The Standard of Literature – Gatekeepers or Critics?

Dan Green has an interesting post up at The Reading Experience on The Standard of Literature.

Responding to a piece by Alison Walsh on Why writers still need gatekeepers, Dan argues that what is needed is not more gatekeepers but more critics:

Editorial gatekeeping is at best a hopelessly subjective and uncertain enterprise that encourages the editor who has often arbitrarily been granted power over a writers fate to project his/her fallible judgment as the “standard of literature.” At worst it jettisons such a standard altogether in favor of commercial potential or the belief that the target audiences expectations must be met.If anyone could be said to plausibly have a gatekeeping role it would be the literary critic although the critic who actually calls him/herself a gatekeeper deserves whatever mockery might ensue. Indeed, what the literary world needs now is not more editors and publishers pretending to be upholding “the standard of quality” but more critics willing to expend the effort to study literature and literary history which certainly does not require any sort of academic degree so that judgment is grounded in some degree of knowledge, to consider works of literature comparatively, and to pay the kind of attention required to apprehend and describe what a seriously intended literary work seems to be attempting.

I agree. We don’t need more people deciding what deserves to be published, we need more people helping us understand and wrestle with literature. I tend to prefer a more intentional and intelligent debate with free flowing information over a hierarchical structure designed to keep information in or out.

Even in dealing with more popular culture oriented books and reading we need less a gatekeeping attitude and more of a “joy of discovery” – to use a corny phrase – attitude. We need aggregators and people to help us find reading we enjoy and explore areas we might learn to enjoy.

And as Dan notes above, this doesn’t have to be tied directly to either the business of publishing or academia. Technology and access to information certainly make it possible for authors, readers and critics to find themselves in debate and discussion outside formal boundaries of guilds, businesses or higher education.

Publishers can pursue the balance between profit and quality as they see fit. Readers can use their judgement as to who is providing value, and spend accordingly. And everyone can seek out critics and readers/writers that help them engage with literature and the joys of reading.

Idealistic? Perhaps but more likely to produce quality than the gatekeeper perspective of Alison Walsh in my opinion.

Fairy tales and Fantasies are as old as the world

N.D. Wilson in the introduction to Twilight Land by Howard Pyle:

Fairy tales and fantasies are as old as the world. This is an easy thing to forget.  It is easy to see only the stories we tell today – fresh and shiny – and then assume that they came from nowhere, that they have no ancestors, and no narrative parents whatsoever.  But today’s fantasies are built on a rich imaginative heritage, a global heritage.  As long as there has been language, there have been stories.  And as far back as we can trace, those stories have been about dragons and magic and sacrifices, fools and wise men and wizards, fate and luck and love.  What we call realism in storytelling is a relatively new concept.  It is the sapling in the wood surrounded by towering moss-covered giants as old as history, giants grown up out of myths and legends.  Fantasy.

Fairy tales and Fantasies are as old as the world

N.D. Wilson in the introduction to Twilight Land by Howard Pyle:

Fairy tales and fantasies are as old as the world. This is an easy thing to forget.  It is easy to see only the stories we tell today – fresh and shiny – and then assume that they came from nowhere, that they have no ancestors, and no narrative parents whatsoever.  But today’s fantasies are built on a rich imaginative heritage, a global heritage.  As long as there has been language, there have been stories.  And as far back as we can trace, those stories have been about dragons and magic and sacrifices, fools and wise men and wizards, fate and luck and love.  What we call realism in storytelling is a relatively new concept.  It is the sapling in the wood surrounded by towering moss-covered giants as old as history, giants grown up out of myths and legends.  Fantasy.

Little Red Cap by Brothers Grimm,Lisbeth Zwerger (Illustrator)

We haven’t discussed a Lisbeth Zwerger book here in a while so as we head toward 2012 lets sneak in one more book.  I picked up Little Red Cap – the story most people know as Little Red Ridding Hood – recently and, not surprisingly, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Children’s Literature review:

This is a reissue of the book that originally was published in 1987. It is a version of the beloved tale of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Once again, children become acquainted with the charming little girl who always wears the red cap that was given to her by her grandmother. One day while on her way to visit her ailing grandmother, she meets the sly and cunning wolf in the forest. He persuades her to wander off the path and gather some flowers for her grandmother, while he rushes to grandmother’s house and gobbles her up. He then pretends to be grandmother and also devours Little Red Cap. Of course, the brave and clever hunter saves both the old lady and Little Red Cap. Zwerger’s beautiful illustrations are an ideal accompaniment to the text as they portray the characters (especially the wolf) with depth and emotion. All libraries should add this to their fairy tale collection.

Unlike some of the other volumes I have covered, this one is perfect for reading out loud. The pages alternate between text – without any unique fonts – and illustrations.  Zwerger offers her reliably evocative and playful illustrations that compliment this classic so well.

As noted above, the wolf  is particularly charming with a variety of facial expressions to match his deviousness as he tricks the innocent, and naive, Red Cap. Continue reading

An Apple a Day by Caroline Taggart

An Apple a Day: Old-Fashioned Proverbs –Timeless Words to Live By is not really a book you read like a novel so I put the volume in my “office” and read a couple of entries as I was able.  As you might imagine, reading it in this way took awhile which is why I am reviewing it months after it was published.

Here is the publishers description:

From Old Testament proverbs to modern phrases like “the best things in life are free,” An Apple a Day takes a fun look at expressions that “have stood the test of time.” Read through from start to finish or search through the list of hundreds of the most common proverbs, arranged from A to Z for easy reference. You’ll learn about each proverb’s surprising origins, why some are valid and others are not, the derivation and meanings behind them, and their relevance in today’s society.

My take? This is another fun addition to this series from Readers Digest. It happens to be more entertainment that reference material however. Sure, Taggart often gives insight and information into the sources and development of the proverbs, phrases and aphorisms listed but more often she offers her own commentary and witticisms. You get  a sense of the development of proverbs and how the culture and time influence both the wording and the perspective.  Rather than a technical resource this feels like a miscellany type meditation on the subject.

But nevertheless it is an interesting tour through some of the more famous proverbs and how we might use, understand and discuss them today. You come away with a sense of the role these types of phrases play in out language and conversations. Wordsmiths and literature lovers would enjoy this one.