How to Think About Literature

What is the classical view of literature? In his great book on literature, The Mirror and the Lamp, M. H. Abrams observes that there are four elements to consider when discussing the different ways of viewing any kind of art, including literature. First, and most obviously, there is the artistic work itself; second, there is the universe of art, the thing the art portrays (the subject); third, there is the audience for the work of art, those for whom it was painted or written or sculpted; and finally, there is the artist who produced the work.

Let’s use a painting as an example: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The work is the actual painting of Mona Lisa; the universe is Mona Lisa herself, who sat for the painting; the audience for the work is us when we see the painting; and the artist is da Vinci.

The work, the universe, the audience, and the artist: These are the four elements of all art and literature. These are what we take into account when we talk about artistic value. They are a common vernacular in the different views of literature that have been in vogue in the different ages of history, each view putting forth a different emphasis. If we were speaking historically about the different views of literature, we would start with the Greeks and their emphasis on the work itself, the “mimetic” view. But let’s start for the moment with the sixteenth century, the first period in which that view began to give way to another.

The Pragmatic View

Abrams calls the view of literature that emphasizes the effect of a work on an audience the pragmatic view. The most notable advocate for the pragmatic view of literature was Philip Sidney (1554-1586). In his view, the purpose of literature is to teach and delight the audience. Poets, he argues, do not imitate “what is, hath been, or shall be,” but rather “what may be and should be.” Literature, therefore, should be judged by how effectively the delight it brings leads the audience to moral truth. This results in an emphasis on the rules and principles by which its moral effect can be produced—an emphasis on the “how to” of literature. It is focused on the effect of the work on its audience. What effect does a book have on you when you read it? Does it change your opinion? Does it change your life?

The pragmatic view of literature took hold in the sixteenth century and was the dominant view literature in the Western world until the early nineteenth century.

The Expressive View

The view that displaced the pragmatic view is the expressive view of literature. Under this view, it is not the effect on the audience that is primary, but the author himself: In other words, literature is primarily the expression of the feelings of the writer. It is the internal sentiments of the writer made external in the work of literature. Under the expressive view it is the spontaneity of the writer that is all-important. It is focused not on the effects in the mind of the viewer, but the state of mind of the author. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) attempts to do this in his poetry, as do Keats and Shelley. The philosopher John Stuart Mill explicitly advocates this view: Poetry is the “uttering forth of feeling.”

The Objective View

The expressive view of literature was largely overtaken in the mid- to late twentieth century by the objective theory. This view advocates that the work of literature should be considered on its own merits—not in light of the effect on its audience (which its advocates call the “affective fallacy”) or the feelings of the writer (the “intentional fallacy”). The nature and value of a book or a poem lie in the work itself. Nothing extraneous should be considered other than the poem or the story. In this view, it is the work itself that should be the only concern.

This view became dominant in another form in English and American literature in the mid- to late twentieth century with the rise of what was called the “New Criticism.” Figures such as Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks popularized this view with their widely used mid-twentieth-century English textbooks.

The Mimetic View

The other view of literature is the “classical” view: The mimetic view of literature focuses on the universe. Literature is fundamentally the imitation either of the divine essences (according to Plato) or things themselves (according to Aristotle). In this view—the original view of literature—the artist, the audience, and the work itself all play important roles, but they are all oriented toward the conformity of the work with the universe. The purpose of literature is to aesthetically represent what is. The most representative expression of this view is Aristotle’s Poetics, which held sway among literary critics until about the time of Sidney in the sixteenth century.

In general, more culturally conservative or traditional views of literature have tended to embrace aspects of the last two views (the objective and mimetic) since they tend to stress objectivity of some kind—either that of the work itself or of some aspect of reality that it represents. The less culturally conservative tend to emphasize one of the first two views (the pragmatic and expressive), since they tend to stress feelings—either those of the artist or those of the audience.

The Postmodern View

The postmodern view of literature subverts all four of these views by questioning the traditional, logocentric basis of thought that produced them. Philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger questioned the dichotomy between the objective and the subjective. Later, twentieth-century figures such as Jacques Derrida questioned all dichotomies. As postmodernism asserted itself in academia in the late twentieth century, it was allowed to question the most fundamental assumptions and values of literature.

In the postmodern view, literature is to be “deconstructed” the critic, who questions the seemingly self evident motives of the author and apparent assertions of the text. This approach has aptly been called “the  hermeneutics of suspicion” because it approaches a literary work suspiciously, as if the author were trying pull one over on the audience and it is the critic’s job to find out how he is doing it. The postmodern critic considers himself, rather than the author, to be in control of the meaning of the work, and reads his own ideas into it, ideas that are allowed to have equal standing with those of the writer. This becomes possible because of the postmodern rejection of any kind of hierarchy in reality, including that of truth. Postmodernism questions the basic tenet of classical logocentrism, which is the possibility of the conformity of the work with reality.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The question postmodernism raises is whether anything we say or write or create can have anything to do with the world as it really is. The assumption that literature cannot represent reality does not only undermine traditional criticism, it undermines postmodernism itself. One reason to reject postmodernism is that, if it is true, we wouldn’t even be able to discuss whether to reject it or whether it is true because it rejects the very idea of truth. The more pressing question for us, therefore, is which of the traditional views we should go back to.

The problem with most schools of thought on literature is that they are reductive. The pragmatic view reduces literature to the reaction of the audience, the expressive view to the feelings of the author, and the objective view (in many cases) to the work of literature by itself outside of any context.

It could be argued that the mimetic view, too, is reductive, since it emphasizes one of the four elements of art—universe—over the others —work, artist, and audience. But of these elements, the universe is the most essential. The writer could exist without the work, and the audience without the work— the work could even exist apart from the writer and the audience. Things other than art can express the feelings of a person, and things other than art can please people, but only art does these things through imitation. If literature did not imitate something, then it would not be art at all.

In addition, imitation can achieve the stated goals of the other views in a way they themselves do not: The less art imitates something, the less it seems to please people (witness the controversial nature of so-called “public art,” which many times imitates nothing), and the less it seems to fully capture the feelings of the artist (which cannot be captured in any non-concrete way), and the less it is successful as a standalone work of art.

The world or universe is the only one of the four elements of art that can meaningfully act as the ordering principle for all the rest—although it needs the rest in order to perform its artistic function. If there is to be an emphasis and an ordering principle to art and literature, it should be that thing without which it would not be art, and this is imitation, the element of art that lies at the heart of the classical view.