What is Literary Writing?

by John Oldcastle

The term 'literary writing' calls to mind works by writers such as Shakespeare, Milton, or Wordsworth; definitive examples of all that the term implies. We instinctively associate the term with characteristics such as artistic merit, creative genius, and the expression of mankind's noblest qualities. In this essay I will explore some of the characteristics of this kind of writing.

Literary works are primarily distinguishable from other pieces of writing by their creative, or artistic intent.

A piece of literature differs from a specialised treatises on astronomy, political economy, philosophy, or even history, in part because it appeals, not to a particular class of readers only, but to men and women; and in part because, while the object of the treatise is simply to impart knowledge, one ideal end of the piece of literature, whether it also imparts knowledge or not, is to yield aesthetic satisfaction by the manner of which it handles its theme. [1]

The writer of this passage emphasises the distinction between writing of didactic purpose and literary writing which has that other, aesthetic, dimension. In fundamental terms literature is 'an expression of life through the medium of language' [2], but language used more profoundly than when used simply to convey information.

The following two extracts, for example, both describing one partner's response to marital problems, are different in both their form and their intent:

Many critics date the crumbling of their marriage back to that unfortunate episode, but David was delighted when he heard that Lynne had produced a daughter from her marriage to an American doctor.


Her writing hand stopped. She sat still for a moment; then she slowly turned in her chair and rested her elbow on its curved back. Her face, disfigured by her emotion, was not a pretty sight as she stared at my legs and said . . [3]

The first piece, from a newspaper, gives a typical tabloid account of a broken marriage. It plainly states the position of the two parties involved, (but with an attitude akin to 'gossip'). The tone of the second piece is less factual and more descriptive. Here the writer is sets out to depict a particular scene, that of a woman distressed by the discovery of some unsavoury information concerning her husband, and employs such devices as the use of emotive words, such as 'disfigured', the gradual increase of dramatic tension, 'slowly turned in her chair', and then in the last line a humorous deflation of this tension, 'her face . . . was not a pretty sight'. The author shows a mixture of intentions here, the structure and the use of language showing a different approach and purpose to the first piece's straightforward account of the everyday world. In contrast to such a plain factual account -

Literature is a vital record of what men have seen in life; what they have experienced of it, what they have thought and felt about those aspects of it which have the most immediate and enduring interest for all of us. [4]

So literary writing, having creative and artistic intent, is more carefully structured and uses words for the rhetorical effect of their flow, their sound, and their emotive and descriptive qualities. Literary writers can also employ tone, rhyme, rhythm, irony, dialogue and its variations such as dialects and slang, and a host of other devices in the construction of a particular prose work, poem, or play.

All fiction is a kind of magic and trickery, a confidence trick, trying to make people believe something is true that isn't. And the novelist, in a particular, is trying to convince the reader that he is seeing society as a whole. [5]

Literary writing is, in essence, a 'response', a subjective personal view which the writer expresses through his themes, ideas, thoughts, reminiscences, using his armoury of words to try to evoke, or provoke, a response in his reader.

. . . it is not only a question of the artist looking into himself but also the of his looking into others with the experience he has of himself. He writes with sympathy because he feels that the other man is like him. [6]

In Welsh Hill Country, R. S. Thomas conveys his response to a landscape:

Too far for you to see
The fluke and the foot-rot and the fat maggot
Gnawing the skin from the small bones,
The sheep are grazing at Bwlch-y-Fedwen,
Arranged romantically in the usual manner
On a bleak background of bald stone. [7]

Here the powerful evocation of desolation, of the stark brutality, even indifference, of the countryside is captured by Thomas through a pointed use of language which also conveys his grim mood.

In contrast, Keat's To Autumn conveys a soft, sensuous depiction of this season which captured his imagination:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run; [8]

Both these extracts show a creative, imaginative response to a particular scene, and show contrasting ways in which a poet can use diction to capture his mood and provoke a reaction in the reader. Devices such as rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, and assonance combine to form a structure of mood, a structure recognisably literary.

. . . apart from the precise mixture of certainty and hesitation in the poet's mind, one of the sovereign gestures of art is to make the ideal real, and to project a dim impersonal awareness onto a structure of definite invention. [9]

Literature is a process of communication, it 'helps us to understand life'. [10]

Perhaps we should also consider the motivation of the writer as a factor which distinguishes literary from other forms of writing. The writer's motivation is the energy that pulls together the strands of his creativity in the shaping of the finished work.

