When applying to universities, I swayed away from studying English Literature. It wasn’t that I didn’t think the study of literature was valid in society, or that I didn’t enjoy it – I was just put off from it. I had been made to feel by those around me that English Literature was somewhat inferior and less ‘right’ than other studies. But what do I mean by less ‘right’; I mean that in actuality, many people believe that everything within literature is simply unweighted opinion and subjective conclusions with a lack of just answers.
Of course, that isn’t the case. And I wondered why there exists such a pertinent notion within society that literature should be internalised and censored. It’s a vital component of society to appreciate the often discriminated representations that exist within literature: people from more deprived communities often take on the roles of ‘the loathly unwashed’ or ‘the servant’; those more fortunate are illustrated as a ‘mixed-up landowning class’, with the ability to be perceived as individual and self-sufficiently cerebral human beings. Some of the most credited novels within literature – Great Expectations, The Bell Jar or The Great Gatsby to name a few – are classic, mainstream novels which toil with images of social class and the corruption within class conflict.
James Kelman, author of How Late It Was, How Late, deciphered that he wanted to accurately depict the place in which he grew up in, Govern, Scotland. On researching the area, I found that there is a genuinely drastic level of poverty within the area, with high levels of crime, and an age expectancy of 54 above males, lower than some areas of the West Bank. Kelman went on to win the Booker Prize for literature in 1994, causing much controversy amongst literary critics. It turns out, there is much hierarchical hush within the world of arts. For when Kelman won his award, Rabbi Julia Neuberger denounced Kelman’s book as “a disgrace” – her outlook on the novel was probably since she viewed the language as Philistinian. She acted as if the true voice of Kelman’s background had spitefully offended her.
Especially when considering the evolution of literature, even from the Victorian era to the Postmodern, you’d think that modern authors can practically mould a novel into whatever they feel most apt, without having to adhere to literary convention; they have a right to create art. However, Kelman was being ridiculed for representing a true image of a town in which he personally grew up in. It is interesting to compare this to other sectors of the liberal arts world.
Amongst the sphere of music, we often find ourselves screaming high and mighty about those who denounce the establishment, speak of social and racial injustices and prejudices – those who “speak the truth”. Whether their tone surrounds peace, angst or desire, they are valued for using their own genuine voices. Whilst I’d love to witness a dinner party with Biggie Smalls, David Gilmour and Sylvia Plath all sitting around a table, talking about societal injustices, I just don’t think it will happen anytime soon (not only since two of them are no longer alive). My point is, of course people will connect to different mediums and indulge in different artists. Not to mention, not everybody finds enjoyment in reading; not everybody reads. But, when faced with the question of what is ‘real’, literature always appears to be the underdog. We often fail to notice that within biographical literature, there is often political literature and a true sense of the metaphysical nature of people’s lives. Often the lives of the illustrated ‘underclass’ alone appear as a political issue. Would Plath’s The Bell Jar have been quite so chilling if we were not aware that much of the novel was autobiographical and filled with such painful reality?
And these issues combined are what has driven me to hope that more people will grow to appreciate literature for the depth of social context that it raises. Literature does not simply consist of utopian, flowery tomfoolery, or otherwise depressing, gothic nonsense. Within literature, we can taste some of the most profound and candid representations of history and civilisation. We are led to believe that the most capable and paternal figures of society are the Lords, media commentators and cabinet ministers. Many times, their words have been devoured, chewed up and swallowed, before people decide to respond to these words via their social media after a thought or two: a mass of bodies where everybody suddenly turns into a political critic and speaks of corruption within the political framework of society.
Free speech doesn’t exist within literature. In some nations of the world, you will be persecuted for such representation of your society that are not desirable. That is a reality.
When we look at a painting, we often read the brief of social context that is usually supplied by its side. We want to understand its context. When we listen to an album, the mass commercialisation of many artists allow a broad audience to experience the roots of that genre; for example, rap stemmed from a large community fighting against social, political and economic oppression. However, it is the educated, upstanding citizens of society who are often given the voice to criticise literature – as if their voice is eternally fixed.
Words by Lydia Ibrahim