What is Literature?
Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous manifesto, What is Literature?, published in his review Les Temps modernes in 1947, has always caused controversy with its theory of commitment in writing and its provocatively simple questions: what is writing?; why does one write?; and for whom? It seems to reject both intrinsic, art for art’s sake, and instrumental theories of the value of literature; seeing instead the value of a work of art as being constituted in an ‘appeal’. Does his representation of the work of art, of literature in particular, as a ‘gift’ between a free writer and a free reader help us understand anything about the value of art more generally or does it even fail to understand how literature works?
Questions to think about
- What is Sartre’s theory of commitment in literature? Does it reduce literature to politics? Enslave it to a ‘party line’?
- If to write is to ‘disclose the world and to offer it as a task to the generosity of the reader’, if it is ‘an act of confidence in the freedom of men’, then is that enough to answer the question, why write?
- If a writer has only one subject – freedom – then is Sartre saying a lot or a little?
- Is Sartre right to claim that words have a power, are like ‘loaded pistols’? Is there then a responsibility involved in taking up one’s pen? Does it make some books evil, some good? Give them a power to change the world?
- Is it true that writers only write of the present day? That they write about the present and for the present? Are books really like bananas? Do ‘you have to eat them on the spot, where they’ve just been picked?’
- Who is the writer’s public?