I figured I would skip the introduction because I am pressed for time. But after having delved into the first chapter, I can safely say that I will go back with some interest.
Alter begins at square one with an attempt at the definition of Literature, and especially what separates it from journalism, non-fiction. Alter writes that, "Literature, then, ...is not a fixed entity but a reflection in any society of the values of the ruling class, abetted by a learned or priestly elite" (1996, pg. 25).
He goes one step further, "The poems, plays, stories, and discursive texts of a culture may variously delight or stir its members, but they are admitted to the canon chiefly because of their consonance with the distribution of power in the society, their effectiveness in reassuring or training or lulling people so that they will better perform their given social rules" (1996, pg.26), and reduces a successful novelist to a stock broker or warden, an agent and emblem of the ruling class.
Alter even mentions the works of Terry Eagleton, a neo-Marxist from England, that says he would not mind if the works of Shakespeare were as valuable as graffiti on the street. Having had to make sense of Shakespeare as an English undergrad, I now possibly understand that the real reason(not barring the Bards supernatural skills of stealing well)I had to read the Bard was because all the writers I was going to study had read Shakespeare and if I wanted to understand other than topical readings of the text I was going to have read the Bard; it was really that simple.
I have fallen in love with his certain plays (Othello, The Tempest, the comedies) because I have tried to teach them and usually just end up having students instill in themselves these big translation factories where they read Shakespeare's text and translate it into their vernacular. But then I think, how much of translation, how we create correspondences with the material that we read or are assigned to read, goes on when a person reads Literature? How much are they translating what they read to make accentuate the entertainment of what they are reading?
Alter says that Literature changes over the years because we change over the years and because it is a reflection of who we are then it follows that it is organic because we are organic. But it does contain certain qualities, "One reason for the cohesiveness of literary tradition over a stretch of almost three thousand years is its powerful impulse of self-recapitualtion" (1996, pg. 27). In addition, "Writers repeatedly work under the influence of a founding (foundling?) model...they repeatedly return to origins, seeking to emulate, extend, transpose, or outdo some founder" (1996, pg. 27).
More importantly, we read Literature because it gives us pleasure, and one of those pleasures is the "nice interplay between the verbal aesthetic form and the complex meanings conveyed" (1996, pg. 28). Myself, I would have gone with, "Literature is cool because it's complicated and shit."
A Spanglish blog dedicated to the works, ruminations, and mongrel pyrotechnics of Yago S. Cura, an Argentine-American poet, translator, publisher & futbol cretin. Yago publishes Hinchas de Poesia, an online literary journal, & is the sole proprietor of Hinchas Press.