What is Literature?, Paperback Book
4 out of 5 (1 rating)


Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the most important philosophical and political thinkers of the twentieth century.

His writings had a potency that was irresistible to the intellectual scene that swept post-war Europe, and have left a vital inheritance to contemporary thought.

The central tenet of the Existentialist movement which he helped to found, whereby God is replaced by an ethical self, proved hugely attractive to a generation that had seen the horrors of Nazism, and provoked a revolution in post-war thought and literature.

In What is Literature? Sartre the novelist and Sartre the philosopher combine to address the phenomenon of literature, exploring why we read, and why we write.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Literary theory
  • ISBN: 9780415254045

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Like most other people, I first read Sartre early in my time at college- Nausea, Being &amp; Nothingness, Words. And I was, of course, smitten by this man who understood so well my experience of isolation, freedom and how irritating it is when tools don't work properly. And then, like (I hope) most other people (including, it must be said, Sartre), I got over it, realized that the world existed neither to irritate me nor to coddle me, and that there were more important things than the state of my Existence. <br/><br/>So I didn't exactly have high expectations of this, and was very pleasantly surprised. Sartre's argument is based on a pretty dodgy philosophy, but quite valid feelings: anger at injustice, love of literature. Like most philosophies of literature, he makes absurd and stupid generalizations (the poet 'considers words as things, not signs' and so isn't like a 'writer'), but at least his largest generalization isn't an insult to human beings: the act of writing, he argues, is an act of freedom addressed to other free humans who happen at present to be in terrible situations of unfreedom. The relation between writer and reader can be an ideal image of a world in which people aren't forced to work in jobs they hate, or do anything else they hate for that matter. I'll take that over 'the act of writing is the putting into question of literature' any day. "The work of art, from whichever side you approach it, is an act of confidence in the freedom of men." And, I assume, women. <br/><br/>The writer is addressing both a real public - the people who do actually read her - and a virtual public, the people who could conceivably read her. In different historical periods these two audiences will more or less match up: when the society is one of minimal freedom for most people (Sartre's example is the 17th century), the virtual audience is more or less absent; when the society has the potential for greater freedom, the virtual audience expands (e.g., modernity.) But in any case, the writer must address her 'virtual' public through her real one. Abstract palaver has no place in Sartre's theory. <br/><br/>He follows this up with a great history of 20th century literature in France, which is basically a critique of surrealism and the communist party (it's important to note the latter, since everyone - including myself up till now - seems to think Sartre was a Stalinist), and the last chapter is a rousing call for writers to care about what they do.

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