Accepted abstract - Creative Tastebuds Symposium 2021


Literature Is Food: Recovering a Lost Conceptual Metaphor

Opinion paper

By Christopher M. Kuipers, Ph.D., and Loren Stephenson, English Department, Indiana University of Pennsylvania Indiana, USA


This joint presentation will explore how literature over its broad history has been imagined as nutritional sustenance for the human being. While literature used to be considered, quite unproblematically, to enrich the lives of its readers, it came to seem far less salubrious in modernity, perhaps even poisonous. However, the contemporary moment, with its renewed concerns about food culture and about resuscitating literary value, may once again be receptive to this important conceptual metaphor. Participants will be offered a “tasting menu” of texts and quotations illustrating this historical fall and contemporary rise of Literature Is Food.

Detailed Abstract

As a conceptual metaphor, the notion that Literature Is Food has significantly declined over the course of literary history. Its declining fate as a conceptual figure shows how cultural history has shifted, as the place literature holds in human thought and society has altered over the long history of literature itself - tracking closely with the changing roles of food itself in human culture - culminating in the modern sense of a “death” of literature. Whereas artful words and verbal performances were once highly revered as sustenance and nutrition for the mind and the soul, we are now often suspicious of vast swaths of literary, dramatic, and screenic production as things unthinkingly, even dangerously, “consumed” by readers and viewers. By tracing a tropic chronology, as it were, of Literature Is Food, this paper will also argue how the world of literary criticism and scholarship has underestimated how literature may contain and impart value in the psychological realm.

Four broad courses from the menu of literary history will be “tasted” to show how Literature Is Food has progressively declined in both its positive valences and frequency of use over the bulk of this history. In the first period, from ancient literature through the advent of the printing press, Literature Is Food stands as a positive figure to represent literature's instructive possibilities, acknowledging some possible conceptual downsides (as, famously, in Plato’s pharmakon). Both the ancients and medieval writers often concurred that yes, Literature Is Food, and healthy food at that (if, of course, eaten in moderation).

In the second period, from 1500-1900, the advent of the printing press inaugurated a cascade of changes in literature and culture, ones which we broadly lump under the term “modernity.” Many writers from 1500-1900 do concur that yes, literature may be food, but the trope becomes increasingly strained. A recognition of reading as commercial “consumption” made more and more sense as a way to comprehend what the technological advances of printing were creating. Modern readers could never hope to “eat” all of what came from the printing press, nor would they want to.

In the third period, the high modern and postmodern era of 1900-2000, literature seems trapped in a realm of pure consumption, and the upshot for Literature Is Food as a usable trope is dire: literature, especially big-L “Literature,” is NOT considered to be food, since great literary works must now stand in distinction from the wider realms of print and other popular cultural production. Even in the realm of modern and contemporary lyric, where one would expect such a positive metaphor for written creativity to maintain some sort of traction, poetic references to Literature Is Food have been quite few and far between, and the figure is almost never utilized in a positive way when it does appear.

The final period under review is the 21st century, roughly 2000 to the present. It now seems that the nourishing metaphor for literature is being seen once again as something needed for usefully conceiving of the written word and how we can best relate to it. Besides film, two contemporary literary realms show some significant degree of renewed receptivity to the figure Literature Is Food, namely creative nonfiction and lyric poetry. There also seems to be emerging a third such realm: contemporary literary theory and criticism, notably in the field of food studies. This suggests that Literature Is Food is experiencing a true resurrection in contemporary creative