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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, May 20, 2011


When I posted the part of my essay on Matena which dealt with the current state of artcomics, I had a board-poster ask me:

What falls under "capital L" literature or "little l" literature according to you?

I replied:

"Small-l" literature means the totality of literary productions as we know them: popular fiction, "Art" fiction, and some forms of nonfiction that may be relevant to literary understanding, like deQuincey's CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER.

"Capital-L" literature means the Good Stuff that cultural critics decide is important enough to write about and to preserve as examples of fine writing or great literary insight.

Now, that was simply a broad working definition. I wanted to make clear that even though (as my earlier essay should indicate) that I don't personally *like* the more ultra-realistic works celebrated in artcomics circles, as against works that make more sustained use of literary concepts and symbolic discourse, there's no doubt that the former works, even when they may claim not to be fiction at all (ranging from deQuincey's CONFESSIONS to Harvey Pekar's AMERICAN SPLENDOR), can occupy a real place in the cosmos of "Capital-L literature."

Now, I've quoted Northrop Frye before on the subject of literature's spectrum of literary concerns:

As Frye notes in the ANATOMY, verisimilitude is only one pole in a spectrum of literary concerns, with "myth"-- which I'll define as the totality of symbolic potential in literature-- occupying the other pole.

However, of late I've perceived that Philip Wheelwright's works may prove a better guide than Frye for understanding how literature itself mirrors the variability of language.

For instance, it's hard to say that a fictional work that appears true to "realistic" concerns possesses more intrinsic verisimilitude than an artful nonfiction work like Capote's IN COLD BLOOD, even though one is only figuratively "real" and the other is "really real," albeit filtered through an interpreter. However, Wheelwright introduces his concept of "steno-language," which applies to purely denotative representation. Such language communicates:

…meanings that can be shared in exactly the same way by a very large number of persons—in general, by all persons using the same language or the same group of inter-translatable languages. Examples are so obvious that they may be mentioned without explanation. Common words like child, parent, dog, tree, sky, etc., are steno-symbols, and their accepted meanings are steno-meanings, because what each of the words indicates is a set of definable experiences (whether actual or only possible) which are, in certain recognizable respects, the same for all who use the word correctly. (Metaphor and Reality, p. 33.)

This idea of "steno-language" would be potentially more useful in addressing the differences between that which represents a real event and that which simply puts forth the expectations of realism in fictional terms.

Against this type of language Wheelwright views expressive language, or "poeto-language," as one that is plurisignative, potentially carrying many meanings. Yet at the beginning of Chapter 5 of THE BURNING FOUNTAIN, Wheelwright makes explicit that he's not endorsing the "unnatural dichotomy 'science vs. poetry.' promoted by [S.T.] Colerdige and [I.A.] Richards." Rather:

"...the distinction between the two modes of linguistic procedure should be conceived not as a dichotomy, not as a frontier between two equal armies, but rather on the model of variables approaching a limit."

Naturally, as I've also built a fair amount of my theory around Frye's definition of the symbol as a "complex variable," I find the two systems complementary, even though Wheelwright has an advantage in that his books are focusing primarily on language as such, rather than language in the form of literary genres.

It's possible, then, to see such works as AMERICAN SPLENDOR or Chester Brown's PAYING FOR IT as a steno-linguistic procedure, in that the works seek to reproduce "a set of defineable experiences" with some degree of artfulness, but always privileging the reported experience over the aesthetic presentation. A work like Lutes' JAR OF FOOLS, by contrast, does not pretend to be any sort of reportage, and though responsive to realistic representation is freer to verge into a wider range of expressive literary strategies. Further from realism still we would have Brown's YUMMY FUR and a small handful of comics-works that embrace fantasy but are also responsive to the themes and symbols common to "Capital-L" literature in other media.

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