The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016


Storytelling is as old as humanity itself. The tradition of capturing the events and beliefs of communities reaches back to a time when humans first sat by a fire and told tales. History was preserved in the form of legends and mythologies that were passed down from one generation to the next, and offered answers to the mysteries of the universe and its creation.

Written accounts emerged at the same time as ancient civilizations, but at first the invention of writing met simple, prosaic functions — for example to record transactions between traders or tally quantities of goods. The thousands of cuneiform clay tablets discovered at Ugarit in Syria reveal the already complex nature of the written form by 1500 BCE. Writing soon evolved from a means of providing trading information, to preserving the oral histories that were integral to every culture and their customs, ideas, morals, and social structures. This led to the first examples of written literature, in the epic stories of Mesopotamia, India, and ancient Greece, and the more philosophical and historical texts of ancient China. As John Steinbeck so succinctly put it in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1962: “Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed.”

Miss Bingley of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice may have been talking fatuously when she declared: “How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book!”, but this sentiment rings true for many of us. Despite the almost limitless diversions that face readers today, literature continues to satisfy a spiritual or psychological need, and open readers’ minds to the world and its extraordinary variety. There are works penned hundreds of years ago that continue to enchant and amuse to this day; complex postmodern texts that can be challenging in the extreme, yet still hold us in their grip; and new novels that feel so fresh that they read as if words have only just been invented.

"I begin with writing the first sentence — and trusting to Almighty God for the second."

Laurence Sterne

Defining literature

Although the simple definition of “literature” is “anything that is written down”, the word has become primarily associated with works of fiction, drama, and poetry, and weighted with the impossible- to-quantify distinction of merit and superiority. These values are intrinsic to the canon of literature drawn upon for academic study and appreciation that has been evolving since the middle of the 19th century. The term “canon” was borrowed from the ecclesiastical canons of authorized religious texts. The literary canon — a collection of works commonly agreed to be of exceptional quality — was formed almost entirely from familiar works of western European literature.

Since the mid-20th century, cultural and literary theorists have done much to destabilize the canon by disputing the authority of these lists of the works of “dead, white Europeans”. The idea of a perceived canon of “great works” still stands as a useful framework, but rather than the term being used to define the same set of titles, it evolves with each new generation, which re-examines the ideology and power structures that underpin the selections of previous generations, and questions why certain other works were excluded. Arguably, studying how literature is created and testing its place in the canon may help to make us better readers. In the same spirit, this book features many titles that are traditionally regarded as “great works”, but explores their place in the wider story of literature, and within a richer mix of writing drawn from around the globe. They sit alongside newer texts that empower some of the voices that were silenced over the centuries by social constructs such as colonialism and patriarchy, and Europe’s dominance over literature.


Choosing books

This book takes a chronological journey through literature, using more than a hundred books as waymarks along the route. It also takes a global approach, exploring literary texts from a wide range of different cultures that many readers may not have encountered previously.

The Literature Book’s chosen works are either exemplars of a particular writing style or technique, or represent a group or movement that took a new direction, which was then adopted by other contemporary writers or expanded upon by future generations. The works are arranged chronologically to highlight the emergence of literary innovations against the social and political backdrop of their times. For example, during the 17th and 18th century, French literature evolved from Molière’s neoclassical comedies of manners into Voltaire’s satirical undermining of Enlightenment optimism, and later into a savage depiction of decadent French aristocracy shown in Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, published in the lead-up to the French Revolution. These changes in literature inevitably overlap as writers pioneered techniques that took time to enter the mainstream, while others continued literary traditions from previous eras.

Lists are always contentious; arguably the hundred or so books chosen here could be replaced with a hundred others, many times over. They are not presented as a definitive list of “must reads”; instead each work is framed by a focus or context that is supported by a timeline of related literary milestones and events. Cross-references link to works of a similar type, or that have influenced or been influenced by the book under discussion, while more than 200 titles are listed for further reading, exploring the literary landscape of each period in greater detail.

"Some books leave us free and some books make us free."

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The story of literature

Around 4,000 years ago, the first stories to be written down came in the form of poems such as Mesopotamia’s The Epic of Gilgamesh and India’s Mahabharata, which were based on oral traditions. Rhyme, rhythm, and metre were essential aids to memory in songs and oral accounts, so it is unsurprising that the first texts made use of familiar poetic devices. Many early written texts were religious, and sacred texts such as the Bible and the Qur’an tell the stories of early histories, and have influenced writing for centuries. The form of literature that became Greek drama used a narrative ballad-like form and introduced characters with individual voices, choruses of commentary, and the distinct categories of comedy and tragedy that continue to be used today. The collections of stories that make up the Arabic One Thousand and One Nights have multiple origins, but this prose fiction, written in plain speech, makes use of techniques that eventually became a mainstay in modern novels, such as framing (which introduces stories within the framework of another story), foreshadowing, and the inclusion of repetitive themes.

