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  • Humanities LibreTexts - What is Literature?
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literature , a body of written works. The name has traditionally been applied to those imaginative works of poetry and prose distinguished by the intentions of their authors and the perceived aesthetic excellence of their execution. Literature may be classified according to a variety of systems, including language , national origin, historical period, genre , and subject matter.

For historical treatment of various literatures within geographical regions, see such articles as African literature ; African theatre ; Oceanic literature ; Western literature ; Central Asian arts ; South Asian arts ; and Southeast Asian arts . Some literatures are treated separately by language, by nation, or by special subject (e.g., Arabic literature , Celtic literature , Latin literature , French literature , Japanese literature , and biblical literature ).

Definitions of the word literature tend to be circular. The 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary considers literature to be “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” The 19th-century critic Walter Pater referred to “the matter of imaginative or artistic literature” as a “transcript, not of mere fact, but of fact in its infinitely varied forms.” But such definitions assume that the reader already knows what literature is. And indeed its central meaning, at least, is clear enough. Deriving from the Latin littera , “a letter of the alphabet,” literature is first and foremost humankind’s entire body of writing; after that it is the body of writing belonging to a given language or people; then it is individual pieces of writing.

Hear Clinton Terrell share his experience of going from solitary confinement to UC Berkeley

But already it is necessary to qualify these statements. To use the word writing when describing literature is itself misleading, for one may speak of “oral literature” or “the literature of preliterate peoples.” The art of literature is not reducible to the words on the page; they are there solely because of the craft of writing. As an art, literature might be described as the organization of words to give pleasure. Yet through words literature elevates and transforms experience beyond “mere” pleasure. Literature also functions more broadly in society as a means of both criticizing and affirming cultural values.

Leo Tolstoy. Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy, portrait. Russian writer, philosopher and mystic.

The scope of literature

Literature is a form of human expression. But not everything expressed in words—even when organized and written down—is counted as literature. Those writings that are primarily informative—technical, scholarly, journalistic—would be excluded from the rank of literature by most, though not all, critics. Certain forms of writing, however, are universally regarded as belonging to literature as an art. Individual attempts within these forms are said to succeed if they possess something called artistic merit and to fail if they do not. The nature of artistic merit is less easy to define than to recognize. The writer need not even pursue it to attain it. On the contrary, a scientific exposition might be of great literary value and a pedestrian poem of none at all.

The purest (or, at least, the most intense) literary form is the lyric poem, and after it comes elegiac, epic , dramatic, narrative, and expository verse. Most theories of literary criticism base themselves on an analysis of poetry , because the aesthetic problems of literature are there presented in their simplest and purest form. Poetry that fails as literature is not called poetry at all but verse . Many novels —certainly all the world’s great novels—are literature, but there are thousands that are not so considered. Most great dramas are considered literature (although the Chinese , possessors of one of the world’s greatest dramatic traditions, consider their plays, with few exceptions, to possess no literary merit whatsoever).

The Greeks thought of history as one of the seven arts, inspired by a goddess, the muse Clio. All of the world’s classic surveys of history can stand as noble examples of the art of literature, but most historical works and studies today are not written primarily with literary excellence in mind, though they may possess it, as it were, by accident.

The essay was once written deliberately as a piece of literature: its subject matter was of comparatively minor importance. Today most essays are written as expository, informative journalism , although there are still essayists in the great tradition who think of themselves as artists. Now, as in the past, some of the greatest essayists are critics of literature, drama , and the arts.

Some personal documents ( autobiographies , diaries , memoirs , and letters ) rank among the world’s greatest literature. Some examples of this biographical literature were written with posterity in mind, others with no thought of their being read by anyone but the writer. Some are in a highly polished literary style; others, couched in a privately evolved language, win their standing as literature because of their cogency, insight, depth, and scope.

Many works of philosophy are classed as literature. The Dialogues of Plato (4th century bc ) are written with great narrative skill and in the finest prose; the Meditations of the 2nd-century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius are a collection of apparently random thoughts, and the Greek in which they are written is eccentric . Yet both are classed as literature, while the speculations of other philosophers, ancient and modern, are not. Certain scientific works endure as literature long after their scientific content has become outdated. This is particularly true of books of natural history, where the element of personal observation is of special importance. An excellent example is Gilbert White’s Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne (1789).

