Literariness. What on Earth does that mean?


Over the last few years, whenever I’ve asked a fellow linguist/tutor/mentor what does literariness mean, I have never been given a straight answer. It’s as if nobody knows. So I have done a little research of my own. And it’s true. Nobody knows. And yet literariness looms before us as something to achieve, something that wins prizes, something that publishers seek, something that lurks within the fog of willing creativity just waiting to be … recognized.

In fact, I do not remember one person, in any of the numerous courses, degrees, conferences and seminars I‘ve experienced, offering any kind of clear formula that can elevate a piece of writing from the ordinary to the literary. Is it not something that can be taught? Would an attempt to analyse and recreate literariness be a hopeless exercise, doomed by its very nature to instant failure?


But, anyway, here are a few thoughts to add to the long confusion.

You see, the idea of literariness emerged in the early 1920s within the school of literary criticism referred to as Russian Formalism. And it was conceived by one theorist in particular: Roman Jakobson. Formalists such as Jakobson paved the path that led to structuralist and post-structuralist theories and they did so by demonstrating that literary/poetic works could be analysed according to the literary devices that they employ. Jakobson developed this idea further, suggesting that literariness can be achieved via defamiliarisation. That sounds like academic gobbledygook, but in simple terms it means that you use the linguistic properties and form of language to present something that is familiar in a strange or unfamiliar way, so that the reader perceives it differently. JL_soundbite1OK, that still sounds like academic gobbledygook, and indeed it is, but ultimately defamiliarization relies upon deviations away from ordinary language to create literariness. More recently Jonathan Culler has explained defamilairization and literariness as being achieved by deviating away from conventional expectations. In this way, a once familiar thing takes on a new or extended meaning. Therefore, literariness is all about devices that jolt the reader’s perception.

So, what are these devices? At a simple level, they include syntax, rhythm, word repetition, new words (neologisms), figures of speech (tropes):

‘And we drove towards the widening dawn, that now streaked half the sky with a wintry bouquet of pink of roses, orange of tiger-lilies, as if my husband had ordered me a sky from a florist. The day broke around me like a cool dream.’

(The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter)

At a narrative level these literary devices include plot. Indeed, long before Russian Formalists began to analyse the not-ordinary texts of literature, Aristotle declared the prime importance of plot to the telling of a story. A story is a sequence of events linked temporally (in the right order) and causally (one thing happening because of another). The plot is the way you tell it. And literariness leans towards not telling things in the right order (for instance the chronologically reversed chapters in Night Watch by Sarah Waters) or choosing a moment to reveal causal relationships (such as the family dysfunction in Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). But, although it is important in itself, a plot often depends upon characters to drive and perform its detail. And here conventional expectation can be exploited to provide literariness: the strangely adult schoolchildren in Golding’s Lord of the Flies or the damaged cybergeek sexually-rampant girl genius in Larsson’s trilogy. There are many other devices:

  • a story nested within a story, for instance Brönte’s Wuthering Heights or Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth; or a story about a story (metanarrative) as in Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.
  • the alternative narratives in Martel’s Life of Pi.
  • the infiltration of narrative with unbelievably well-researched details, for instance regarding 18th Century perfumerie in Süskind’s cross-genre Perfume:The Story of a Murderer.
  • the mind-bending use of the second person in Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.
  • the total narrative craziness of Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, operating a rhythmic narrative macrostructure.
  • the overwhelming use of every literary device available to mankind in Joyce’s Ulysses.
  • the use of dialect, for instance in Hardy’s novels, in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, in Dickens’ Oliver Twist and in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, all defining the nature of the texts.
  • And, finally … the sophisticated corruptions of temporality such as the cyclical time in McEwan’s The Child in Time, the slowing and overnarration of time in Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy or the sudden casting into the past of the main characters in Faulks’ Birdsong.


So many ways to distract the reader from long-held assumptions. So many ways to make the reader question the meaning of the text, to struggle with narrative semantics. That was really the message in Jakobson’s ideas about literariness. But it seems that although literariness started this way, it was doomed to be reinterpreted, reconceptualised and contrived way beyond its formalist beginnings. Because, now, it seems that there are degrees of literariness. An author’s work can be seen as ‘quite literary’ or ‘almost literary’. Is there a tick chart somewhere that might be made available to the aspirant writer? And so many of the above-mentioned literary devices are currently eschewed: for instance, achronological narrative has fallen out of favour: too much retrospection has become a bad thing. And there are flights of fancy regarding the desirability of the first person/third person perspective. There are declarations being made about more than one main protagonist and pretend rules about too many characters (such rules clearly did not bother Shakespeare and they certainly did not filter through to the makers of Fortitude).

Then there’s that weird Commandment, written in stone, suggesting that some genre writing resides in a different bin to literariness, so that however many literary devices a science fiction novel might boast, it will never be desired by a modern day agent. Indeed, many of the gatekeepers proscribe such narratives yet, significantly, Hollywood sucks them up and makes blockbusters of them. But at least fantasy is enjoying popularity, thanks to the well-written Twilight and Hunger Games series.  Indeed, long forgotten are the days when nobody wanted stories about a school for child wizards. And while we’re on the subject of fantasy, let’s consider the Fifty Shades Trilogy. Devoid of any literary devices, those narratives sold millions. And that leads us to yet another great divide: that between the literary and the commercial … it’s as if they are mutually exclusive. Now, as far as I can gather, Jakobson never excluded  genre writing or commercially successful writing from the realm of literariness, yet somehow commerciality, particularly selling-like-hot-cakes genre writing, seems to carry with it an elitist taint of unliterariness. Of course, there are undeniable exceptions: commercial though they may be, nobody would dare relegate Lyra and her demon Pantalaimon to the depths of unliterariness …


Or would they?

It depends upon who’s writing the rules. And those rules seem to imply that there are books for us and books for them, and whilst we sit amidst the olives and oleanders sipping our lime juice and gin … struggling with a story about a child who has personified every object in the only room he has ever known, or trying to link the five disparate stories in Sebastian Faulks beautifully texted A Possible Lifethey are leafing through B&Q catalogues and Mills and Boon in the pub garden. Ah romance and chick lit … what an unliterary disgrace! But, come to think of it, nobody would accuse Miss Austen’s aspirational tale, of a young woman romancing an unapproachable and devastatingly handsome millionaire, of being unliterary chick lit. Because Austen’s works declare literariness. Indeed, in the pages of that particular piece of chick lit lurk the beginnings of psychonarration and interior monologue, recognized as literary devices by one and all.

JL_soundbite4So what is literariness one hundred years on? There is much disagreement. But it is probably centred more around the reader’s reactions to the text and to the reader’s assumptions regarding author intention. And that is all sailing dangerously close to discourse processing and cognitive pragmatics – which will inevitably lead to literary suffocation. And, significantly, these reader reactions are not something frozen in time. Half a century ago Henry Miller’s Sexus and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were denied literariness because they were outrageous but now they are quite lame in comparison with … well, in comparison with everything.

So, all things considered, I am forced to conclude that a theory of literariness is an impossible dream. Books will continue to be written that are destined to provide land fill or to last forever, and their nebulous literariness rating will have very little to do with their longevity. There is no formula only inspiration and luck. In fact, aiming to write an enduring literary text is like aiming to win the lottery.

And, I suppose, that is the sheer joy of it.


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