Is That So?
Le Guin's insistence that literature is "the extant body of written art" is actually only a step in the right direction: the correct word is not "art" but "stuff." The sentence, "My doctor gave me some literature to look over," is a perfectly valid sentence, and the particular literature in such a usage is clearly not written art, just stuff -- leaflets on whatever. Literature can be functional as well as fictional: pamphlets are literature; instructions are literature; and so on. The first literature was not Gilgamesh but all the cuneiform tablets predating it, whether king lists or shopping lists. If we talk of "the academic literature" on early cuneiform, we're not talking of art (literature) of limited theoretical relevance (academic.) However you rate its quality, this essay into the definition of literature is literature.
Is that so? asks Arthur Krystal.
If Le Guin's narrowed definition has at least utility, a handy shorthand for that domain of art taking the written word as its medium, there's no such excuse for constricting the application of "literature" to only the "best" of this domain. We're dealing with a whole world and a half dozen millennia's worth of artworks in innumerable idioms, the aims and impacts of those idioms in constant dispute via the works themselves. Intersubjectivity fractured across eons and cultures, we must ask: whose best? If we're going to discard the bulk of literature as subliterary, mere creative writing, are we to retain the exemplars of every idiom or discard whole idioms as essentially trivial -- discard the limerick as doggerel, say? Discard the fairy tale as naive folk art? Discard the myth as mere superstition? Shall we retain the Biblical and Classical though, as the root of this great tradition of literature? Surely The Iliad is literature, after all. We must ask: who gets to choose?
Is that so? asks Arthur Krystal, implicitly asserting that right. That ability.
To imagine one can collapse all literature's babble of arguing ambitions to a universal gold standard which artworks either meet or don't only establishes that you're entirely unqualified to speak on the subject. By all means, play curator to the canon of works with lasting esteem and influence, but if partition by prestige is essentialised in your terms of discourse, don't dream for a second that your opinion has an iota of relevance. Sorry. The 1880s sent a telegram and asked for their conceit of objective aesthetic merit back.
While you're returning it, you might also return the dismissal of literature originating in the oral traditions of the peasant and the so-called primitive, the dismissal of Gothic Romance and sensation novels, the dismissal of dime novels and penny dreadfuls. You will likely find you have to, since these abjections are integral to the artifice of literature as you're casting it, key building blocks in its construction. You might want to consider that the next time you apply the term "literature" selectively -- consider the artists and audiences of the literature(s) that your partition by prestige is erasing, consider their race, gender, class. You might consider that a writer such as Le Guin, of patently deeper thought than yourself, may well have the legitimacy of pulp genres published as category fiction as a negligible concern when they insist that literature is all literature, not merely some subset held prestigious by you and your ilk.
Is that so? asks Krystal
Yes. Yes, that is so.