The question of literature’s role in understanding society
To many, literature is a recreational activity, a necessary evil to passing exams at school or a tool to learn a new skill, a new cooking recipe not to mention how to be a better human. Literature can also come in the form of debating books, political books or books that have the potential to change the way we think about society. Usually, we distinguish between fiction and non-fiction based on differences such as these just listed. But just because something hasn’t actually happened doesn’t make it less attached to reality. In fact, works of fiction are a very important part of our perception of the real world.
This is key point of my work: Literature with emphasis on the fictional kind has, indeed, something to say and, in fact, can be sometimes better at this than books where we expect them to have an aim of creating some sort of change.
The American literary thinker, Kenneth Burke, makes this point in his sociological criticism where he calls literature “an equipment for living”. This underlines the essentially social character of literature. This does not, necessarily, mean that all authors will have a defined goal they want to achieve with and through their text, but it can of course be the case. Literature does not only have the ability to give us insight into a world, culture or situation foreign to us, it can also help us cope with situations that we know.
“The reading of modern literature cannot be harmless”
To Peter Sloterdijk, who hopefully will be the founding theoretic of this thesis, literature has an infectious expression that will evoke its own question to many others. And this infectious character is, to Sloterdijk, exactly why “the reading of modern literature can not be harmless. Where it unobstructed can unfold its influence, a chain reaction will be triggered that in time will radiate the whole society, as long as subjectivity-attenuating measures are taken.” (1)
But how ever true this must be, my point is also the opposite, namely, the fact that it also goes the other way around: Society will work as an infectious virus, affecting the way literature is written. And because of this, literature is not to be understood – only – as pleasure but as an important way to understand how we live today and how people before us lived, and maybe even how we will live in the future. Literature is not to be disregarded as something that you do on the side, but is a dead serious matter.
And on that note I can do nothing else than end with a recommendation, sadly more topical than ever: Rana Zeid, a Syrian poet who got her book En tøvende engel (eng.: A Hesistating Angel) published last year by the Danish publishing house, Korridor – but naturally also is to be found in other languages, not least Arabic. If you can understand Danish, I can really recommend this interview in Netudgaven.