What is Literature?

classic statement of literature and political commitment

Book by:
Jean-Paul Sartre

Reviewed by:
On 17 July 2009
Last modified:4 January 2016


Classic study of fiction and politics

What is Literature? is a now-famous polemic, written in 1948 following the turmoil of the second world war. Sartre was coming into his own as the most influential philosopher and writer of the existentialist movement. He thinks out loud in his customary [slightly rambling] fashion about the role of the writer in the post-war world. What he was trying to do was reconcile and even fuse his impulses towards writing and politics. In the first part he discusses the differences between literature and other arts such as music and painting.

What is Literature? His argument is that prose writing is different than all other media because of the relationship between the individual and language itself. We might not know anything about musical scales for instance, but we cannot not know about language. At this point fifty years on, we are unlikely to agree with all his conclusions, but his engagement with the relationship between writing and society is certainly thought-provoking.

In the next part he deals with ‘Why We Write’. There are some fascinating and vigorous reflections on the psychology of writing and reading – some of which anticipate forms of literary criticism which were not developed until twenty years later. For instance, he explains that the meaning of writing remains only latent until it is brought alive in the reader’s mind – and his observation that "reading is directed creation" is Reader-Response Theory summed up in four words.

It’s a long, tough-minded argument, much of it drifting into the realms of philosophy. Some of the weaknesses in his argument come from over-generalising particular cases. There’s also lots of argument spun out of abstract and metaphysical notions such as ‘freedom’ and ‘commitment’ which were fashionable at the time.

The centre of the book is a long meditation on the relationship between writers and their readers. This is largely a tour through French literature from the seventeenth to the twentieth century.

He finishes with a chapter on the role of the writer in 1948. This is a passionate and well-argued plea for social engagement on the part of the writer. It also debates the temptations and the reasons for resisting the call of the Left (which at that time was the Communist Party).

You have to be prepared for a lot of history and politics, but ultimately this is a robust and bracing read which should be of interest to anybody who wants to think about the relationship between ideology and literary culture.

© Roy Johnson 2002

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Jean-Paul Sartre, What is Literature, (first pub 1948) London: Routledge, 2001, pp.251, ISBN: 0415254043

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