17 January 2011

What is Literature?

To accompany the Literary Canon mentioned in a post below (scroll down about 2 entries), I am offering my personal definition of literature.  Which is hard.  Several years ago, when I was fresh out of high school and wet behind the ears, I would have offered up a solid definition with characteristics such as "decades and/or centuries old," "complicated to read," "requires repeat readings and analysis," "what we are forced to read in school," "written by dead authors."  And I would have named 1984, Pride and Prejudice, Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, Of Mice and Men, Our Town, The Divine Comedy, The Outsiders, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Animal Farm... etc. as qualifying titles to this socially made definition.  I was told those works are literature therefore they MUST be literature.

Okay, now before you start huffing and puffing and stirring up your strongest argument for why these titles fall under the honorary genre of Lit., let me clarify by stating that I actually would categorize most of these titles as such, perhaps excluding Orwell because I hate both those books oh so much.

After my first stint at college, a few years out in the pretentiously labeled "real world," and now back at school to study the art of teaching English to the unwilling (aka high school students), I find my definition of literature altered, it's broader and liberal.  The previous definition left no room for current works or unique genres like graphic novels.  If someone had suggested what I thought then to be a "comic book" as a work of literary standards, I would've laughed in their face.  Fantasy and Sci Fi so often get underrated.

Also, defining literature and recommending texts is a matter of taste.  I absolutely love Jane Austen but there are people out there who find her boring, mediocre, unworthy of the title "author."  On the other hand, I dislike 1984 therefore reading Brave New World is not at the top of my reading list.  Yet there is this snooty attitude of "Who cares if you don't like it?  You'll read it, study it, and learn from it."  How can a person develop an enthusiasm for reading and analyzing when he can't get past his hatred of the text?  Though it can be done-- I am living proof of that and I know as a teacher you can't please everyone-- I can't tell you how many people refuse to pick up another book after high school.  These stuffy novels and plays forced on 14 to 18 year olds can have damning effects to the appreciation of the written word.  Thus, entertainment value is also a factor in literature.

Of course, there is the issue of language.  Two issues actually.  The first is foreign texts.  Now, I am all for international reading, but does the literary value of a translated work decrease because of meaning that might be lost in translation?  Personally, I don't think so.  A woman suggested this question in my English class this past semester and I thought she had a valid point.  However, if a translated work is powerful then it can only get better in its native tongue and so the title of literary work still stands.

The second issue of language is quality.  Books were first used as teaching tools to educate students in language and writing, not necessarily on reading.  Many stipulate that for a work to be considered literature it must be have complicated language.  In other words, hard to read.  Not that I don't love a challenge, but this brings me to another argument: once again, how can a person see the depth and value behind a text when he has to define every other word on every other page?  Building vocabulary is one thing; however, trying to melt a person's brain with archaic words and grammar is just mean.  Unfortunately, the education curriculum does not usually allow enough time for repeat readings of a text which could greatly improve this second issue.

Finally, we've reached the point of this whole thing: my definition of literature.  Here goes...

I believe there are two definitions of literature: both personal and societal.

Society deems literature as texts that require analyzation to understand their full meaning, a tool to expand vocabulary, and an attempt (albeit a lame one) at culturing young people.  These novels & plays are usually pre-1923 with a few scattered from the first half of the 20th century for good measure, usually stemming from the category of "Dead White Male Authors," with a few exceptions.  Entertainment is not a factor.

On the personal side, I believe literature can be current, from the past, exist in almost any genre, and requires a connection between the reader and the work.  If a reader cannot connect with a work he might as well analyze it in a different language for all the good it will do.  Literary works require repeat readings, entertain their audience, offer cultural relevance both in the time they were written and universally, and challenge the reader to dive deeper past the words on the page.

So that's it. This is a working definition, not set in stone by any means, and I realize its vagueness. Yet this is what I have gathered so far to define literature and open up the genre to more possibilities as a way to encourage reading in younger generations, as well as offer a truly varied collection of works from which to choose.


  1. I like your definition. Though you seem to be swaying it to your teaching, which I understand is where this definition stems from, but is literature only in existence for the young minded? I know the answer is 'no of course not'.

    I don't think authors always need to entertain their audience. Yes it is important to capture your audiences attention, but some literature is like a sermon. It's not always what you want to hear and it's not always fun, but there's a great message in there most times if you take the time to hear. I think patience is key.

    The definition of literature must be vague. You make it too narrow and you leave out certain works or ideas. Personally I don't think there is one agreed upon definition. Again, it's like religion. Different people have different ideas of how God or the Bible should be interpretted. A lot of times, those subtle differences don't really matter, but , yes, some people are just dead wrong.

  2. Excellent points, Miss E. Perhaps I should clarify that when I say "entertain" I mean "captivate" whether with the good or the bad-- the author should hold the attention of the reader somehow. So yes, I do agree that literature should do more than amuse, make us laugh, or create an interesting fantasy world.

    It is true that I am preoccupied with redefining literature for the young in an attempt to light a fire in kids and get them reading. Perhaps if and when I go for a Masters and PhD this definition will alter to a more adult focus. More mature, if you will. :)

    And yes, there are definitely books that don't belong under that category. There are also other genres of literature such as Children's Literature and Young Adult Literature; plus, some people (namely a student in my class) who wouldn't even include poems or plays because they are not novels. Where does the distinction end?