So, as I mentioned last week, my next few posts are going to deal with “Poetics” – what makes a piece of literature good or worthwhile. After reading each of the multitude of texts assigned for this Poetics class, we invariably end up in a long discussion about prescription vs. description: what the author says good literature SHOULD be as opposed to what he or she says good literature IS. This week, I want to talk about that issue in regards to the precepts of “teaching and delighting.”
Several literary critics, particularly from older eras, note in their works that literature must teach and delight – a worthwhile book imparts a lesson in some form or another while still entertaining the reader. Aristotle was one of the first to offer this particular description, and his example was followed by Sir Philip Sidney and Longinus, among others. It should be noted that these authors do not necessarily advocate for a heavy-handed moral lesson, as seen in many works from the Puritan and Victorian eras of literature; instead, they believe that any good literature will have some form of lesson to be learned, whether it be overt or subtextual. And, of course, literature should entertain. Aristotle quite plainly says that literature without teaching has no real purpose, and that works without the entertainment factor are dry and dull and are just as worthless. The main debate, at least for my class, comes in the form of Is vs. Should Be. Are Aristotle and company saying that all good literature DOES teach and delight, or are they saying that good literature SHOULD do these things? In other words, are they saying matter-of-factly that worthwhile prose and poetry actually already do exhibit these traits, or that literature must have those traits in order to be considered good. Personally, I hold to the latter – I think they were being descriptive. What do y’all think?