Although the vast medieval era was studded with secular highlights such as the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf and tales of chivalric romance, it was dominated in the West by religious texts in Latin and Greek. During the Renaissance, the joint energies of new philosophical investigation and sheer invention opened the door to literary innovation. The driving force behind the Renaissance was the production of new translations of ancient Greek and Roman texts which freed scholars from the dogma of the church. A humanist programme of education which incorporated philosophy, grammar, history, and languages was built on the wisdom of the ancients. The Bible was translated into vernacular speech, enabling Christians to commune directly with their God. Gutenberg’s printing press brought books into the lives of ordinary people, and authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio made everyday life the subject of literature. By the early 17th century, Miguel de Cervantes and Daniel Defoe had given the world what many scholars consider to be the first novels, and the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays was published.


The rise of the novel

Drama and poetry continued to evolve as the novel rose inexorably in importance, and by the end of the 18th century the novel had become a major form of literary expression.

Just as artists are described in terms of movements such as Baroque and Rococo, so literary history is defined by authors united by a particular style, technique, or location. The Romantic movement, characterized by stories driven by the emotions of idiosyncratic heroes, rather than plot and action, had its roots in the German Sturm und Drang movement. Meanwhile, in England, the Romantic poets testified to the power of nature to heal the human soul, and similar themes were taken up by the New England Transcendentalists. The word “genre” was increasingly applied to fiction’s subsets — for example, novels in the Gothic genre. In the 19th century, Romanticism was superseded by a new form of social realism, played out in the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s English middle and upper classes, and Gustave Flaubert’s provincial French towns, but used increasingly to depict the harsh lives of the poor. Fyodor Dostoyevsky described his novel Crime and Punishment as “fantasy realism”, and the dark interior monologues of the murderer Raskolnikov have the elements of a psychological thriller. Over the years, fiction has diversified into multiple genres and subgenres, which today include everything from dystopian novels to fictional autobiography and Holocaust writing.

Alongside the growth of the novel, the vocabulary of literature expanded to describe styles of writing: for example, “epistolary” novels were written in the form of letters; and “Bildungsroman” and “picaresque” denoted coming-of-age tales. The language used within literature was developing too, and novels in the vernacular voice broadened the scope of national literature with writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain capturing the diversity of the people of the USA.

In the early 20th century, Western society was revolutionized by industrial and technological advances, new artistic movements, and scientific developments. Within two decades, a generation of young men had been wasted in World War I. A perfect storm of literary experimentation followed, as Modernist writers searched for inventive stylistic features such as stream-of-consciousness writing, and wrote fragmented narratives representing the anguish and alienation of their changing world. After a brief period of literary optimism and experimentation, the world was again thrown into turmoil as World War II began, and the production of literature slowed as many writers became involved in the war effort, and produced propaganda or reported from the front rather than writing literature.

"A word after a word after a word is power."

Margaret Atwood


The global explosion

After two brutal global wars, the world was ready for change, and literature was central to the counterculture in the West of the 1950s and ’60s. Postmodernist writers and theorists focused on the artifice of writing, demanding more of the reader than simply engaging with a realist narrative. Novels now had fractured or non-linear timespans, unreliable narrators, episodes of magical realism, and multiple-choice endings. During this period, the West, and in particular writing in English, also loosened its grip on world culture. Postcolonial writing emerged in countries such as Nigeria, South Africa, and India, and authors such as Gabriel García Márquez helped raise the status of a group of South American writers of extraordinary creativity.

Modern literature now sings with the previously unheard voices of feminists, Civil Rights campaigners, gay people, black and Native Americans, and immigrants. There is a healthy meritocratic blurring of distinction between classic and popular fiction. Global publishing, independent and internet publishing, global literature courses, national and international book prizes, and the growing number of works published in translation are bringing Australian, Canadian, South African, Indian, Caribbean, and modern Chinese novels, among others, to a world audience. This vast library of global literature has become both a reminder of shared connections worldwide and a celebration of difference.

"Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul."

Joyce Carol Oates