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