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At What Point Does a Novel Become Literature?

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Students are often asked to read works of “Great Literature.” They're assigned novels by giants like Hawthorne, Dostoyevsky, and Dickens, and are told these works are considered “classic” or “important,” and that they’re somehow different from the vampire novels, crime thrillers, and comics that are read for fun. But at what point does fiction become literature? And who gets to decide which works make the cut?

To understand the concept of literature, we have to travel back to the 18th century, when the way people approached writing began to fundamentally change. Initially, the Latin word litteratura was used to refer to all written works, but in the 1700s, intellectuals started consciously developing an English literary canon, choosing a body of modern English-language works that they believed could stand up to ancient classics by the likes of Homer and Virgil. Essayist Arthur Krystal explained in Harpers that the idea was essentially to come up with a list of great works by English authors in order to create a “national literature." Gradually, literature didn't include all writing, just a few exemplary works.

Over the next few centuries, scholars, writers, critics, and publishers would continuously define and redefine what was considered literature. Nineteenth century publishing companies would put out anthologies and collections, canonizing select works by announcing their greatness. In the early 20th century, academics like John Erskine, Mortimer Adler, and Robert Hutchins started promoting a "Great Books" college curriculum, dedicating their professional lives to choosing "Great Books" and developing their criteria of "Greatness." Like the 18th century English intellectuals who wanted to develop a national literature, Erskine and his cohorts wanted to foster an American literary culture.

Literature has always been an amorphous concept, one that changes whenever different groups attempt to define "Great Literature." And, in the 20th and 21st centuries, it's only become increasingly blurry, as critics and readers question the literary hierarchy, noting that lists of great books tend to ignore works by female, minority, and non-Western writers. While some intellectuals continue to canonize individual works and authors, others argue that the very concept of literature is at best subjective and at worst oppressive.

“Unavoidably, booksellers and publishers are gatekeepers, making these decisions to suit their market and make their product easier to buy,” says Sian Cain, the books site editor for The Guardian. “What one person regards as an outstanding example of literature, another will consider drivel.”

Nowadays, literature is a more contested category than it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. More people are literate and educated now than when a handful of intellectuals could decide what constituted great writing. And, thanks to the Internet, more people than ever before are able to participate in literary debate. It’s not just the voices of critics and publishers that are heard. As author Daniel Mendelsohn notes in The New York Times, “Today, audiences as well as critics play a lively role in establishing which works get discussed, analyzed, noticed; the boil of resentment toward the literary gods—the Dionysuses who alone were once privileged to enshrine authors—has been lanced.”

But that doesn’t mean the distinction between popular novels and literature has been eliminated. The conversation may have opened up, but publishers, critics, educators, and readers still love categorizing different kinds of writing, distinguishing between genre novels and literary fiction; between ephemeral works and classic literature. The lines may become increasingly blurred, but one needs only to look at a few recent "Great Novels" lists to see how much consensus still exists. (For instance, compare these lists by The Guardian and Modern Library.)

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Big Questions
How Long Could a Person Survive With an Unlimited Supply of Water, But No Food at All?
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How long could a person survive if he had unlimited supply of water, but no food at all?

Richard Lee Fulgham:

I happen to know the answer because I have studied starvation, its course, and its utility in committing a painless suicide. (No, I’m not suicidal.)

A healthy human being can live approximately 45 to 65 days without food of any kind, so long as he or she keeps hydrated.

You could survive without any severe symptoms [for] about 30 to 35 days, but after that you would probably experience skin rashes, diarrhea, and of course substantial weight loss.

The body—as you must know—begins eating itself, beginning with adipose tissue (i.e. fat) and next the muscle tissue.

Google Mahatma Gandhi, who starved himself almost to death during 14 voluntary hunger strikes to bring attention to India’s independence movement.

Strangely, there is much evidence that starvation is a painless way to die. In fact, you experience a wonderful euphoria when the body realizes it is about to die. Whether this is a divine gift or merely secretions of the brain is not known.

