What is the function of literature, and is it a socializing or individuating force?What is the function of literature, and is it a socializing or individuating force?
That's a very interesting question. Literature, from where I'm standing, has two purposes: to entertain and enlighten. The two can sometimes be found together but are often found in separate pieces.
To expound on that a bit, think about the novel rack down at the 7-Eleven. These books, by and large, were not written to blow your mind with philosophical insights. This books were meant to be a good read on the bus, or an entertaining way to spend a few hours before bed (how good they are at doing this could be debated, but based on sales, they must be doing at least an OK job.)
Now, think about the kinds of books that you have to read in English classes across the land. These books may sometimes entertain, but are just as often a little dry. That's okay, though. Sometimes he goal of literature is not to entertain you but to get you to see the world (or your life) in a different way. The story is like a mirror that we can see ourselves in (ironically, through reading about other people!)
So for my money those are the purposes of literature. Some would argue that the first example of the paperback rack doesn't count because "those types" of books don't count as literature (some people see literature as the equivalent of a very fine wine...the books at the 7-eleven are more like the equivalent of a 40 ouncer of Colt 45) but I don't agree. Literature, it seems to me, has room enough under its umbrella for all types of garbage.
As for the second part of your question, my answer would be "both." By nature, we tend to read alone, and process literature through our own "lens." There are, of course, classes and book clubs and readings and such, but most people sit by themselves and read (which is an "individualizing" activity.)
On the other hand, reading literature is socializing as well. A good book can bring us together with friends when we talk about our common experience of having read the same book. And look at something like Oprah's book club...millions of people reading the same book across the country and then (in a way) discussing it (via Oprah.) Books have a way of connecting us to other people by allowing us to live vicariously through the character's lives. We can see how others react (albeit via made up people in books) in a wide range of situations.
Literature is history. History is the recording of events and the interpretation of events by whoever records the history for whichever country the history is recorded. But, literature is the outpouring of the human experience without historical interpretation. It is universal truth because is is the communication of the heart and soul of human beings. Literature touches many, or it touches one who feels part of the many.
The purpose of literature is this sharing of the human experience, for as Joseph Conrad wrote in his short story, "The Secret Sharer,"
meaning depends upon sharing.
Great question and I am sure that you will get some very broad answers. Literature does not have one point or one reason for existence. For instance, literature can educate, entertain, move people to action, rebuke, correct, or simply exist for its own sake.
Now for the question of individual or corporate function of literature - it really depends on the worldview of the society. If you are living in the west, you'll take literature individually. If you live in a more corporate society, you'll take it more corporately.