The Literary Word

By Marek Makowski

Each year, this university’s English department awards several scholarships. Most of them require typical martial facts (name, numbers) and writing samples, while one includes a prompt. This year’s prompt: “If you could select one literary text that every English major should read, what would you select and why?”

The question seems simple—all one has to do is reach over to the bookshelf and pick a favorite at random—but the modifier of literary, seemingly slipped in so frivolously, skews the earth’s axis and hurls the cosmos into the ocean. What exactly does it mean to be literary? How can we define or, even, show it?

I think the answer can be found in the texts themselves. I’ve been reading submissions at TMR for a year now. Most of the job is analyzing stories and trying to put into words why they do or don’t function well. Sometimes it’s fairly easy: there is no characterization, or the style relies on clichés. Other times a story is perfect mechanically, but it lacks the indescribable quality of great writing, a unified force of magic that, I suppose, we describe as “literary,” the popularly pithy label like the hundreds of others we invent to try to express the matter that lies in the area between life and literature.

I’ve read in many places and heard from many people that “literary” is only a term used to market books. That’s a fair argument, though I think it’s too easy of an escape to the question of what makes something literary, and I don’t want to fall into the whirlpool of genre fiction debates and how some works are misunderstood, etc. etc. This adjective also isn’t just limited to books, as by now it’s accepted that genres like film and music and television can be well written, that they can transcend from the “ordinary” into the “literary.” But the adjective does come from the word literature, and it’s the genre whose works have longest lingered on our tongues and minds.

It’s easy to say that the components of literature must be present and masterfully executed to make something literary: vivid writing, developed characters, a complex plot. But what does that make of descriptive poetry, or a play?

A few months ago I read Clare Cavanagh’s translation of Nonrequired Reading by Wislawa Szymborska. It’s a collection of newspaper columns in which Szymborska reviews various books that don’t usually get critiques (self-help books, an annual calendar) and uses them to muse on life. The micro-essays are terse and vivid, and they generate the cumulative feeling of having flipped through a poet’s notebook. But does that mean they’re not literary because they were published in newspapers, or because there are no sustained characters or plot, because the pieces don’t have many unifying qualities besides a premise and an inquisitive tone? Of course not.

So the aforementioned components can be present—they usually are—but they aren’t required. The effect, of magic and discovery, is required. For something to be literary, it must a regenerative force, a carefully constructed mirror, without a smudge or any the maker’s fingerprints. Every time somebody returns to a literary text, they see something different in it, an effect reliant on the present condition of the reader and the depth of the text. And every time somebody else goes to the text, they see similarities, but they detect different components. Both people see the eyes, but one sees the hair and the other sees the chin. Only the mirror-maker has the complete image, for their completion contains an intricate depth, as well as a mystery of having explored and created it.

Some of our great mirror-makers are those deigned as literary authors. Shakespeare, of course, so skillfully implemented wordplay and interesting interactions and opposing ideas that his plays and sonnets continue to engage readers and scholars today, more than four hundred years since he wrote them. Flannery O’Connor merged concurrent literal, symbolic, and religious narratives in each of her Complete Stories. The writings of Willa Cather and Robert Frost, to take two other genres, can easily be read on literal terms, while masterful craft—ambiguity!—lurks behind their printed letters.

It should be noted that in the end the artist does not have full control over how they will be branded, whether their work earns them immortality, or even what readers understand of their writing. Of course, authors labor to limit confusion and misunderstanding, and to open certain parts of their writing to questions, whether to reflect life’s qualities, or to the imagination, or to complicate narrative, or to do whatever they want their art to do. But that’s not to be confused with confusion because of poorly-drawn scenes and characters. The mastery, of course, must be there.

The starchy observer might, again, argue that I’m being some sort of elitist by using these terms—literary, art, poetic—but it’s not mere labeling, or oppression. I doubt that the writers I mentioned earlier sat, with pen in hand, to develop an inspiration, thinking, I’m going to make this one literary, really literary—so it sticks for a long time. Greek bards didn’t recite hexameters to fossilize their echoes on eternity’s bookshelves. If one’s goal is to craft an emotional mimesis, to make their work like life, which has no certainty and definitely no neat resolution, then they will do so, and the label will come afterwards if they are successful. But it’s simply a label, and it’s the effects and qualities of that label that we’re after. Only time, like with all things, controls the rest.

