What makes for great literature? That’s the sort of simple yet amorphous question gleaning minds could spend hours pounding into a cogent response. Some would say great literature aspires to popular appeal, others to “quality and ambition” within the form itself. Some would push literature as a canon of great novels. Others would include plays, biographies, histories, essays, and diaries. Jean-Paul Sartre argued that great literature seeks not to flatter readers, but rather serves “a pact of generosity between author and reader.”
It’s Sartre’s idea of literary trust that sets author Lily Tuck on her way in a lovely essay published last week in The New York Times. Tuck, perhaps best known for her novel The News from Paraguay, implies that society has moved away from insightful approaches best suited for tackling literature. We read to stimulate our need for information, says Tuck. In other cases we use reading as a means of escape. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with these reading priorities, they have conditioned us to read nearly everything the same way — and you can’t read Gabriel García Márquezthe same way you read a blog.
For Tuck, the hope she holds whenever she publishes a book is that readers engage it with their imagination. Like Sartre, she considers literature an actionable mode for both writer and reader. This is why she writes with a minimalist style — very few adjectives, even fewer adverbs. She wants her readers to meet her halfway. She wants literature to be as much a creative process for them as it was for her.
“Literature is the language of the imagination refined by heightened sensibility, and reading, to use the literary theorist Geoffrey Hartman’s phrase, should be ‘an encounter of imagination with imagination.'”
So, in Tuck’s opinion, great literature can exist in any written form as long as it aims to trigger an imaginative response. Authors should therefore consider themselves agents of imagination and should choose language that encourages readers to meet them halfway. As Sartre said, great literature is a pact between writer and reader built upon trust and generosity.
What do you think? Do you agree?
Read more at The New York Times
Below, as part of our series of lectures with the Floating University, Yale University’s Jeffrey Brenzel explains how an education focused on reading the Classics will change you for the better:
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