Chapter two Griffith - Ocred.pdf - Is a Batman comic book ...

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Is a Batman comic book "literature"? What about a physics text- book? a restaurant menu? a university catalog? a television sitcom? a political speech? the letters we write home? Back in about the middle of the twentieth century, critics thought they knew what literature was and thus had the answer to such questions. The so-called New Critics, who flourished in the United States from the 1920s until the 1960s, believed that literature had certain properties that experts trained in the writing and study- ing of it could identify—such things as imagery, metaphor, meter, rhyme, irony, and plot. The New Critics confidently identified and evaluated works of literature, elevating the "great" works of lit- erature to high status. Literature for them consisted, with but few exceptions, of poetry, drama, and fiction and would definitelynot have included the kinds of writing listed in the opening paragraph. (For a more thorough discussion of the New Critics, see Chapter 6.) Problems with older definitions.Beginning in the 1960s, however, critics questioned the concept of literature expounded by the New Critics. The New Critics, they noted, seemed narrow in policing the literary canon—that unofficial collection of works that critics deem worthy of admiration and study. The New Critics were mostly male and interested mainly in Western literature and culture. The works they admired were penned for the most part by males who wrote within the European literary tradition. Largely excluded from the 15
16IChapter 2What Is Literature? canon were works by females, persons of color, and persons who lived outside Europe. Excluded, also, were the genres (kinds) of "lit- erature" that such outsiders preferred. Because women often lacked access to the means of publishing, many wrote in genres that would not normally be published; letters, diaries, journals, memoirs, auto- biographies. Why, critics asked, were these genres not "literature"? Because people of color were often politically active, they wrote in ■ genres that furthered political ends: speeches, autobiographies, es- says. Why were these not thought of as "literature"? And because some people belonged to "traditional" (oral, non-writing) cultures, their works were often meant to be spoken, not written. Were these works not "literature"? Recent definitions. As a result of such questions and the emer- gence of new theories about language, critics wrestled anew with the question, "What is literature?" At stake were a number of related issues: Which works would get published? Which works were available—in textbooks and paperbacks—to be taught? If we compare textbook anthologies of English and American literature published circa 1960 with those published today, we can see that the canon now embraces a much broader variety of authors, works, and genres.
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