What is Literature?

Stitches, A Memoir, by David Small

Sometimes, I like to concern myself with philosophical questions like “What is beauty?” And lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about literature, specifically literary fiction, and asking the ether, “what counts as literature?  What are the standards?  Should there be standards?  If there are standards, who should be in charge of them?”

It is clearer every day that the time-honored model of the academy as bastion of literature and high art doesn’t jive with new media.  The academy itself is dabbling in new media with online courses and virtual text books, Facebook pages & marketing departments who tweet… We’re in a state of cultural reckoning right now.  It’s exciting and confusing and wonderful.

If we want high art–or really any standards at all–we’re going to have to figure out how to let the academy, the canon, and new media work together, or at least integrate into one another to some extent.

Graphic novels are totally old news.  I was kind of peripherally exposed to The Sandman around 7 years ago, and I’ve been paying a bit of attention, so I know that graphic novels have been adapted to film somewhat frequently lately, as in The Watchmen and V for Vendetta and others.

And really,  they’re not typically in my taste.  It’s not that I can’t see the beauty, or recognize the value, but like with video games: try as I might, I just can’t make my stubborn, realist self be so in love with the fantasy. I find the writing to be generally poorly done, or overdone, even–or especially–when the art is fabulous.  I do love particularly fanciful children’s books.  But really excellent children’s books hit that sweet spot of beautiful writing and beautiful art.  It seems wasteful or disrespectful to me to make gorgeous images and attach them to poor writing.

Comic book movies are old news, too.  Batman, Superman, The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Spiderman, all began as comic books, whose cousins, graphic novels, are appearing with greater gusto and in a wider array of disciplines and applications all the time. Less famously–and more in my aesthetic–American Splendor explored the “real” world in comics as told by Harvey Pekar.

But I’m trying.  Really trying.  Trying so hard that I’ve agreed to present at the Wildcat Comic Con on character development in writing (specifically, that it is important to know and love one’s villains), and to moderate a panel on Zombies.  I do enjoy The Walking Dead, the show & books, those graphic novels are entertaining.  I’ve read chapters of The Zombie Survival Guide here and there, and I find voodoo zombies to be particularly fascinating.

 I recently read Stitches.  

Stitches is realism, a proper memoir that is at turns tragic and funny and strange.

 David Small is a well-known, award-winning, beloved illustrator.  His illustrations have adorned children’s books and magazines for decades.

In 2009, he released this work, and I will tell you openly that this is one of the most literary things I have read in a long time.  I would have laughed at you if you’d told me several weeks ago that I would think of a book with fewer than a thousand words as high literature.

Stitches is.

The book works like a prose poem.  It tells a vivid and affecting story with carefully chosen words and often eyeless, expressive figures, leading the reader to certain conclusions without doing any of the work for her.  The writing is spare, beautiful.

Here’s a taste: My step-grandfather, Papa John, came home from work.  Papa John had a scratchy face.  He wore a watch and chain.  He was the “greeter” at a funeral home.  He took me to see the trains come in.  Papa John knew everyone in town.  He knew all the “boys” at the bar.  And on chilly mornings, he stoked the furnace. 

“What do you put in there?”


“Do you put little children in there sometimes?”

“Don’t be silly.”

In this scene, it’s clear that young David feels unsafe at his grandparents’ house, but free to ask his step-grandfather–who is one of the nicest adults in the book–questions that indicate that fear.  Small, drawn clues to the narrative signal us to slowing action with greater detail,  lead us to questions and conclusions, as in the facial expressions showing subtle intention, so you get the right read on each character.

I don’t want to tell you too much.  I want you to go get this book and read it.


Author: April Line Writing

Writing about whatever the f*ck I want.

7 thoughts on “What is Literature?”

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