Oratory , the art of persuasion, was long considered a great literary art. The oratory of the American Indian , for instance, is famous, while in Classical Greece, Polymnia was the muse sacred to poetry and oratory. Rome’s great orator Cicero was to have a decisive influence on the development of English prose style. Abraham Lincoln ’s Gettysburg Address is known to every American schoolchild. Today, however, oratory is more usually thought of as a craft than as an art. Most critics would not admit advertising copywriting, purely commercial fiction , or cinema and television scripts as accepted forms of literary expression, although others would hotly dispute their exclusion. The test in individual cases would seem to be one of enduring satisfaction and, of course, truth. Indeed, it becomes more and more difficult to categorize literature, for in modern civilization words are everywhere. Man is subject to a continuous flood of communication . Most of it is fugitive, but here and there—in high-level journalism, in television, in the cinema, in commercial fiction, in westerns and detective stories, and in plain, expository prose—some writing, almost by accident, achieves an aesthetic satisfaction, a depth and relevance that entitle it to stand with other examples of the art of literature.

School of Writing, Literature, and Film

What is Literature? || Definition & Examples

"what is literature": a literary guide for english students and teachers.

View the full series: The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms

What is Literature? Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in Video; Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By Evan Gottlieb & Paige Thomas

The question of what makes something literary is an enduring one, and I don’t expect that we’ll answer it fully in this short video. Instead, I want to show you a few different ways that literary critics approach this question and then offer a short summary of the 3 big factors that we must consider when we ask the question ourselves.

Let’s begin by making a distinction between “Literature with a capital L” and “literature with a small l.”

“Literature with a small l” designates any written text: we can talk about “the literature” on any given subject without much difficulty.

“Literature with a capital L”, by contrast, designates a much smaller set of texts – a subset of all the texts that have been written.


speaker gesturing to literature with a small "l" rather than with a big "L"

So what makes a text literary or what makes a text “Literature with a capital L”?

Let’s start with the word itself.  “Literature” comes from Latin, and it originally meant “the use of letters” or “writing.” But when the word entered the Romance languages that derived from Latin, it took on the additional meaning of “knowledge acquired from reading or studying books.” So we might use this definition to understand “Literature with a Capital L” as writing that gives us knowledge--writing that should be studied.

But this begs the further question: what books or texts are worth studying?

For some critics, answering this question is a matter of establishing canonicity.  A work of literature becomes “canonical” when cultural institutions like schools or universities or prize committees classify it as a work of lasting artistic or cultural merit.

The canon, however, has proved problematic as a measure of what “Literature with a capital L” is because the gatekeepers of the Western canon have traditionally been White and male. It was only in the closing decades of the twentieth century that the canon of Literature was opened to a greater inclusion of diverse authors.

And here’s another problem with that definition: if inclusion in the canon were our only definition of Literature, then there could be no such thing as contemporary Literature, which, of course, has not yet stood the test of time.

And here’s an even bigger problem: not every book that receives good reviews or a wins a prize turns out to be of lasting value in the eyes of later readers.

On the other hand, a novel like Herman Melville’s Moby-Di ck, which was NOT received well by critics or readers when it was first published in 1851, has since gone on to become a mainstay of the American literary canon.


graphic with cover of Melville's "Moby Dick" and quote

As you can see, canonicity is obviously a problematic index of literariness.

So… what’s the alternative?  Well, we could just go with a descriptive definition: “if you love it, then it’s Literature!”

But that’s a little too subjective.  For example, no matter how much you may love a certain book from your childhood (I love The Very Hungry Caterpillar) that doesn’t automatically make it literary, no matter how many times you’ve re-read it.

Furthermore, the very idea that we should have an emotional attachment to the books we read has its own history that cannot be detached from the rise of the middle class and its politics of telling people how to behave.

Ok, so “literature with a capital L” cannot always by defined by its inclusion in the canon or the fact that it has been well-received so…what is it then? Well, for other critics, what makes something Literature would seem to be qualities within the text itself.

According to the critic Derek Attridge, there are three qualities that define modern Western Literature:

1. a quality of invention or inventiveness in the text itself;

2.  the reader’s sense that what they are reading is singular. In other words, the unique vision of the writer herself.

3. a sense of ‘otherness’ that pushes the reader to see the world around them in a new way

Notice that nowhere in this three-part definition is there any limitation on the content of Literature. Instead, we call something Literature when it affects the reader at the level of style and construction rather than substance.

In other words, Literature can be about anything!


speaker telling a secret with photo of Carle's "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" in the background

The idea that a truly literary text can change a reader is of course older than this modern definition. In the English tradition, poetry was preferred over novels because it was thought to create mature and sympathetic reader-citizens.

Likewise, in the Victorian era, it was argued that reading so-called “great” works of literature was the best way for readers to realize their full spiritual potentials in an increasingly secular world.

But these never tell us precisely what “the best” is.  To make matters worse, as I mentioned already, “the best” in these older definitions was often determined by White men in positions of cultural and economic power.