Ernest Hemingway gives his reasons for writing:

From things that had happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of. [11]

Georges Simenon puts forward the idea of therapeutic value, a search for self:

I think that if a man has the urge to be an artist, it is because he needs to find himself. Every writer has to find himself through his characters, through all his writing. [12]

Philip Larkin gives his reasons for writing poems as a need 'to preserve things I have seen/thought/felt (if I may so indicate a composite and complex experience) both for myself and for others'. Here, in The Whitsun Weddings, his motive was to capture his response to a view seen from a train:

As if out on the end of an event
Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms, [13]

The main impetus behind Edward Thomas's No One So Much as You, is to describe his experience of love:

No one so much as you
Loves this my clay,
Or would lament as you
Its dying day [14]

While the motive behind Andrew Young's, On the Prospect of Death, is self-evident.

If it should come to this
You cannot wake me with a kiss
Think I but sleep too late
Or once again keep a cold angry state [15]

Personal motivation is an essential characteristic of literary writing. It is the engine behind creativity, and the last two extracts provide examples of some of the great themes which occur again and again, not only in literary writing, but in all the arts; love, death, war, and peace. Such themes, it seems, provide perennial inspiration for artists.

So perhaps an inventory of literary writers' motives should include the overflowing of their passions, their desire for self-expression, an abiding fascination with humanity in all its variety, the need to come to grips with relationships as they really are in the world as it really is, the striving after an ideal world which can exist only in the imagination, and, perhaps at the heart of it all, the need to form, shape, things of beauty.

The artist needs to resolve conflicts within himself, to reach an understanding, to search for some credible meaning of to life, to death, to everything. He is always reaching, fumbling toward some sort of truth; an artistic creative truth, a truth that resides in the individual artist and needs to be grasped, made real, made understandable.

Perhaps in some cases the artist's motivation could be seen as a need to create other worlds, in the way that Milton and Tolkien created other worlds, in order that they can project real conflicts onto another plane.

The many different genres of the novel constitute a particular challenge to the concept of 'literary writing'. Detective novels, and science fiction novels, for example, are creative, imaginative, depictions of life. We might question their seriousness as literature, or whether they can achieve the high ideals of art, but then we might equally well question the meaning of 'seriousness', and 'the high ideals of art'. Popular novels may not deal with life's great conflicts, or search for truth and beauty, and they may deal with the seamier side of life, or escape into the fantastic, but can they still be considered 'literature'? Do they still make an important contribution to our understanding of the world, as 'real' literature does?

Obviously 'literary' works such as Tolstoy's War and Peace and Proust's Remembrance of Things Past take as a nucleus an event, an aspect of life and construct a world around that core. They are works about real people, engaged in the real business of living. They convey knowledge, understanding, experience and are hence considered important. Yet they have in common with the detective and science fiction novel that they are books, consisting of words that have been used to express something, words that may or may not be read, and may or may not succeed in conveying an understanding of the world they depict.

In my view it comes down to subjective value judgements. I believe literature is a 'broad church' which ought to be able to deal with any subject, and that ultimately it is individual readers, or readers en masse, who decide on the value of any particular work and on whether or not it deserves a place in the annals of literary history.

Writers aim to show us 'the world', but no single writer can do this, and 'literature' should encompass numerous different kinds of writer because each is trying to show us something which cannot be shown as a whole. Each, whether a Tolstoy or a Raymond Chandler, can only give us his own small fragment of understanding. Ultimately it is those works which endure that should be considered 'literature', those which have succeeded in holding firm a fragment of life, to be seen, to be read, to be understood.

Perhaps we should let a writer have the last word on summing up the writers' art:

The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed, so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist's way of scribbling 'Kilroy was here' on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass. [16]

In conclusion, literary writing does embody certain distinguishing characteristics. It is a self-conscious, imaginative mode of writing which uses words not just to convey information, but as an art form. Ultimately it is a response to life.

Personally, passages of outstanding literary writing such as the following, convince me that words are the highest form of expression available to mankind:

CLAUDIO: Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; [17]

1. Hudson, W. H. p.10
2. Hudson, W. H. p. 10
3. Nabokov, V. p.95
4. Hudson p.10
5. Angus Wilson, in Dick, K.
6. Geroges Simenon, in Dick, K.
7. Thomas, R.S. Poems
8. Hayward, J. p. 296
9. John Middleton Murray. Preface to the poems of Walter de la Mare
10. Reeves, J. p.16
11. Dick, K. p. 196
12. Dick, K. p.38
13. Allot, K.
14. Allot, K. p. 63
15. Allot, K. p. 83
16. Faulkner, William, in Dick, K. p.33
17. Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Allot, Kenneth (Ed) The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse. Penguin 1980
Dick, Kay. (Ed) Interviews from 'Paris Review'. Penguin 1972
Hayward, John. (Ed) Penguin Book of Verse. Penguin 1981
Hudson, William Henry. An Introduction to the Study of Literature. Harrap 1963
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. Penguin 1982
Reeves, James. The Critical Sense. Heinemann 1957
Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure

© John Oldcastle, October 2000

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