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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

CONTENTIONS OVER CONTENT

In Tim Callahan's essay "In Defense of Superhero Comics," seen here:

http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=17623

Callahan poses the musical question, 'Would anyone put Geoff Johns's "Green Lantern" in the category of "literature?"'

The short answer is yes, but the question isn't well-phrased: you can find people who will aver that the earth is flat, but the dominant consensus right now is just the opposite, just as the dominant consensus right now is that poplit like GREEN LANTERN cannot be literature. A better way to phrase the question might be, "In what ways might the dominant consensus be wrong?" An astronaut's photo of a round Earth in space is usually all the "round Earthers" need to support their argument, but is there a vital piece of evidence that proves the case of the "Hell No It Won't Go (in that category)" Party?

Callahan's principal argument is founded on the shifting nature of cultural bias:

'Here's the thing about literature: the way we think about it constantly shifts, and even if we accept a division between "literary works" (which implies the serious, profound importance of the text) and "genre fiction" (which implies that a book about cowboys will have cowboys in it), the terms of that division are based solely on cultural bias. And cultural bias changes, from culture to culture, over time.'

I too take cultural bias as a given factor in the historical changes between what is or isn't considered literary, as per Callahan's example of Shakespeare moving from being merely a popular playwright to the epitome of all "serious" writing. However, Callahan fails to ask a question that in part transcends cultural bias: what was it about Shakespeare in his own milieu that caused his contemporaries to consensually dismiss him from the realm of literary lights? Callahan says that it was merely a matter of one form being extolled over another; that poetry was automatically considered superior to theater-plays. Yet it's possible that it wasn't merely a matter of form, but of some content associated with that form. It's quite possible that critics of Shakespeare's time were not "tuned to hear" the content in Shakespeare within his form; certainly the Bard's fellow playwright Ben Jonson expressed dismay over Shakespeare's penchant for exotic settings and spectacles.

Yet, just because we have come to believe that plays can be as high art as poetry-- if anything, the former has eclipsed the latter as an expression of "culturedness"-- this does not mean that every play from Shakespeare's time has the same content as Shakespeare. Most of the plays from that time, certainly, lie unread save by academic scholars.

Yet for all that, such plays are still considered as being within the corpus of literature, as much as is Shakespeare's own stinker, THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA. Even bad literature is part of literature.

So if TWO GENTLEMEN is bad, yet is still part of literature, can not GREEN LANTERN not be bad, and still be part of literature? It would seem so, though I am sure that even if defenders of literary standards agree to this logic, they will still banish the Lantern and all of his kindred to the outer darkness of "trash literature."

However, then we come to another impasse: if even a single item within the corpus of trash literature can be re-interpreted as Shakespeare's plays were in later years; can be shown to possess content that goes beyond the disreputable form it shares with others of its ilk-- then yes, those literary standards will have to be revised. But I emphasize that it is understanding the content more than the form that makes the re-interpretation possible.

2 comments:

Charles R. said...

So if TWO GENTLEMEN is bad, yet is still part of literature, can not GREEN LANTERN not be bad, and still be part of literature? It would seem so, though I am sure that even if defenders of literary standards agree to this logic, they will still banish the Lantern and all of his kindred to the outer darkness of "trash literature."

Why isn't "trash literature" still literature? Based on its ubiquity, it's more "inner" than "outer."

Gene Phillips said...

"Outer" here would be with respect to what is viewed as being inside or outside the literary canon.

Some critics have been known to picture the canon as an embattled fort, surrounded by "ignorant armies" or barbarians at the gates, or the like.

I like the image of the canon as a house built atop a foundation. The house has a certain separateness from the foundation but isn't possible without it.

The idea that trash literature serves only the "inner" worlds (which is how I translate your observation) is not as true as it might seem. It's more a difference of degree than of kind.