Literature or Confusion?

January 6, 2011

When did it become necessary for literature to be ambiguous? To explore the dark corners of the human condition without pity or love or even understanding? Any of those would offer a sense of completeness to a tale well told. Far too often I read a modern literary work only to feel the killing ‘so what?’ as I close the book. What did I learn? What experience, what pleasure, what insight did the author grant? If the answer is, ‘none’, then I have to wonder why it was written. Did the author not know, did they deliberately leave holes, unresolved issues, to convince the reader this is true to life?

Life is filled with ambiguities. That is both its chief joy and chief torment. We can never know why. Even those who cherish the comforts of religion are only putting blinders on an incomprehensible existence. That is why we so love stories. They, like religion, offer the illusion that something is clear, understood, complete.

I often speculate that I must not be capable of reading literature, but then I read books written before, say, 1960, that are in the canon, or books from other countries, and enjoy them.They are stories – well crafted, illuminating, but complete. Why this modern obsession with unresolved endings? Is the fault in me, or in the modern stars?

I did just finish a modern book — Finnish, translated — both literary and a compelling story. Elegant prose, wonderful sense of mood, thought provoking, sympathetic characters (even the ones I didn’t like), and though the ending could be called ambiguous, she dropped enough hints throughout the book I was left with not only a stunning twist at the end, but also a good sense of what the protagonist’s future life would be.  Troll by Johanna Sinisalo.

Fierce debates rage over the relative merits of literature and genre. If Jane Austen was writing today, where would she be classified? Chick Lit? Okay, I’m being snarky, but almost certainly genre, Women’s lit. What about Shakespeare, whose works were enjoyed by all classes? When did he become literature instead of popular entertainment? If one thinks of literature as illuminating the human condition, offering insights into motivation,  dissecting the layers of delusion and confusion we wrap ourselves in, I doubt there is a greater modern master than Terry Pratchett. But he is never admitted to the sacred halls of literature because he writes with humor, irony, and affection.

How would you rather learn: through humor, or through long-winded, tedious, willfully obscure pages of unresolved misery?

Let us be very clear. I am generalizing, but the truth remains. Literature should not be obscure. It should not hold gloom and despair as its highest attributes. If it aspires to illuminate humanity to itself, then it should understand humanity first. And humans, as a whole, are not keen on pretensions. We want to be with those who care about us, and approach us in ways we can understand; hopefully, to help us see more clearly, think more reasonably, and learn to be a bit wiser.

Who was your favorite teacher at school? The pedant who droned, or the one who spoke to you with interest and enthusiasm? From whom did you actually learn?


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