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Way back in high school, many many years ago, our teacher described to us what made something literature or not. This lesson always stuck with me for two reasons: 1) I didn't really think it was right; 2) I really enjoyed the short story associated with it. We read some story that was considered literature, I don't remember what it was anymore. Then we read "The Most Dangerous Game". This apparently, according to her, was not literature because of the "too" coincidental incident of how the MC fell overboard. If I recall correctly, his cigar was knocked out of his hand by the sail when it was blown in the wind and then he was knocked overboard.

I'm wondering if this is still considered true? If coincidental incidents discount a piece from becoming literature, and thus "The Most Dangerous Game" is not literature?

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    There are coincidences and there are coincidences. A coincidence of the heroine's rich uncle dying just in time to save her from disaster might be a big strike against a story, and one that you could argue keeps it from being literature. But a coincidence that explains why the hero is knocked overboard is completely innocuous—there are dozens of other explanations for why the hero might have been knocked overboard that the author could have come up with. – Peter Shor Jan 25 '19 at 2:31
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    A lot of times literature is graded on the idea of it has a lasting value/merit. Considering it has been adapted to film and/or inspired some films several times, I would argue that there is some lasting value there. Wikipedia says it has even inspired works like The Hunger Games, Westworld, and Battle Royale! en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Most_Dangerous_Game – Darth Locke Jan 25 '19 at 19:26
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His cigar was knocked out of his hand by the sail when it was blown in the wind and then he was knocked overboard

Well recalled! It was a pipe knocked out of his mouth by a rope, not a cigar knocked out of his hand by a sail, but that’s close enough:

Rainsford sprang up and moved quickly to the rail, mystified. He strained his eyes in the direction from which the reports had come, but it was like trying to see through a blanket. He leaped upon the rail and balanced himself there, to get greater elevation; his pipe, striking a rope, was knocked from his mouth. He lunged for it; a short, hoarse cry came from his lips as he realized he had reached too far and had lost his balance. The cry was pinched off short as the blood-warm waters of the Caribbean Sea closed over his head.

As for the meat of the question, well, different people use the word ‘literature’ in different ways. There’s a spectrum of opinions on the meaning of the word, which I’ll caricature like this:

  1. extreme inclusionist: “literature is anything consisting of words”
  2. moderate inclusionist: “literature is language deliberately put into permanent form”
  3. most people: “literature is poetry, plays, stories, essays, stuff like that”
  4. moderate exclusionist: “literature is written works of high quality, as judged by me”
  5. extreme exclusionist: “literature is the Bible and Shakespeare and Milton; all else is dross”

So when someone’s asked, “Is ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ literature?”, the answer depends on where they stand on the meaning of ‘literature’. People in groups 1–3 will answer ‘yes’ and maybe even some people in group 4, depending on what criteria they use to judge quality.

We can guess from your account that your teacher was a moderate exclusionist, and that an important criterion which she used to judge quality was literary realism, that is, the depiction of the subject in a realistic and naturalistic way. See this answer for more about literary realism and how it rejected the use of coincidence.

Literary realism had its heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and I think that you’d have to search fairly hard these days to find someone taking a position as exclusionary as your teacher’s.

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Literature is not defined by the presence or absence of coincidence. Moreover, Rainsford falling overboard would be better described as the element that sets the plot in motion rather than "coincidence". Since Rainsford is a hunter rather than a seaman, his falling from the rail isn't particularly improbable. It is not less believable than, for example, the cavalry arriving just in time to save the beleaguered settlers, like a deus ex machina in ancient Greek drama.

What counts as literature is influenced, rather than determined, by other aspects, such as the following:

  • Is the text fiction? The text was published in the magazine Collier's, which published both journalism and short stories. The text of "The Most Dangerous Game" presents itself as fiction. If it were journalism, we would expect it to tell us, for example, when and where exactly the events took place, the name and itinerary of the yacht, and how the author learned about the events from Mr. Rainsford. We would not expect the text to launch straight into dialogue without telling us who the speakers (rather than the "characters") are. We may also expect to hear about judicial proceedings that would be triggered by the type of crime described in the story.
  • Literature often foregrounds language. This is especially the case in poetry and less so in prose. The story makes use of a number of similes, e.g. "it was like trying to see through a blanket", but if it foregrounds anything, it is plot rather than language itself.
  • Literature is a kind of "non-pragmatic discourse". Whereas journalism wants to inform us about certain specific events or circumstances, the text of "The Most Dangerous Game" does not serve any pragmatic purpose. It just wants to entertain its readers with a gripping story.

There may be reasons for excluding "The Most Dangerous Game" from what some people call "great literature" (or Literature with an uppercase L). For example, in the version available on Wikisource, there appears to be a gap between the two last sentences; the fight between the two men appears to have been elided in an inelegant way. (But perhaps that is just me? Or it may be an artefact of the transfer from the printed text to Wikisource.) General Zaroff may be perceived as too simplistically villainous; a more competent author may have made him more interesting by giving him a conscience, for example.

The teacher may have discounted the story as literature because it did not meet their criteria for "good literature", let alone "great literature". However, if we used such criteria consistently to exclude certain texts from Literature, the distinction between "good" and "bad" literature would cease to be meaningful. This is not what literary theory and criticism do, however.

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  • The fight was indeed elided from the story. Whether this is elegant or inelegant is a matter of opinion, of course. – Mary Sep 21 at 22:30

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