So we are still faced with the question of whether there is something inherent in a text that makes it literary.

Some critics have suggested that a sense of irony – or, more broadly, a sense that there is more than one meaning to a given set of words – is essential to “Literature with a capital L.”

Reading for irony means reading slowly or at least attentively.  It demands a certain attention to the complexity of the language on the page, whether that language is objectively difficult or not.

In a similar vein, other critics have claimed that the overall effect of a literary text should be one of “defamiliarization,” meaning that the text asks or even forces readers to see the world differently than they did before reading it.

Along these lines, literary theorist Roland Barthes maintained that there were two kinds of texts: the text of pleasure, which we can align with everyday Literature with a small l” and the text of jouissance , (yes, I said jouissance) which we can align with Literature. Jouissance makes more demands on the reader and raises feelings of strangeness and wonder that surpass the everyday and even border on the painful or disorienting.

Barthes’ definition straddles the line between objectivity and subjectivity. Literature differs from the mass of writing by offering more and different kinds of experiences than the ordinary, non-literary text.

Literature for Barthes is thus neither entirely in the eye of the beholder, nor something that can be reduced to set of repeatable, purely intrinsic characteristics.

This negative definition has its own problems, though. If the literary text is always supposed to be innovative and unconventional, then genre fiction, which IS conventional, can never be literary.

So it seems that whatever hard and fast definition we attempt to apply to Literature, we find that we run up against inevitable exceptions to the rules.

As we examine the many problematic ways that people have defined literature, one thing does become clear. In each of the above examples, what counts as Literature depends upon three interrelated factors: the world, the text, and the critic or reader.

You see, when we encounter a literary text, we usually do so through a field of expectations that includes what we’ve heard about the text or author in question [the world], the way the text is presented to us [the text], and how receptive we as readers are to the text’s demands [the reader].

With this in mind, let’s return to where we started. There is probably still something to be said in favor of the “test of time” theory of Literature.

After all, only a small percentage of what is published today will continue to be read 10, 20, or even 100 years from now; and while the mechanisms that determine the longevity of a text are hardly neutral, one can still hope that individual readers have at least some power to decide what will stay in print and develop broader cultural relevance.

The only way to experience what Literature is, then, is to keep reading: as long as there are avid readers, there will be literary texts – past, present, and future – that challenge, excite, and inspire us.

Interested in more video lessons? View the full series:

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What Literature Can Teach Us

Communication and research skills—and how to be a better human being.

Literature is a term used to describe written and sometimes spoken material. Derived from the Latin word  literature  meaning "writing formed with letters," literature most commonly refers to works of the creative imagination, including poetry, drama , fiction , nonfiction , and in some instances, journalism , and song. 

What Is Literature?

Simply put, literature represents the culture and tradition of a language or a people. The concept is difficult to precisely define, though many have tried; it's clear that the accepted definition of literature is constantly changing and evolving.

For many, the word literature suggests a higher art form; merely putting words on a page doesn't necessarily equate to creating literature. A canon is the accepted body of works for a given author. Some works of literature are considered canonical, that is, culturally representative of a particular genre (poetry, prose, or drama).

Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction

Some definitions also separate literary fiction from so-called "genre fiction," which includes types such as mystery, science fiction, western, romance, thriller, and horror. Think mass-market paperback.

Genre fiction typically does not have as much character development as literary fiction and is read for entertainment, escapism, and plot, whereas literary fiction explores themes common to the human condition and uses symbolism and other literary devices to convey the author's viewpoint on his or her chosen themes. Literary fiction involves getting into the minds of the characters (or at least the protagonist) and experiencing their relationships with others. The protagonist typically comes to a realization or changes in some way during the course of a literary novel.

(The difference in type does not mean that literary writers are better than genre fiction writers, just that they operate differently.)

Why Is Literature Important?

Works of literature, at their best, provide a kind of blueprint of human society. From the writings of ancient civilizations such as Egypt and China to Greek philosophy and poetry, from the epics of Homer to the plays of William Shakespeare, from Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte to Maya Angelou , works of literature give insight and context to all the world's societies. In this way, literature is more than just a historical or cultural artifact; it can serve as an introduction to a new world of experience.

But what we consider to be literature can vary from one generation to the next. For instance, Herman Melville's 1851 novel " Moby Dick "   was considered a failure by contemporary reviewers. However, it has since been recognized as a masterpiece and is frequently cited as one of the best works of Western literature for its thematic complexity and use of symbolism. By reading "Moby Dick" in the present day, we can gain a fuller understanding of literary traditions in Melville's time. 

