What is Literature to You? Julian Barnes’s Answer

what is literature to you

[Interviewer: Sartre wrote an essay called “Qu’est-ce que la littérature?” What is literature for you?]

Julian Barnes:
There are many answers to that question. The shortest is that it’s the best way of telling the truth; it’s a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts. Beyond that, literature is many things, such as delight in, and play with, language; also, a curiously intimate way of communicating with people whom you will never meet. And being a writer gives you a sense of historical community, which I feel rather weakly as a normal social being living in early twenty-first-century Britain.

From  Julian Barnes, The Art of Fiction No. 165 Interviewed by Shusha Guppy

I found this response to be (not surprisingly) well-put. It makes sense that an author would have a prepared response to this question, or will have at least given it some thought. But Barnes’s answer takes me back to one of the first times I tried to consider the nature of literature – in my sophomore year of college, in a class that I now consider one of the most important in my higher education.

It’s weird, maybe, that in reading such a broad sweeping statement, Jean Rhys’s Wide Saragasso Sea came to mind immediately. But on the other hand, I can think of two strong connections that would lead me here: first, in the aforementioned classroom setting, WSSwas one of the texts we studied, and secondly, I’m currently on my second read of Anne Jamison’s fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World in which WSS is mentioned as an early form of fanfiction writing – for any readers who may not know, Wide Saragasso Sea is a retelling of Jane Eyre from the perspective of the previously-mythical madwoman in the attic.

Rhys uses her series of “well-ordered lies” to “tell more truth” than the text of Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Seeing a reality that is misrepresented or neglected, she brings the marginal plot to the center of the story. Rhys uses her “curiously intimate way of communicating with” Bronte to express the shortcomings and the real truth. In the terms of Barnes’s quote, she thought of Jane Eyre as the assemblage of real world facts that needed to be further constructed into several truths. Rhys sets herself up with conviction in the historical community this way, by talking back.

I’m a little in awe of how well Barnes’s answer fits this particular text. But at its core I think the first statement is a strong argument: fiction is the arrangement of elements that imitate or differ from real life to tell a larger truth of some sort.

Any other book lovers reading this who know Wide Saragasso Sea? An incredible text, by the way. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never read Jane Eyre but I love WSS to death.

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