Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead -- “One of my university professors, who was also a poet, used to say that there was only one real question to be asked about any work, and that was – is it alive, or is it dead? I happen to agree, but in what does this aliveness or deadness consist? The biological definition would be that living things grow and change, and can have offspring, whereas dead things are inert. In what way can a text grow and change and have offspring? Only through its interaction with a reader, no matter how far away that reader may be from the writer in time and in space.”
Writing is alive if it begets more writing?
Raymond Chandler defined literature as “any sort of writing that glows with its own heat.” In the spirit of Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We Live By, we might look for other ways our response to strong writing resembles our response to living things. If something's alive, there's the issue of longevity -- some writing feels alive to only one generation, or for only one decade, while the greatest writing we call “immortal.” Living works can be found even in dead languages. Then there's the concept of a literary ecosystem, as in this passage from Franco Moretti's Modern Epic:
“... more than three centuries ago, the Inquisition decided to forbid the sale of European novels in Latin America. An act of censorship with very clear intentions – and very strange consequences. Because, once the novel was eliminated, the result (other things being equal) was a literary system that, far from being poorer, was much richer than its European counterpart. An absurd result, at first sight: a subtraction producing an increase. But a bit less absurd if you think of literature as a kind of ecosystem, and of the novel, for its part, as the most fearsome predator of the last half millennium. In such a scenario, a world without novels certainly loses one narrative form: unlike Europe, however, it preserves all the other forms that the novel would otherwise have swept away. In particular, pre-realistic narrative forms survive (myths, legends, romances of chivalry); and hybrid forms, such as the cronica, where the boundary between invention and historical fact is unclear.”