Debating Literature 

Ultimately, we may discover meaning in literature by looking at what the author writes or says and how he or she says it. We may interpret and debate an author's message by examining the words he or she chooses in a given novel or work or observing which character or voice serves as the connection to the reader.

In academia, this decoding of the text is often carried out through the use of  literary theory using a mythological, sociological, psychological, historical, or other approaches to better understand the context and depth of a work.

Whatever critical paradigm we use to discuss and analyze it, literature is important to us because it speaks to us, it is universal, and it affects us on a deeply personal level. 

School Skills

Students who study literature and read for pleasure have a higher vocabulary, better reading comprehension, and better communication skills, such as writing ability. Communication skills affect people in every area of their lives, from navigating interpersonal relationships to participating in meetings in the workplace to drafting intraoffice memos or reports.

When students analyze literature, they learn to identify cause and effect and are applying critical thinking skills. Without realizing it, they examine the characters psychologically or sociologically. They identify the characters' motivations for their actions and see through those actions to any ulterior motives.

When planning an essay on a work of literature, students use problem-solving skills to come up with a thesis and follow through on compiling their paper. It takes research skills to dig up evidence for their thesis from the text and scholarly criticism, and it takes organizational skills to present their argument in a coherent, cohesive manner.

Empathy and Other Emotions

Some studies say that people who read literature have more empathy for others, as literature puts the reader into another person's shoes. Having empathy for others leads people to socialize more effectively, solve conflicts peacefully, collaborate better in the workplace, behave morally, and possibly even become involved in making their community a better place.

Other studies note a correlation between readers and empathy but do not find causation . Either way, studies back the need for strong English programs in schools, especially as people spend more and more time looking at screens rather than books.

Along with empathy for others, readers can feel a greater connection to humanity and less isolated. Students who read literature can find solace as they realize that others have gone through the same things that they are experiencing or have experienced. This can be a catharsis and relief to them if they feel burdened or alone in their troubles.

Quotes About Literature

Here are some quotes about literature from literature giants themselves.

what is litreature

what is litreature

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Origin of literature

Synonym study for literature, other words from literature, words nearby literature, more about literature, what is literature .

Literature is writing that uses artistic expression and form and is considered to have merit or be important.

As an artistic term, literature refers to written works, such as novels, short stories, biographies, memories, essays, and poetry. However, songs, movies, TV shows, video games, and paintings are typically not considered to be literature because the final output is not text.

At the same time, literature is usually thought to only include works of art . Informative works like newspapers, scientific journals, religious texts, press releases, and spreadsheets are generally not considered to be literature .

Yet in scientific study, especially anthropology or history, the word literature is used more broadly to describe everything that a specific society or group has ever written. For example, a researcher may be studying “Persian literature ,” which would include even mundane, non-artistic pieces of writing that was created by a citizen of the Persian empire, such as lists of food supplies.

Why is literature important?

The first records of the word literature come from around 1375. It ultimately comes from the Latin litterātūra , meaning “grammar” or “writing.”

What writings are considered literature is often debated. Average readers and literary experts often disagree on what counts as literature . Literary experts also disagree among themselves what is and isn’t literature . Usually, literature is defined as being “of interest” or having importance, which is obviously a subjective quality. Who gets to decide if a piece of writing is important? In the past, the answer was “people who can read.” In your own life, the literature you have studied has most likely been selected by an English teacher or a literature department at a college.

In everyday life, the word literature is most likely to be used when speaking academically or scholastically. Libraries and stores that sell books are less likely to use this broad, unhelpful term and are more likely to categorize written works using more specific words, like poetry , romance , or young adult fiction .

Did you know … ?

The oldest author whose name we know was Enheduanna, a Sumerian princess and high priestess who wrote poetry dedicated to the gods over 4,000 years ago. Her literature is the oldest written work we know of.

What are real-life examples of literature ?

People have many different opinions on what kinds of literature they like to read.

Who says great literature is dead? pic.twitter.com/m7yeKBkTxh — Stephen King (@StephenKing) April 11, 2018
Reading my twitter feed is still reading so that counts as literature right? — karlie jones (@__karlie__) March 11, 2013

What other words are related to literature ?

Quiz yourself.

Which of the following is NOT considered to be literature ?

A. a nature poem B. a science fiction novel C. a murder mystery television show D. a president’s autobiography

Words related to literature

How to use literature in a sentence.

If you want to understand the flamboyant family of objects that make up our solar system—from puny, sputtering comets to tremendous, ringed planets—you could start by immersing yourself in the technical terms that fill the scientific literature .

Poway Unified anticipates bringing forward two new courses – ethnic studies and ethnic literature – to the school board for review, said Christine Paik, a spokeswoman for the district.

