I sat to write this, with an unclear idea of where to start. I stared at a computer screen for a pretty long time and intermittently glanced through some scattered books from my favourite authors and playwrights, Patti Smith, Sam Shepard, a collected book of poems by Bertolt Brecht. I was trying to pinpoint exactly what the term “literature” means to me, and what constitutes its power. What guidelines does a piece of writing need to fall within for it to be powerful literature? Trying to find an analytically full formed opinion about this, I even googled “the definition of literature.” Needless to say, the definition was extremely broad, and in case I hadn’t learned anything from the millions of times I’ve had a slight physical ailment, typed the symptoms into Google, and equally been convinced I was going to die, it didn’t help intellectual matters much. “Written works of high importance,” was a key explanation that I got a few variations on. Who exactly decides what should be held to a higher standard than others?
Staring at these convoluted definitions, I realized that any writing I hold to a “high standard,” is anything that holds a deeply honest inner truth that manages to leap off the page and get underneath my skin. It certainly doesn’t need to be the words of an award-winning novelist, or even anyone that would identify their chosen career path as a writer specifically. The power of literature lays within the soul and courage of anyone living who has the courage to write down what they want to be heard and share it with those around them. Powerful literature lays in the words of a voice that can speak to a shared or individual truth, and has the courage to put it on a page to be read.
This past month, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in literature. I found out the news from a co-worker of mine the day it was announced, a massive fan of Dylan’s work, as am I. Without even second-guessing the deserving nature of the award, I reacted with joy, and if anything else, almost a lack of enthusiasm, and only because, I was completely unsurprised by the choice. I thought “of course Bob Dylan deserves this award.” To be honest, having sat myself and let his words soak into my own soul throughout the years, from the pages of his poetry book or through his distinctly mercurial voice, I almost felt as though this had been set in stone. Deservingly Dylan was titled the award for “creating new poetic expressions within the American song tradition.” There’s no doubt that as an artist, he managed to pass a threshold that held a certain rigid structure and thematic elements within his genre. It seems unquestionable, that as someone with powerful words that emanate far past a page or ear, that he should be a recipient of a universal honour such as the Nobel prize. In fact, according to a Merriam-Webster dictionary definition, literature is, “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” Dylan seems to check those boxes to the nth degree.
However, I was in awe over the derogatory and sarcasm-riddled reactions expressed by some in the wake of the announcement. Jodi Picoult, a popular best-selling novelist sarcastically tweeted #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy? Russian-American satirical writer Gary Shteyngart responded with “I get the Nobel Committee. Reading books is hard.” It seems this sort of bitter backlash is fueled from a place where “literature,” must be tied to the developed cultural understanding of what it’s “supposed to be.” Does something have to be a labelled novel or poem for it to be deemed “literature? Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Nobel Academy seemed to be prepared for the shock and mass bitter confusion and expressed their choice to honour Dylan as a worthy literary recipient stating “If you look back, far back, you discover Homer and Sappho, and they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to. They were meant to be performed. It’s the same way with Bob Dylan. But we still read Homer and Sappho. He can be read and should be read.”
As someone who has chosen a career path in theatre, and believes very strongly in the importance of honouring the words of a playwright, it’s safe to say I feel very strongly that the deemed idea of powerful literature should surpass mediums and “guidelines,” if it speaks to a universal truth. When an artist marries their heart and soul alongside political, philosophical and emotional aspects with their personal background, and then they write it down, it holds an influential force for humanity on a global spectrum. Masses of people put play scripts and song lyrics on the back burner of high literature, because they believe the only way for it to transport influence on an audience is through performance. Yet, as Danius pointed out in relation to Dylan’s win, we constantly study texts of Ancient Greece that were written to be performed and read aloud. Why should these ideas dissolve in the modern day as we shift into a new consciousness in terms of writing and performance?
Literature itself began with in Greek culture as early as the 7th Century BC, growing into Greek Drama, with the likes of Sophocles and Aeschylus. As the Western world shifted from a primarily oral culture, to written culture, great thinkers kept up, and traditions skillfully progressed to reach masses in different forms. Theatre grew out of Dithyrambs. These were hymns that celebrated the god Dionysus and acted as a sort of ritual that eventually led into epic poems, plays, and poetic texts to be spoken out loud. Plato himself held up the importance of such a form, stating “they showed me in an instant that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are diviners or soothsayers.” Ritual and powerful art go hand in hand, and stand at the forefront of what makes for literature that speaks to a wide audience. When an artist finds the importance of spiritual exchange between mediums, and an appreciation for the literature that sits at the base of it all, they cross the threshold into the “highest form.”
It is so often that artists have passed the gateway into other mediums that what is considered powerful literature has become so streamlined with the identity of the artist’s allocated medium. We only have to look to truly inspiring human beings like Dylan, Patti Smith, Sam Shepard, Woody Guthrie, Twyla Tharp, Brecht etc. in order to see examples of the “soothsaying” that Plato mentions. By not attaching themselves to a specific path through which their art is transported, or pigeon-holing their titles, these figures have become a few that in my opinion have created “high literature,” and have influenced generations in various shapes and forms, regardless of how their material is delivered.
The medium through which this writing on a page is transported from creator to audience is important, but should not allow people to scan over the purest base of their words on paper. Moreover, their title as playwright, musician etc. should certainly not cancel out the idea of their work as literature. Anyone pushing the boundaries and focusing in on the transcendent spirit of what speaks to humanity in their time is someone who has contributed to powerful literature as we know it, and their words deserved to be read. From playwright to poet, to songwriter to novelist, the journey from page to human consciousness should only be considered a vehicle to mold the written words in different shapes and forms. The raw experience of an individual reading honest words, disregarding the way that they are delivered, is still ultimately transformative to the imagination and instinctual development of human beings. These words should be honoured far and wide.
With all this in mind, we created The Dionysian. With four heads put together, a passion for theatre, and an unshakeable need to spread art and make a difference, we put together a literary journal full of short plays submitted to us by under-appreciated new playwrights. It’s our belief that people should have access and be enthused to read the words of theatrical writers, just the same as they should listen to Bob Dylan or Patti Smith, read Tolstoy or Jack Kerouac. By opening up a dialogue between artists and a deeper appreciation of the raw and developed forms of their works, we can grow as a human collective, and take our world to the more understanding and diplomatic place it needs to be in terms of emotion and intellect. Artists know we need this sort of appreciation now more than ever. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself into a title. Stay open to the power of literature and the mediums it can be delivered through all around you.
Celebrate the writer, celebrate the playwright, celebrate the musician, celebrate the actor, the novelist, the sculptor, the conscious being who wants to create.
Celebrate the artist.
-by Shawna Wigney