Grand theories about the purpose and aims of literature never satisfy me. They never satisfy me because no matter how grand they are, how clever, how obtuse, they are never able to successfully hold the whole clutch of eggs together. Pick any random list of authors – Wolf, Dahl, Beckett, Sterne, Milton, Plath – and try, without restoring to the ticks of bullshittery, to pocket them together in a neat and singular theoretical pocket.
So what is it (if you agree that there must be something) that acts as the thread that binds the whole of literature together? And more importantly, why are they, and countless more, still read today?
You’ve probably guessed my next move here. Be reductive. You’re probably also thinking: why bother? Let’s leave it and love it for what it is.
It’s a fair point. But consider this. Although an animal fully fleshed and in flight is always the greater thrill to see, you’ll never learn what holds the animal together in flight without, at one point, peeling the skin back and having a peak at the bare bones.
Firstly, what holds these writers listed above together is that there is something about them that people enjoy in one sense or another. This is the first clue. This the thread:
ALL literature – at least so I think – has as its aim, essence, intention, the act of invoking feeling. To steal a phrase from Bacon, literature wants to turn the valves of feeling. A book, poem etc is good because it has the power to move people, to make them feel different emotions, to lift them from the sustained neutrality of the average day and force them to channel their emotions in a direction. That is why we read. That is why we write.
Consider this: a bad piece of literature can still be worth reading if it has the ability to move us. Look at the unintentionally comic McGonagall:
By these desperate attacks Napoleon lost ten thousand men,
And left them weltering in their gore like sheep in a pen;
And the British lost one thousand men– which wasn’t very great,
Because the great Napoleon met with a crushing defeat.
A writer of complete doggerel. Still read (occasionally). Still in print. Because enough people, like me, find it funny – are moved to laughter.
To go further, all of art is the fulfilling of the human need to be moved. Arguably, the need has never been greater. How empty we feel, how blunted we are by whole days, weeks and months sat in front of phones, televisions and computers: we need to be taken hold of, moved, shook up and spat out to experience a break from the near all-devouring mundanity of comfort and control.
To my mind then, as long as you write your content & form with an aim to move the reader, to make them feel something, anything, then you are writing literature, creating art, fulfilling one of the few fundamental human needs.