Literature as a Social Activity

Jean François de Troy, "A Reading of Molière" (1728)

Jean François de Troy, “A Reading of Molière” (1728)

I was recently alerted to an article in the New York Review of Books (thanks Carl Rosin) on a subject close to my heart: how literature can propel readers into significant social interactions. Here’s Tim Parks:

Novels…offer a feast of debate and create points of contact: are the characters believable, do people really do or think these things, does the story end as it should, is it well written? The way different people respond to Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, or J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, will tell you a lot about their personalities without anything personal needing to be said. Novels are ideal subjects for testing the ground between us.

Parks provides great examples of how Tristram Shandy was received by fans, who “invented Tristram Shandy recipes, set up graveyards with the tombs of the novel’s characters, and named racehorses after them.” (This was in addition to the unauthorized prequels and sequels that were written.) Then, in the 19th century there was Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Noting that the book was famously (and provocatively, I would add) subtitled A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented, Parks writes,

How could she be pure, reviewers demanded, when first she had an illegitimate child with a man, then lived with him as his mistress while married to someone else? It was a good question. But Tess was so attractive, so endearing, and so incredibly unlucky. The divergence of opinion was so acrimonious that it became difficult to have supporters and detractors sitting side by side at society dinners. Essentially the novel had forced readers to reconsider received Victorian opinion on sexual mores, exposing the phobic side of polite society’s moral rigor. Inevitably, the more people raged against the book the more it sold.

Sadly, there don’t seem to be as many instances of literature having this kind of impact these days. Parks observes that the serialized novel

has been replaced by serialized television fiction that has become so successful at generating discussion that those of us who didn’t follow The Sopranos or The Wire were often made to feel left out.

Of course, there are exceptions, such as Harry Potter. It’s also interesting that sometimes the most intense battles are over young adult fiction, often initiated by rightwing groups. It’s interesting that people are more likely to take arms against the books that children are reading than books that adults are reading—as though they see literature as having lost its power over all but young people.

Parks mentions one adult author who is attracting a wide range of followers around the world, including me. I’ve had any number of interesting conversations with Haruki Murakami fans. Trying to understand to Murakami’s international popularity, Parks compares him with the also-popular E. L James and has this to say:

Both authors, it seems to me, in their quite different ways are fascinated by the same thing: the individual’s need to negotiate the most intimate relationships in order to get the most from life without losing independence and selfhood. If Shades of Grey had any seriousness, it was in asking these questions: How is sexuality to be negotiated in a couple? How can I give the other what he/she wants and remain myself? In a sense, How can I control what appears uncontrollable? In an infinitely more sophisticated and certainly more mystical fashion, Murakami invariably asks, How can I avoid being overwhelmed on the one hand by others, on the other by loneliness? Where is the middle way?

“Negotiate” is one of my favorite words. How can literature help us negotiate life? Parks expands the question to “How, by sharing our intense literature experiences with others, can we figure out this life together?”

This entry was posted in Hardy (Thomas), Murakami (Haruki), Sterne (Lawrence) and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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