Of course, the picture is not so pretty for all reports. Some victims of starvation have experienced extreme irritability, unbearably itchy skin rashes, unceasing diarrhea, painful swallowing, and edema.

In most cases, death comes when the organs begin to shut down after six to nine weeks. Usually the heart simply stops.

(Here is a detailed medical report of the longest known fast: 382 days.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
Why is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky?
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Today, people around the globe will feel uneasy about getting out of bed, leaving their homes, or going about their normal daily routines, all because of a superstition. These unfortunate folks suffer from “paraskavedekatriaphobia,” a common neurosis familiar to us all: the fear of Friday the 13th. But just where did this superstitious association come from, and how did it catch on?

The truth is that no one is absolutely sure where the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky originated. Donald Dossey, the founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, suspects the fear can be traced back to a Norse myth about 12 gods who had a dinner at Valhalla—the fabled hall where legendary Norse heroes feasted for eternity after they died—that was interrupted by a 13th guest, the evil and mischievous god Loki. According to legend, Loki tricked Höðr (the blind god of winter and son of Odin, the supreme god in Norse mythology) into shooting his brother Baldr (the benevolent god of summer who was also a son of Odin) with a magical spear tipped with mistletoe—the only substance that could defeat him. Thus the number 13 was branded as unlucky because of the ominous period of mourning following the loss of such powerful gods by this unwanted 13th guest.

For whatever reason, among many cultures, the number 12 emerged throughout history as a "complete" number: There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 Gods of Olympus, 12 sons of Odin, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 Jyotirlingas or Hindu shrines where Shiva is worshipped, 12 successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, and 12 tribes of Israel. In Christianity, Jesus was betrayed by one of his 12 Apostles—Judas—who was the 13th guest to arrive for the Last Supper. Surpassing the number 12 ostensibly unbalances the ideal nature of things; because it is seen as irregular and disrespectful of a sense of perfection, the number 13 bears the stigma of misfortune and bad luck we know today.

WHY FRIDAY?

Friday joins in the mix mostly because all of the early accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion agree that it took place on Friday—the standard day for crucifixions in Rome. As Chaucer noted in The Canterbury Tales, "And on a Friday fell all this mischance." Yet perpetuating Friday as an unlucky day in America came from the late 19th-century American tradition of holding all executions on Fridays; Friday the 13th became the unluckiest of days simply because it combined two distinct superstitions into one. According to the Oxford University Press Dictionary of Superstitions, the first reference to Friday the 13th itself wasn’t until 1913. (So despite actually occurring on Friday, October 13, 1307, the popular notion that the Friday the 13th stigma comes from the date on which the famed order of the Knights Templar were wiped out by King Philip of France is just a coincidence.)

The repercussions of these phobias reverberated through American culture, particularly in the 20th century. Most skyscrapers and hotels lack a 13th floor, which specifically comes from the tendency in the early 1900s for buildings in New York City to omit the unlucky number (though the Empire State Building has a 13th floor). Street addresses sometimes skip from 12 to 14, while airports may skip the 13th gate. Allegedly, the popular Friday the 13th films were so-named just to cash in on this menacing date recognition, not because the filmmakers actually believed the date to be unlucky.

So, is Friday the 13th actually unlucky? Despite centuries of superstitious behavior, it largely seems like psychological mumbo jumbo. (One 1993 study seemed to reveal that, statistically speaking, Friday the 13th is unlucky, but the study's authors told LiveScience that though the data was accurate, "the paper was just a bit of fun and not to be taken seriously." Other studies have shown no correlation between things like increased accidents or injuries and Friday the 13th.)

And Friday the 13th isn't a big deal in other cultures, which have their own unlucky days: Greeks and Spanish-speaking countries consider Tuesday the 13th to be the unluckiest day, while Italians steer clear of Friday the 17th. So today, try to rest a little easy—Friday the 13th may not be so unlucky after all.

Additional Source: 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition.

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