The book she completed after that trip, Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928, would be hailed as a classic in the literature on sexuality and adolescence.

He also told Chemistry World he envisages the robots eventually being able to analyze the scientific literature to better guide their experiments.

Research also suggests that reading literature may help increase empathy and understanding of others’ experiences, potentially spurring better real-world behavior.

The research literature , too, asks these questions, and not without reason.

She wanted to know what happened over five years, or even 10, but the scientific literature had little to offer.

The religion shaped all facets of life: art, medicine, literature , and even dynastic politics.

Speaking of the literature you love, the Bloomsbury writers crop up in your collection repeatedly.

Literature in the 14th century, Strohm points out, was an intimate, interactive affair.

All along the highways and by-paths of our literature we encounter much that pertains to this "queen of plants."

There cannot be many persons in the world who keep up with the whole range of musical literature as he does.

In early English literature there was at one time a tendency to ascribe to Solomon various proverbs not in the Bible.

He was deeply versed in Saxon literature and published a work on the antiquity of the English church.

Such unromantic literature as Acts of Parliament had not, it may be supposed, up to this, formed part of my mental pabulum.

British Dictionary definitions for literature

Word origin for literature.

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Humanities LibreTexts

1.1: What is Literature?

Defining Literature

In order for us to study literature with any kind of depth, first we must decide what constitutes literature. While works like William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird are almost universally accepted as literature, other works are hotly debated, or included or excluded based on the context. For example, while most consider Toni Morrison’s Beloved literature, others debate whether more recent publications such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Rupi Kaur’s Instagram poetry constitute literature. And what about the stories told through tweets, like Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box” ? What about video games, like Skyrim , or memes, like Grumpy Cat?

Students often throw their hands up in the air over such distinctions, arguing literature is subjective. Isn't it up to individual opinion? Anything can be literature, such students argue. At first glance, it could seem such distinctions are, at best, arbitrary. At worst, such definitions function as a means of enforcing cultural erasure.

However, consider a story about Kim Kardashian’s plastic surgery in People Magazine . Can this be considered on the same level of literary achievement as Hamlet ? Most would concede there is a difference in quality between these two texts. A blurb about Kim Kardashian’s latest plastic surgery, most would agree, does not constitute literature. So how can we differentiate between such works?

Literature vs. literature

As illustrated in the somewhat silly example above, one way we can define what constitutes literature is by identifying what is definitely not literature. For our intents and purposes of defining most terms in this textbook, we will use the Oxford English Dictionary ’s definitions. Many professors who teach Literature use the concept of Big L Literature vs. little l literature (Rollison).

While the definition of little l literature is fairly easy to understand and apply, the definition of Big L Literature remains amorphous. What makes a work “artistic”? How do we define “superior” or “lasting”?

Let’s break down some of the defining qualities of literature in a bit more detail, starting with the word “artistic.”

Exercise 1.1.1

Consider the following works of art. Which of these images do you feel is higher quality or more “artistic”? Which is lower-quality or less artistic? Why? Justify your position by analyzing the elements of each artwork.

man in dark suit stands on mountain overlooking a sea of clouds

While there may be some debate, most students usually respond that Friedrich's painting is more artistic. This is due to several composition differences between the two works:

But what about the images demonstrate the artists’ superior skills? While the second image appears to be produced with a simple doodle, and quickly composed, the first indicates more complexity, attention-to-detail, and craft. Freidrich leverages different colors, textures, shapes, and symbols to evoke a feeling in the viewer. Skilled artists will use different techniques, like the way they move the paintbrush, the pressure they exert or the direction of the brush. They will use textured paintbrushes for a specific effect, such as the difference between the light fluffy clouds and dark mountain rocks. They will use different color pallets to project, as accurately as possible, the feelings they are trying to evoke. In short, while anyone can paint, true artists leverage many different skills, techniques, and materials to render what is in their imagination into a real-life product.

So how does this relate to our attempts to define literature?

Literature is art, but with words.

While the artist uses different colors, paintbrushes, mediums, canvases, and techniques, the writer uses different genres and literary techniques called literary devices . Just like different types of paint, paintbrushes, and artistic tools, there are literally hundreds of literary devices, but some of the most common are metaphor, simile, personification, and imagery. Genre is the type or style of literature. Each genre has its own conventions. Literary genres include creative nonfiction, fiction, drama, and poetry . Works that are literary tend to masterfully use genre conventions and literary devices to create a world in the mind of the reader. Works that are less literary tend to be for practical and/or entertainment purposes, and the writer dedicates less focused energy towards artfully employing literary devices.

