. Defenses of specific works, or specific authors, or even specific ways of reading specific works or authors, might be possible and useful; but nothing broader than that.

And maybe we should remember also these words from George Orwell: “There is no argument by which one can defend a poem. It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.”

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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