When Henry trudges into the rain at the end of A Farewell to Arms, there is no full resolution to his story, or his life. He has enough momentum to walk off the page and join us, for some time, strolling in our minds and our world. When Riggan leaps out of his hospital room window at the end of Birdman and his daughter comes in moments later, looking through it first at the ground and then to the sky, we have an ambiguous, open ending. The magic prevails. The suspension of disbelief continues to mesmerize us. The story lingers in our consciousness for much longer, and it becomes something more than a 300-page novel or a two-hour film. It becomes something magical, something so intricately constructed that it has a reality of its own. That, I suppose, is when we know that something is literary, that it, like the great mysteries of life, has the substance to survive the unyielding passage of time.

Photo courtesy of Martin Cathrae

Short Story Month, Day 14: "Good Country People"

During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from writer Ron MacLean.

It sounds like a cheap joke: an arrogant young woman has her wooden leg stolen by a backwoods Bible salesman she has tried to seduce. But, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, you can’t shorthand a good short story. The pleasure – the genius – is in the details. The unfolding human interaction.

What O’Connor understood better than most is that a story is not about understand, but about experience. “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way,” she wrote, “and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”

In her story “Good Country People,” what we get when we read every word is the experience of a 32-year-old woman unfortunate enough to be an educated soul in the small-town south; to have a weak heart that has reduced her life expectancy and tied her to her mother’s house; and to have lost a leg in a childhood hunting accident.

A young woman who, resentful of her fate, has embraced at least a surface belief in nothing; who has made her manner ugly to spite all around her; who wears her bitterness as armor, and wields her PhD-in-philosophy intelligence as a weapon against the “good country people” among whom she sees herself sentenced to live.

The single proudest act of her 32 years has been to defy her mother’s naming of her – Joy – by legally changing her name to Hulga.

Enter Manley Pointer, the bible salesman, a tall gaunt youth who seems so “sincere, genuine, and earnest” that Hulga can’t help but be intrigued. Unable to decide whether to ridicule or embrace him, she does both – ultimately opting to seduce him to both spoil his innocence and claim some experience for herself.

But Hulga, in her arrogance, has read him wrong. In one of the strangest seduction scenes in American literature, this salesman is at least as jaded as she is, and has his own plans to take advantage of her by virtue of a morbid fascination with her wooden leg. Before he walks off with it, in a final thrust at her, he even lets her know he gave a fake name. As if to mock her pride in her own clever identity shift. Hell, he might as well say. Any country fool could do that.

What keeps this all from being a low joke is the fierceness with which O’Connor inhabits every character. From the busybody tenant farmer Mrs. Freeman to the stubborn optimist Mrs. Hopewell to the odd couple at the center of this haunted tale, these people all have moments of startling vulnerability as well as startling coarseness. Situations that might otherwise be silly get serious human treatment. The effect makes us squirm.

O’Connor, in all her stories, means to shock us into seeing ¬– our own gaping need, our own desperation, our own capability for cruelty, and the always difficult reach beyond ourselves in rare moments to mercy and maybe love.

I love her for her ruthlessness. For her sharp and unflinching eye. For what reading her stories has taught me about writing. O’Connor was God-haunted, and her stories are, too. Her savior Jesus was a “wild, ragged figure moving from tree to tree in the background” of her character’s minds and hearts. That haunting caused her to draw “large and startling figures,” but it also caused her to view each of those figures with a hardscrabble mercy. It’s that combination – black humor and raw human vulnerability – that arrested me when I read my first Flannery O’Connor story, and that still holds me today.

Update: You can read “Good Country People” online, for free, here. Big thanks to Michelle Zuppa for the link.

MacLean_pic2011_1Ron MacLean is author, most recently, of the novel Headlong (October 2013). His fiction has appeared in GQ, Fiction International, Other Voices, Drunken Boat, Best Online Fiction, and elsewhere. He is a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee and a winner of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction. See his work at