The annals of literature are littered with letter writers, each person pumping out parcels of epistles for publication: epistle-palians hoping to be converted to press-byterians. Some are like Les liaisons dangéreuses, tracing lusty and louche escapades for millions of readers; others check into the chick-lit section – Griffin and Sabine, The Colour Purple – or name your favourites. And of course there are many literary loiterers, never making it into the action. But is a letter-writer who’s never made a red cent still a littérateur? Or is their work raté or at least overrated?

I came to wonder about this after chatting with my friend Elaine Phillips, who is working on an epistolary novel tentatively titled Letters Only My Mother Would Read. Now, if the title holds true, she’s hardly likely to make a living on them (although it doesn’t claim that only her mother would buy them), but then again, perhaps she will prove a profitable liar. But the question is this: we know that your writing doesn’t have to be epistolary for you to be a littérateur – any kind of literature will do – but does it have to be profitable? Oh, and what does and doesn’t count as literature?

You see, it’s like this. If you look into the Oxford English Dictionary, a littérateur is simply “a writer of literary or critical works.” In Wiktionary, it’s “A person engaged in various literary works: literary critic, essayist, writer.” It comes from Latin litterator “critic”, from littera “letter”, by way of French. Le Robert Mini says simply “Écrivain” (“Writer”). But if I look in, say, the French Wiktionary, I get “Celui qui est versé dans la littérature, qui en fait profession”: “One who is versed in literature, who makes a profession of it.”

That, of course, also leads us to the question of whether you have to make money at something to be a professional at it. Which is another point of argument that goes different ways in different professions – and what, anyway, is and isn’t a profession? Can you be a professional littérateur if there’s no professional designation or governing body? You can be a “professional actor” if you make money at it, but you can’t be a member of the medical profession without the necessary qualifications and memberships – but if you have those, you are a professional even if you don’t currently make any money at it.

And if you think that’s a cussèd question, well, let’s just think about the definition of literature. Heh heh. If you write the stuff that people hand out on street corners saying “Please take some of our literature,” are you a littérateur? If they pay you? Even if your writings rate no more than litter? But how about if you write poems for a living? What about if those poems are tripe that goes in maudlin greeting cards? To be a littérateur, must you be a great writer or can you be a little writer whose writing grates? What does literature extend to? Could, say, Richard Littauer, @richlitt, “A linguist branching out into computational linguistics, ecology, evolution, open knowledge, and leaves of poetry,” be a littérateur? How about Ricky Opaterny, author of the blog “The litter in littérateur,” who “has worked variously as a literary agent, book designer, journalist, copywriter, fact checker, tutor, and bookseller”?

I will say this: it seems to help to live in India. In a Google search on littérateur, many of the hits come from newspaper stories from India. It seems that the word is rather popular there for referring to writers of note – and sometimes even those who write to notes. I don’t mean notes as in brief letters; I mean they write lyrics for movies – for example, Jayant Kaikini, author of lyrics for songs in movies, including the hit “Anisutide yaako indu…”; an article on him in the Deccan Herald declares, “Intense living makes a litterateur.” (They leave the accent off the e, as is optional in English.)

So is that what makes you one? Not letter writing or lucrative creativity but, at least for all intents, intense living? Is the quick patter of littérateur not simply the drumming of fingers on a tabletop as inspiration is sought but in fact the distant thunder of a beating art? And is it grand and imposing, the opening statement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, “Lit-té-ra-teur… Lit-té-ra-teur,” or is it the erotic iterative rat-a-ta-tat of Ravel’s Bolero, “littérateur, littérateur, tip top, littérateur, tickle to titillate littérateur”?

It stays on the tip of your tongue, this word, but surely to be a littérateur your words must come off the tip of your tongue, and into others’ ears, others’ eyes, and trip delicately too across the tips of their tongues. Is it enough to be a person of letters? Of personal letters? Of French letters, perhaps? Must you be a master not only of your tongue but of other people’s?

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