However, just because a work is not as literary as another does not mean it cannot be enjoyed. Just like a stick figure or cartoon character might be perfectly fine if intended for a particular audience or purpose, readers can still enjoy People Magazine even though it is not of the same literary quality as Hamlet .

So, to use an example from earlier:

While some literature falls into clear designations of literature or not literature, most works are open to debate. Given the sometimes difficult task of determining whether a work falls into one camp or the other, it may be more helpful to think of Literature less as a dichotomy than a spectrum, with popular magazines on one end and works like Hamlet and Beloved on the other, and most written works falling somewhere between the two extremes.

The Literary Spectrum

This spectrum can be a helpful way to think about literature because it provides a more open-ended way to discuss writing as art than simply labeling works as literary or not. After viewing the above chart, why do you think popular magazines and a Calculus textbook are considered "less literary"? In terms of popular magazines, they do not fit the definition of literature as "lasting" in the sense that they usually fade from relevancy quickly after publication. Additionally, the authors of such magazines are striving for quick entertainment rather than leaving a meaningful impression on the reader. They tend not to use literary devices, such as metaphor, in a masterful way. On the other end, Shakespeare's Hamlet definitely fits the definition of "lasting," in that it has survived hundreds of years. It is full of literary devices used for rhetorical effect and, one would argue, it touches upon deep themes such as death, the afterlife, murder, vengeance, and love, rather than trifling issues such as a starlet's most recent plastic surgery.

Certainly, works of literature are up for debate: that is the quintessential question literary scholars might ask. What makes certain literary works survive the test of time? What makes a story, poem, or drama "good"? While literary scholars are less interested in proving a certain work is "good" or not -- and more focused on analyzing the ways to illuminate a given work -- it can be helpful for you to consider what kinds of literature you like and why you like it. What about the way it was written causes you to feel the way you do about it?

Who Decides What is Literature?

Now that we have at least somewhat clarified the definition of literature, who decides what works are or are not literature? Historically speaking, kings, queens, publishers, literary critics, professors, colleges, and readers (like you!) have decided which works survive and which works do not.

Aristotle was one of the first writers to attempt to decide what works fall into the category of literature, and what works do not. While Aristotle was most famous for his contributions to science and philosophy, he is also considered one of the first literary critics. A literary critic is a person who studies and analyzes literature. A literary critic produces scholarship called literary criticism . An example of this would be Aristotle’s Poetics , in which he identifies the defining qualities of a “good” Tragedy. Aristotle’s analysis of Tragedy was so influential that it is still used today, over two thousand years later!

When a work is officially decided to constitute literature, it enters something called the Canon. Not to be confused with the large metal tube that shoots bombs popular in the 16th through the 19th centuries (cannon), the Literary Canon is a collection of works that are considered by the powers that be to constitute literature. A work that falls into this designation is called canonical. So, to use an example from Aristotle’s Poetics , Aristotle defined Sophocles’ Oedipus Trilogy as the pinnacle of the Tragic Genre. From there, in part due to Aristotle's influence, Greek society valued Oedipus so much that they kept discussing, reading, referencing, and teaching it. Thus, it became a kind of shining example of the Tragic Canon, one which has lasted thousands of years and continues to be read and lauded to this day. Other tragedies, fairly or not, are often judged on their quality in comparison to Sophocles' works. Wild to think that someone who died thousands of years ago still influences what we consider literature today!

Memes and Video Games: Today's Literature?

All this talk of thousands-of-years-old texts might seem out of touch. A lot of people think "old and boring" and literature are synonymous. Students are often surprised to hear that comic books and video games can arguably be considered literature, too. There are plenty of arguments to be made that comic books, such as Maus by Art Spiegalman (1991) or Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2006) are literature. Cutting edge literary scholars argue video games like Kentucky Route Zero by Cardboard Computer (2015) can be considered literary. There is also literature that is published in tweets, like Jennifer Egan's "Black Box" (2012). Some might even consider memes literature!

Generative question: do you think memes can be literary?

chihuahua makes a dramatic face with superimposed text: "me, a writing professor: *assigns 500 word essay*; students: *dramatic chihuahua face*"

A meme is an image or video containing cultural values or ideas, often represented through allusion (implied reference to another work, without naming that work or its author). Memes can spread rapidly spreads through social media. Why? Because the best ones are #relatable; that is, they speak to a common human experience.

