Why Literature Matters

Loren RossonLibrary Director Jen Hinderer recently gave Toni Morrison’s Home a glowing review, which not only inspired me to read it, but to reflect on what made me try her novels in the first place.

"Why Literature Matters" is available from the library in hardcover.

“Why Literature Matters” by Glenn Arbery is available from the library in hardcover.

Morrison’s genre isn’t usually my thing, but a strong case has been made for her novels being on par with classic literature. Glenn Arbery makes that argument in Why Literature Matters (2001), a book that wrestles with the question of transcendence and enduring value. It assesses modern authors whose works have been compared to literary giants and finds that while some authors deserve the praise, others do not.

Tom Wolfe
An example of the latter would be Tom Wolfe. Back in the 1990s A Man in Full was ranked alongside Honoré de Balzac, but Arbery finds the novel banal and journalistic.

I particularly like his observation that Wolfe’s fiction engages one’s attention in the same way that cocaine arouses pleasure, “using up the brain’s natural chemicals to such an extent, that, without the drug, the addict is left like the knight in John Keats’ poem, ‘all haggard and woe-begone'”; and that it’s impossible to quote from Wolfe “without feeling that he used plastic and neon for his sentences instead of more expensive materials.” And I would have to agree that Wolfe’s literary achievements are overrated.

Toni Morrison
On the other hand, Arbery believes that Toni Morrison’s novels–especially Beloved and Paradise–stand as first-rate examples of modern literature. Against her critics, he argues that her literary honors owe not from favor with modern liberalism, but rather the inherent achievements of her fiction:

“Impatient with ‘race’ as a supposed ontology, powerfully intelligent, Morrison does not promote the ‘black experience’ so much as she questions its meaning and locates it thoughtfully within an American literary tradition that prominently includes Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor . . . Morrison finds universal qualities with her subjects, because she chooses, not Us-vs-Them, but Us-vs-Us situations.”

Morrison doesn’t angrily demand social justice; she engages social drama and “tests dominant ideas by showing what happens when they unfold in plausible human action.” In this sense, Morrison achieves in her work what a writer like (say) Alice Walker does not.

Arbery takes on the ancients too. His final chapter on The Iliad (which he believes “the measure” of all western literature) is my favorite, being a visceral analysis of translations. He suggests that certain attempts to tame Homer’s ambiguities do the poem violence, ironically reducing it at the price of our clearer understanding.

None of this is to suggest that highbrow literature is the only thing worth reading, only that we should be careful about what we praise as such.¬†Arbery’s book is a decent guide to making such assessments, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the enduring value of ancient and modern literature.

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.

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