What Is Literature?
A Refusal to Define or Limit
the problem with such judgments is that if you press someone about her
definition of "literature" or "literariness," she will have a hard time
finding a criteria that works for everything we have ever called
literature. Although many have tried to define what "literature" is or
what makes something "literary," no one has successfully defined
literature in such a way that it
accounts for the complexities of language and the wide variety of written texts. For example....
Some define literature as writing which is "imaginative" or fictive, as
opposed to factual, true, or historical. This seems reasonable until we
realize that ...
(1) what counts as "fact" varies with cultures
and time periods. Is the book of Genesis (and the entire Bible for that
matter) fact or fiction? Are the legends and myths of Greek,
Scandinavia, and Native Americans fact or fiction? Is Darwin's Origin of
Species fact or fiction? Are news reports fact or fiction?
What is clearly imaginative writing is often not considered literature.
For example, comic books, computer game stories, and Harlequin Romances
are usually excluded from the category of "literature" even though they
are certainly imaginative.
(3) A lot of what we do consider
literature is more like history (i.e. Boswell's Biography of Samuel
Johnson, Claredon's History of the Rebellion) or philosophy (i.e. the
works of Mill, Ruskin, Newman). In sum, fact vs. fiction is not a
helpful way to distinguish between what is literary and what is not.
There are also a lot of "facts" in novels, and many novels are based on real historical events.
Perhaps it is the way we use language. As some argue, literature
transforms and intensifies ordinary language. If I say, "Thou still
unravished bride of quietness," then you know it's literature or you
know that I'm using "literary" language. The language is different from
everyday speech in texture, rhythm and resonance. The sentence, "This is
awfully squiggly handwriting!" doesn't
sound literary, does it? However, there are also some problems.
"Unordinary" speech depends upon a norm from which to deviate. But the
specialized vocabulary used in sports, dance, music, small town diners,
Glaswegian dockworkers, etc. or even everyday slang varies widely from
the norm, but we don't classify that language as "literary." For
example, most if not all of our swear words employ metaphorical/poetic
(2) There isn't a universal norm. One person's norm may
be another's deviation. "Shitkicker" for "cowboy boot" may be poetical
to someone from New York, but it's everyday speech in Laramie. Many of
us think British words for everyday items seems poetical.
Finally, the sentence above "This is awfully squiggly handwriting!"
doesn't sound literary, but it comes from Knut Hamsun's novel Hunger.
Therefore, what is literary depends upon the context. Anything read in
an English class could count as literature simply because it is read for
• Perhaps literature is "non-useful" writing, writing
that doesn't help us do something pragmatic. There are still several
(1) One could read anything as "non-useful." That is, I
could easily read a shopping listand point out the interesting
metaphors, beautiful sounds, imagery, etc. or
(2) I could read
Moby Dick to find out how to kill whales. In fact, I have used a novel
about sled dogs to train my own dogs. Is that book no longer
"literature" once I turn it into a "how-to" book?
something is literature because it is the kind of writing we like to
read; it's a highly valued kind of writing. In this case, anything can
be literature, and anything can stop being literature. The important
implication is that we don't get to decide what is literature because
our parents, teachers,
exams, etc. define that for us. We are trained to value the kind of writing that they value.
and the "literary" then are highly subjective categories. We can't
decide whether or not something is "literature" or "literary" simply by
looking at its form or language.Shakespeare's works have not always been
valued as literature, and his works may not be valued in the future.
may feel dissatisfied because we will never come up with a concrete
definition, but that is the point. As Terry Eagleton points out, "we can
drop once and for all the illusion that the category "literature" is
objective in the sense of being eternally given and immutable" (10). He
goes on to say that our opinions and value-judgments are not neutral
either, that "the ways in which what we say and believe connects with
the power-structure and power-relations of the society we live in" (14).
In other words, your opinions about literature and literariness are not
just your opinions. They are related to how and where you were raised
and educated. Importantly, our environment encourages us to accept some
values but not others, support the activities of some groups but not
others, or exclude some choices as unacceptable.
Therefore, how we
define literature reveals what we have been taught to value and what we
have been taught to reject. This is important for you because you are
forced, for the most part, to learn what other people value and at the
very minimum, what other people have made available for you to
It's also important if you plan on teaching, for you will help shape the
perceptions of your students. Again, have you ever had a teacher tell
you that the novel you are reading is "not literature," "escapist," or
just "fun reading"?
Can you see the potential problem here,
especially when it comes to passing tests, getting into college, and
pleasing others, including yourself? Do you recognize that the source of
your values may not even be you?
Another way to frame this
insight is to say that I tried to encourage you to ask different
questions, questions that I have found far more useful. Asking "Is it
literature?" or "Is it good literature?" is not as important or
interesting as asking...
- What does one's definition of
"literature" reveal about one's attitudes, beliefs, values, training, or
socialization (in short, one's ideological affiliation)?
do definitions and categories of "literature" and especially "good
literature" coincide with specific political issues like "Who should
govern?" "Who should have what role or function in society?" "What kinds
of behaviors and belief should be excluded or included?"
another way, I would encourage you to look at definitions, reading
lists, evaluations, etc. as a way to learn about your own set of values
(that inevitably connect with larger systems of value), your own
particular school system and our culture at large. As you will discover,
a quick glance at the race, gender, class, and time period of authors
you have had to read in school will reveal something about whose
ideology (system of values, beliefs, and history) is valorized,
privileged, and passed on to other generations.
Therefore, what and
how you read is a political issue because it has to do with relations
and structures of power. Texts are enjoyable to read, but we need to
take them seriously, for they tell us in their own way a lot about
ourselves and our society