Usually memes take the form of text superimposed on an image. For example, the meme above conveys the dramatic reaction students sometimes give when I assign an essay. This is done primarily through a literary device called hyperbole , or exaggeration for rhetorical effect. It conveys its message comically through certain conventions that come along with the meme genre, such as the syntactic structure "me, a [insert noun]" and asterisks, which convey action. Just like in the Shakespearean drama, the colon indicates what each character (me and the students, in this case) is saying or doing. My chihuahua's face looks silly and very dramatic. Through this use of image, text, format, and convention, the meaning I intended to convey was that I was making fun of my students for being over-dramatic about what to me seems like a fairly simple assignment. While some might dismiss memes as shallow, when you start to unravel the layers of meaning, they can actually be very complex and even, dare I say, literary!

Think about a recent meme you have seen, or your favorite meme of all time. Imagine explaining this meme to someone who has no idea what it means. What is the message or idea behind the meme? What cultural reference points does it use to convey its message? In what ways might this meme be considered literature? How might this compare to a short poem, like a haiku?

Not Literature

Let's say you come to the conclusion that a meme, a gossip magazine, or the Twilight Series is not literary. Does that mean you have to feel guilty and give up reading it forever? Or that it is not "good"?

Just because a work is not literary does not mean it is "bad," that it does not have value, or that one cannot enjoy it. Indeed, there are plenty of examples of written works that are on the less literary side of the spectrum but are still fun and enriching to read. Joe Dirt i s not on the same artistic level of cinema as Schindler's List , but my husband still loves watching it. Nothing Taylor Swift has produced is as deep as Tupac Shakur's "Changes" (1992) or Mitski's "Last Words of a Shooting Star" (2014), but listening to Taylor Swift is my guilty pleasure. This is all to say that whether a text is literary or not is not as important as the methods of analyzing texts. In fact, texts which were excluded from literature are often argued into the literary canon through such analysis. Part of what makes analyzing literature so fun is that it means the definition of literature is always up for debate! This is especially important given the history of the canon.

The Problem with the Canon

In an ideal world, literature would be celebrated purely based on its artistic merit. Well-written works would last, poorly-written works would wither from public memory. However, that is not always the case. Works often achieve public prominence or survive based on qualities unrelated to skill or aesthetics, such as an author's fame, wealth, connections, or acceptance by the dominant culture. William Wordsworth, for example, was named Poet Laureate of England and has been taught as one of the "Big Six" major Romantic-era authors ever since. Indeed, he is accepted as part of the Romanticism literary canon. One would be hard-pressed to find a Literature anthology that does not feature William Wordsworth . However, how many people have read or heard of Dorothy Wordsworth , William Wordsworth's sister, who arguably depicted Romantic themes with equal skill and beauty? Or James Hogg, a Scottish contemporary of Wordsworth who was a lower-class shepherd? Similarly, while most readers have encountered F. Scott Fitzgerald or Edgar Allen Poe in their high school literature classes, how many have read Frederick Douglass in these same classes? In short, all artistic skill (arguably) considered equal, why do some authors predominantly feature in the Canon while others do not?

Let’s perform an experimental activity.

I have replicated this experiment dozens of times in the classroom, and, in most classes, the vast majority of what students have been taught are “Literary Masterworks” are written by (pardon my colloquialism) dead white males. Although, as time progresses, it seems there is increasing but not proportionate representation on average. For example, while women make up about half of the population, over 80% of the most popular novels were written by men ("Battle"). While there are many possible reasons for this discrepancy in representation (which could be the focus of an entire textbook), what does this mean for scholars of literature? For students? For instructors? For society?

As a cultural relic, similar to art, many scholars suggest literature is a reflection of the society which produces it. This includes positive aspects of society (championing values such as love, justice, and good triumphing over evil), but it can also reflect negative aspects of society (such as discrimination, racism, sexism, homophobia, historical lack of opportunity for marginalized authors).

For example, enslaved Africans were often prevented from learning to read and write as a form of control. When Phillis Wheatley published her book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) she had to defend the fact that she wrote it, due to popularly held racist views that slaves were incapable of writing poetry. Later, Frederick Douglass wrote about how his enslavers banned him from reading and writing, as they realized "education and slavery were incompatible with each other" (Douglass). He later championed his learning to read and write as the means which conveyed him to freedom. However, even when trying to publish The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass ( 1845) his publishers were forced to prove that it was, in fact, an enslaved person who wrote the story and not a white man who wrote it for him. Slave owners actively attempted to keep this book from circulation as it threatened the institution of slavery upon which they depended. Indeed, to this day, Douglass' book continues to be banned in some prisons for its potential to incite revolution (Darby, Gilroy).

How could Black writers enter the canon en masse if they were not allowed to read or write? Or if they were forced to spend all of their waking hours working? And if those who had the means to read and write had to jump through absurd hoops just to have their works published? And if even those texts which were published were banned?

