The word “world” means the earth, together with all of its countries, peoples, and natural features. It also means the globe, planet, and sphere, depending on context and user intent. The word “literary” means concerned with or connected with the writing, study, or appreciation of literature. When combined as “literary world,” their separate meanings aren’t particularly helpful.  A ‘literary world’ means something entirely different. It’s used to describe a time, place, and situation depicted in a work of fiction or non-fiction. The writer builds a time and place with sounds, words, or images that draw the reader in, suspending their disbelief. When done well it aids and abets the reader’s journey through the fiction or nonfiction world, as though they were actually journeying through the real world.[1]

Readers have always lived vicariously through the characters writers invent in fiction, or describe in nonfiction. Readers can be brought in close to a literary world or kept at a reasonable distance depending on what the writer wants. We can position our readers. We can also suspend the reader’s disbelief by making them feel they are in or are observing the real world when the world we create for them is fictional. Skilled writers make readers observe the fictional world we create so similar to the real world that they lose track and position while reading. To do this, we use lessons we, or our readers learned from particular experiences. We challenge, subvert, broaden, or reaffirm beliefs, values, and ideas. And occasionally, we become something honestly new. That’s how we surprise our readers—something new or something forgotten. It’s all in the literary world we create for them.

The concept, Literary Worlds, is the creation of a team of Western Michigan University English professors and doctoral students working in 2006-07 to develop and test in the classroom a series of free, online virtual worlds to enhance the study of literature. “They utilized virtual reality environments in teaching draws on old ideas, such as the dramatic satisfaction from participatory storytelling and the learning potential of entering deeply and imaginatively into specific informational contexts. It also leads educators into the future of teaching and learning where traditional values are extended and enhanced by the properties and pleasures of emerging digital environments.”[2]

The program at Western Michigan University uses new technologies to create immersive, interactive, and engaging virtual reality environments that support reading and writing in a variety of disciplines. “In the case of literature, they can more deeply involve students with the language, characters, settings, and cultural and historical contexts of literary works.  Students can explore and interact in virtual literary worlds, role-playing and interrelating as characters, extending, and altering character conduct in purposeful ways, analyzing impact of setting, language, and dialogue on behavior and events, all directly related to the specific works they are assigned to read in their classes.”[3]

Oxford University Press published Eric Hayot’s book, On Literary Worlds. “It rewrites the literary history of the last 400 years from the perspective of literary wordiness, producing a more global and less Eurocentric theory of literary development. It puts forward an original methodology and vocabulary for the study of national literatures and advances a new way to teach literature in the academy.”[4] It was reviewed as a “bold, imaginative, and generous piece of literary theory, one whose goal is no less than a conceptual and institutional transformation of the undertaking of literary criticism. Open-ended by design, the book is meant as a starting point, to be transformed and transcribed into practice by other scholars: it is ‘the source code for an analysis and a task that it cannot complete’, a role that trades away the book’s authority in favor of the sense that it is written for, rather than at its readers. At the heart of the book is an attempt to supplant the heavily periodized and nationalized structures through which most academics teach and read literature.”[5]

At least in the academic world, “Literature is based on individual and shared human imagination, which creates literary worlds that blend the real and the fantastic, mimesis and genre, often modulated by different kinds of unreliability. The main building blocks of literary worlds are their oral, visual, and written modes and three themes: challenge, perception, and relation. They are blended and inflected in different ways by combinations of narratives and figures, indirection, thwarted aspirations, meta-usages, and hypothetical action as well as hierarchies and blends of genres and text types. Moreover, literary worlds are not only constructed by humans but also shape their lives and reinforce their sense of wonder.”[6]

The literary world is often a confusing one, sometimes thrilling, sometimes unfathomable, and always meant for educated folk. But the readers’ world is unlimited, speaks to everyone, and is easily understood because it’s readers’ choice, not an academic offering. There are ethical imperatives.

How writers represent the world affects how the reader thinks of his or her own world. Literary fictional characters are made up. But they can confuse readers by failing to clarify the ethical spectrum of the book. Is the book evil, good, bad, or indifferent? At some level, often invisible in the writing itself, readers deserve to know the author’s ethical obligations.

Ethical literary criticism is defined as a critical theory for reading, analyzing, and interpreting the ethical nature and function of literary works from the perspective of ethics. Literature is laden with moral questions, judgments, and conundrums. Readers ought to take it as a form of ethical expression in a specific historical situation.[7]








Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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