Does Literature Help Us Live? (or just the opposite?)

Plath eventually noticed that publishers had a selective bias of rejecting her uplifting poems more often than the somber ones. But this is not to slight editors who were also just obtuse.

EXCERPT: Is literature wise? In the sense, does it help us to live? And if not, what exactly is it good for? [...] Is there [...] something in the nature of the literary that renders the author, but perhaps also the reader, more vulnerable than most people to unhappiness, being troubled, or perhaps simply to the kind of emotional turbulence that writers as far apart as Shelley and Simenon seem invariably to have created around themselves? In short, could it be that there is something about our conception of the literary that not only does not help us to live, but actually makes things more difficult?

Generalization is treacherous, but let’s posit that at the center of most modern storytelling, in particular most literary storytelling, lies the struggling self, or selves, individuals seeking some kind of definition or stability in a world that appears hostile to such aspirations: life is precarious, tumultuous, fickle, and the self seeks in vain, or manages only with great effort, to put together a personal narrative that is, even briefly, satisfying. Of course, the story can end in various ways, or simply stop at some convenient grace-point; happy endings are not entirely taboo, though certainly frowned on in the more elevated spheres of serious literary fiction. And even when things do come to a pleasing conclusion, it is either shot through with irony or presented as merely a new beginning, with everything still to fight for.

[...] The experience of the literary, then, would seem to be seeing this bitter pill dressed up or administered in such a way that, at least in the telling, it becomes a pleasure. There is the excitement of drama, of complex and unstable situations [...] Sometimes, the more brilliantly pessimistic the dissection, the more stimulating the reading experience, the greater the sense of catastrophe, the more noble, profound, and grand the writer who eloquently expresses it. [...]

What is on offer, then, is the consolation of intelligent form and seductive style, but enlisted to deliver a content that invariably smacks of defeat, or at best a temporary stay of execution. In this sense, our literature seems locked into a systemic antagonism with the crasser side of Western civilization, the brash confidence that all could be improved, controlled, resolved, if only we were better organized and our science more advanced. Literature determinedly confounds such unwarranted optimism; we must face the grim truth, it says, though always armed with the artist’s ability to make the performance palatable.

[...] But what if one were to suggest that literature exacerbates the very condi­tion it then soothes, the way smoking a cigarette, say, increases the nervousness from which it offers a brief reprieve? [...] Any number of writers have sensed the trap involved in needing to offer ever more catastrophe and catharsis....

Quote:Is literature wise? In the sense, does it help us to live? And if not, what exactly is it good for?

Good literature should be subversive just as good art is. It should question our learned value system and provide the leverage to pry ourselves if but momentarily from the religio-cultural context of our world. Thru its lens we get a peek into the existential plight of the lone individual (and ourselves) facing the world and coming to grips with having to find meaning in it. Literature should raise our consciousness of why we are here and what our purpose is all about. It elevates the common man or woman to the status of hero or antihero in their quest to become who they were meant to be.

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