Why Study Literature?

By Jan Alber; Stefan Iversen et al. | Go to book overview
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Marie-Laure Ryan

Why study literature? Though formalists and structuralists did not explicitly address the question, we can imagine what kind of answer would derive from their conception of literature as a language within language and as the product of cultural conventions. In a much celebrated book, Jonathan Culler attributes the ability to understand and enjoy literary texts to a specialized “literary competence”:

To read a text as literature is not to make one’s mind a tabula rasa and approach
it without preconceptions; one must bring to it an implicit understanding of the
operations of literary discourse which tells one what to look for. Anyone lack-
ing this knowledge, anyone wholly unacquainted with literature and unfamiliar
with the conventions by which fictions are read, would be, for example, quite
baffled if presented with a poem… He would be unable to read it as literature…
because he lacks the complex ‘literary competence’ which enables others to
proceed (Culler 1975, 113–114).

Borrowing a concept from Jurij Lotman, Culler conceives of literature as a “second-order semiotic system, which has language as its basis” (113–114). We don’t learn this system as we learn our first language: if literature is the product of semiotic and cultural conventions, its appreciation must arguably be taught, studied or slowly acquired through the reading of many texts.

A counterpoint to this position was delivered by Mary Louise Pratt in her 1977 critique of the Russian formalist conception of literary language as separate from ordinary language. She championed a view of literature (and of verbal art) as continuous with the spontaneous practices of conversational storytelling and witty uses of language. Verbal art is everywhere it is part of our basic social and linguistic competence. More recently, evolutionary approaches (Dutton 2009, Boyd 2009) have stressed the adaptive advantages to be gained through the practice of the arts in general and of literature in particular. Against the view that literature is entirely the


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