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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Literature: What’s the point?

The Watermark, a journal dedicated to the literary arts on the UMass Boston campus, is managed by the author Caleb Nelson


. . . And on the pedestal these words appear:

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

look on my works ye mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains . . .



On the last morning of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, I drank from a fountain in the corner of an exhibition hall.

I felt like a dandelion at the rim of a garden. Acres of tables packed with fresh literary journals, magazines, and books spread out behind me.

Vibrant banners announced so much magnificence in literature. As I considered all of the cultivated people that milled around the various hundreds of blossoming literary journals, I grew indignant. What makes any of this literature?

Several yards off, toward a coffee bar, two saggy-eyed gentlemen analyzed a personal rejection note from the Editor of the Paris Review. I visualized my own format rejections from less impressive literary journals, a slice of paper, printed, “Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately . . .”

Rejection is at the heart of art. And here, amid the tweed, the tote-bags, and my own aggrandized bitterness, I scorned whatever gods of literature decide what lasts. Then I stalked my dandelion self out for a cigarette.

Rallied by a love of reading, and more so by a desire to be read, the writers that gathered at the Hynes serve a little cult called Literature. It is an exclusive cult, often called pretentious, because Bill O’Reilly is not invited, nor anyone promoting self-help books. Literature deals in abstraction, and now I am going to define it.

Literature was the wisdom of the ages, of gods, of kings, of the Bible: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

There was a time when the written word could not be questioned. It was law. It was written in stone, transcribed on scrolls, copied by scribes, preserved by the select few who could read it.

A Roman scribe once wrote, “littera scripta manet,” meaning “the written word abides,” which is literary propaganda. It is the mantra of a cynical lawyer. Writers develop language. But readers have much more power.

Words change. ‘Littera’ died with Latin. Hundreds of years later ‘literature’ emerged in English. Current dictionaries say the word conveys, “superior or lasting artistic merit.” Editors (once rulers or censors) and ultimately, readers make that value judgment.

Maybe pop-culture, in time, composes our literary cannon. If something gets printed enough times, copies are bound to survive.

Samuel Johnson, an 18th century English scholar, is alleged to have said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” He was often in debt, and made a living by writing literary scholarship and criticism, and ultimately a dictionary.

Johnson wrote one simple definition for literature, “Learning; skill in letters,” in a workaday time when art was anything “not taught by nature or instinct.” He evaluated literature based on technique. Being a huge Shakespeare fan-boy, he edited a definitive collection of the Shakespeare’s plays.

Literature survives by the sweat of its fans.

My Granddad says of Shakespeare, “I’ve wasted enough time on that moron. He never says what he means.”

Granddad resides in our living room watching daytime television shows like Judge Judy (the most highly-run program in America, by the way).

“I don’t care if he was intoxicated or not,” Judy opines. “What were you cursing at him for?”

I admit—Judy’s abrupt social critiques transfix me as well.

In the past artistic merit followed ubiquity.

Our ideas took root in ancient literature, a microcosm of which still exists. History reverberates in our language, and all that that we can gather of those ancient memories we preserve as literature.

Sometimes a famous name is all it takes to make a book respectable. Aristophanes wrote preposterous plays full of fart jokes, but we keep them because they’re more than 2,300 year old. By virtue of age alone we consider them literature. Similar plays written these days might appear as summer Blockbusters, but not in textbooks.

In the age of film, when authors thrive by getting their book written into a screenplay, money often defines artistic success.

History could do without The Da Vinci Code, though it probably will not. Cheers to Dan Brown for cashing in on European fascinations.

The Bible is a classic, thanks to a contingent of fan fanatics. It topped bestseller lists for years.

I was brought up reading that book daily. In Sunday School, I memorized Psalm 119, the one King David used to teach his son, Solomon, the alphabet.

It is an acrostic poem encourages worship of things that have been written down, infatuation with authority, and paranoia towards foreigners. It also encourages anti-intellectualism:  “I have more understanding that all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation.”

Considering King David’s pension for slaughter, sex-servants and slaves, it’s worth questioning his moral judgment. But morality is not a prerequisite for literature. The collection of books, Genesis through Revelation, is a liturgical accomplishment, and heavily endorsed by powerful people, so it remains an essential element in our modern literary cannon.

Old words sometimes express more by virtue of their age. Subtext—the reader’s domain—can provoke emotions, or philosophy, or irony, or interpretation that the author never intended.

There are so many literary magazines in the US that one might assert that literature can be anything that’s been printed. A class taught by Askold Melnycsuk (founder of Agni) will produce five literary journals this fall alone. And several journals from his past classes are still in print, including ROAR (publishes work by and about women) and Consequence (publishes writing by and about veterans).

This fall I get to edit The Watermark, the student literary journal here at UMB. I walked into the position on a lark, while visiting a friend in the Student Media Office. Since I’m in a position to judge, I can call literature whatever I like.

You can too.

A professor at UMB, John Fulton, said that literature is like porn, you can tell it when you see it. It’s a vague something inside you that knows, an inspiration. It cannot be a travel brochure.

Readers define literature by recommending and preserving writing that they like. We define quality now, and whatever writing we pass on defines our era. In this spirit, I recommend Habeas Corpus, a book of lively sonnets by Jill McDonough about the death penalty. There’s a lot of scholarship behind that poetry.

Our literature, whatever lasts, is the best insight of our time.

About the Contributor
Caleb Nelson served as the following positions for The Mass Media the following years: Editor-in-Chief: Fall 2010; 2010-2011; Fall 2011 News Editor: Spring 2009; 2009-2010