What’s literature for?

In which my brain is likened, hopefully, to a compost heap


I’ve done events with Reader Patron, Frank Cottrell Boyce, in which he’s  spoken about being read to at Primary School. Sister Bernadette –  was that her name, Frank?  – would read to the class, and nothing was required: no response, no book review, no list of wow words. Just enjoy, just let it in. Frank’s argument is that readers and writers need composting time.

I’m hoping that’s what has been happening to me for the last ten years or so: life, stories, people, thoughts, books – all going in and composting down.

I’ve been on sabbatical during June. I’m having a month away from my day job at The Reader, which I founded in 1997 with the publication of the first issue of The Reader magazine. It was a part-timish love-of-my-life in the early days; I was still teaching English Literature in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of LiverpooI. And I had family responsibilities and time to do other things: walking with Angie, gardening, cooking, sewing, music.

But by  2006 The Reader was calling for every atom of energetic attention I could give, and that call has been sounding every day for  the last ten years.

Garden: rack and ruin.

Cello: no practice for  seven years.



My last quilt, A Bookcase For Frances and Drummond’s Wedding,  was two, or was it three?, years late, and as far as cooking,  we mainly live on steamed salmon and broccoli these days.

I’ve had holidays, but they have been, emphatically, holidays, absolute downtime to spend with my husband and family.

This sabbatical is different. It isn’t  just a rest, though blissfully it is that, but I’m also doing some hard graft, digging into the compost heap, unearthing memories, casting my mind  back over the last two decades and seeing which questions need asking.

I’m trying to think about the gap between what literature is for and how we teach people to study  literature.

I’ve been asking myself why, around 1996-7, did I began to feel I needed to do something to get great books out of the university and into the hands of people who needed them?

‘You need it,’as Mike said, in the first ever shared reading group, ‘but you don’t know you need it’.

Before that, I’ve remembered,  during A levels and at University, what I loved about books and reading rarely happened in a class and was never spoken about. We used a completely different language – form, character, syntax, authorial voice and so on (I did my degree just before literary theory, with its even more specialised languages, hit town…).

There seemed no way to talk about  the lacerating white-hot  personal meaning I actually experienced when literature was doing its most powerful work for me. S why, when so much of my reading life could not find a place in formal study, did formal study  still feel, most of the time, worth doing?

So here’s a couple of  questions I’d like some tweet-sized  help with…please tweet me at @readerjanedavis or use the hashtags ,  and RT my request if you can.

  1. What is literature for?  #whatslitfor

  2.  What is the study of literature for?  #whystudylit


Or, as ever, leave your responses as comments here.



3 thoughts on “What’s literature for?

  1. Sue Williamson June 27, 2016 / 12:55 pm

    I can only answer this for me, but here goes.

    The books that I have read that have influenced me the most have made me feel e cited, brought a deep joy and completely subsumed the ego and the id be uses it has been almost like an out of body experience. Escapism is only part of what I am talking about, but they have provided a complete forgetting of the every day and an absorption into the story so that I am there, part of it, reacting as the characters do (or not) but this is, for a time, reality. This leaves you refreshed and recharged, while also expanding your horizons and leaving you with a deeper knowledge, understanding and insight into the human condition. As I particularly enjoy historical novels, they have also expanded my knowledge of history and understanding of how we are where and what we are.

    Why we study literature is to understand why we have this reaction. How does the author develop characters, manage a sense of place and time which suspends disbelief and transports you to their world. How does language, used well act as an inspiration and a visceral call? And it is this word, visceral, which describes response to works I love. Because of this, I study them to understand what it is that evokes this response.
    However, at the end of the day, I love what I love and so my responses both to the reading experience and to any subsequent study are personal so that it is not easy to read negative criticism or to accept that there is a subjectivity to all art which cannot be denied.
    Hope this helps.

    • drjanedavis June 28, 2016 / 2:46 pm

      Thank you for taking the time to write. This is helpful and, I think, true. Please keep asking people to contact me with their own answers…

  2. doctor d July 1, 2016 / 2:20 pm

    I’ll be sharing this with all of my students, Jane. Happy Sabbatical.

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