Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Literary Book Blog Hop

Literary Blog HopThe Literary Blog Hop brings together blogs that post on novels with literary qualities. Though the last two novels I've posted on have been summer books, before those two I posted on The Time Machine and "Rappacinni's Daughter", so hopefully my Literature Club card hasn't been revoked.

This week's question for the blog hop is

Should literature have a social, political, or any other type of agenda? Does having a clear agenda enhance or detract from its literary value?

My first answer is that every type of writing has some sort of agenda, even if it's simply an agenda to entertain. I think what the question is asking, though, is about books with an overt agenda, that frame the raft trip down the Mississippi to tell you how people should get along no matter what their skin color.  I think the presence of such an agenda can be distracting from the literary value, but it depends on the skill of the author.

Let's take the example of two books that deal with a similar agenda: the denigration of the industrial working class in the early 1900's. In The Jungle, Upton Sinclair tells what could be a touching story of hardship in the meatpacking factories of Chicago, but clumsily overdoes the pathos. The plight of the workers and the Socialism presented as the savior are so extreme as to be cartoonish.

In Howards End, on the other hand, the working class people are portrayed as less desperate, the upper class people as less villainous and the  solution as promoting understanding between the two classes, rather than a political panacea. Even this would come across as weak and idealistic if not for Forster's great skill with prose. Despite having an agenda, his work is more literary than Sinclair's not because of the agenda, but the writing in which he expresses it.


ConnieGirl said...

I totally agree, and I love your side-by-side comparison of two books with the same agenda. I agree -- Sinclair is comically heavy-handed on the pathos. It's all about the skill level.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure it's about the skill level, but about the agenda. Howard's End was not as much about social comment as it was about depiction of specific personalities. Sinclair was about the agenda much more than the art. I think they were both brilliant at what they set out to do.

I like juxtaposing them here as a good example of type, style, and intent in literature.

Loni said...

Sorry to say, I haven't read either of those books, but I agree with your point. If the agenda takes away from the story, I don't like it and it can even put me off a book, but if it's woven into the plot, lives of the characters, etc, then it becomes an attractive part of the story. It can make you appreciate the book even more.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Nice post. Well put.

Perhaps it's just my stubborn Scottish blood, but my ears click off when I hear someone telling me what to think.

Here's my post: "All a Poet Can Do is Warn."

James said...

I agree with your assessment that all writing has an agenda. The examples you provide are excellent in contrasting different approaches to relating similar agendas. However, I am not convinced that Forster's stylistic success in relating his agenda makes his novel more or less literary than Sinclair's novel.

LBC said...

Your examples are interesting, because they made me realize that as a younger reader, I responded differently to being beat over the head with a writer's political/philosophical/social agenda. I think as a more sophisticated reader, I tend to appreciate subtlety, but when I was younger, I real liked books with obvious agendas: 1984, The Jungle, lots of obvious philosophical novels.

Here is my post (and a literary giveaway!)