At What Point Does a Novel Become Literature?


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.)

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?

Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

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