What is Literature?
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Or, There Is No Essential, Inherent Category of the "Literary."

(A paraphrase, summary, and adaptation of the opening chapter of Terry Eagleton's Introduction to Literary Theory)

Have you ever felt ashamed or secretive about books you like because they are not on approved reading lists? Have you ever had a teacher, friend, or parent tell you that what you are reading isn't "literature," that it may have words printed on a page, but it is somehow inferior in quality to other books? That is, it might be "literature" in the broad sense of the term (words on a page) but it's not "literary"?

Well, 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?
  2. 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.

  1. "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 language.
  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.
  3. 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 English.

Perhaps literature is "non-useful" writing, writing that doesn't help us do something pragmatic. There are still several problems.

  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?

Perhaps 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.

"Literature" 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.

You 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 read. 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)?
  • How 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?"

Put yet 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

Barry Laga

© Jan Rybicki 2003 unless otherwise stated.