Similarly, throughout much of Western history, women have been discouraged from pursuing reading and writing, as it distracted from society's expectations for women to focus on motherly and household duties. Until the 1700s, women were not allowed to go to college. Even then, very few went: only the extremely wealthy. It was not until the 19th century that women attended college in representative numbers. Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One's Own that if there are fewer works of literature written by women, it is only because society, historically, has not given women the time, education, funding, or space to do so. In this extended essay, she describes an imaginary sister of William Shakespeare who could have been just as great of a writer had she the same opportunities as her brother.

I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee's life of the poet. She died young—alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross-roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her.

Woolf argues that in our time those who have been excluded from literature can now join the canon by adding their voices. The inequity of representation in literature -- which has arguably improved, but in many ways persists today -- can be remedied if more people from a wide array of backgrounds and walks of life are empowered to study and create Literature. That is one reason why the current study of literature is so exciting. As a student and budding literary scholar, you have the power to influence culture through your reading and analysis of literature! For one author and scholar's perspective on this topic, please watch this the following TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to see the ways in which such misrepresentations are harmful, and why it is important to veer away from the historically parochial Canon into what Chinua Achebe calls "a balance of stories" (qtd. Bacon).

screen capture of a TED Talk video of "The Danger of a Single Story" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Link to transcript and video.

What "single stories" do you know? What are the "single stories" people have told about you? What story would you tell if you could? What kinds of stories do you want to read? Throughout this class, you will get the opportunity to encounter many different voices and stories from all over the world. While we faced hurdles of copyright permissions, the authors of this textbook attempted to embody the values espoused in this TED Talk & Chinua Achebe's conception of the "balance of stories." As you read the textbook, consider the stories which were omitted, why they were omitted, and what works of Literature you would include in this class if you could.

Works Cited

Bacon, Katie. "An African Voice." The Atlantic , 2000.

"Battle of the Authors: Are The Most Popular Rated Fiction Books Written by Men or Women?" Wordery , 1 Mar. 2019.

Darby, Luke. "Illinois Prison Bans Frederick Douglass's Memoir and Other "Racial" Books." GQ , 20 August 2019.

Douglass, Frederick. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. 1845.

Friedrich, Caspar David. "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog." Hamburger Kunsthalle Museum , 1818.

Gilroy, Paul. "Banned Books of Guantánamo: 'An American Slave' by Frederick Douglass." Vice , 14 Nov. 2014.

"literature, n.; 3b & 5" OED Online , Oxford University Press, September 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/109080. Accessed 6 September 2019.

Rollison, David. "Big L vs Little L Literature." Survey of World Literature I. College of Marin, 2008. Lecture.

Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral . 1773.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. 1929.

Definition of literature

Example sentences.

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'literature.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback .

Word History

Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin litteratura writing, grammar, learning, from litteratus

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 4

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We know how the Nobel Prize committee defines literature, but how does the dictionary?

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Cite this Entry

“Literature.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/literature. Accessed 7 Mar. 2023.

Kids Definition

Kids definition of literature, more from merriam-webster on literature.

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The Academy

What is literature.

The quest to discover a definition for “literature” is a road that is much travelled, though the point of arrival, if ever reached, is seldom satisfactory.  Most attempted definitions are broad and vague, and they inevitably change over time.  In fact, the only thing that is certain about defining literature is that the definition will change.  Concepts of what is literature change over time as well.  What may be considered ordinary and not worthy of comment in one time period may be considered literary genius in another.  Initial reviews of Emily Brontë 's Wuthering Heights in 1847 were less than spectacular, however, Wuthering Heights is now considered one of the greatest literary achievements of all time.  The same can be said for Herman Melville 's Moby-Dick (1851).

Generally, most people have their own ideas of what literature is.  When enrolling in a literary course at university, you expect that everything on the reading list will be “literature”.  Similarly, you might expect everything by a known author to be literature, even though the quality of that author's work may vary from publication to publication.  Perhaps you get an idea just from looking at the cover design on a book whether it is “literary” or “pulp”.  Literature then, is a form of demarcation, however fuzzy, based on the premise that all texts are not created equal.  Some have or are given more value than others.

Most forays into the question of “what is literature” go into how literature works with the reader, rather than how the author set about writing it.  It is the reception, rather than the writing, which is the object of enquiry.  Largely, what we call “literature” is often a subjective value judgment, and naturally, value judgments, like literary tastes, will change.

Etymologically, literature has to do with letters, the written as opposed to the spoken word, though not everything that is written down is literature.  As a classification, it doesn't really have any firm boundary lines.  The poet Shelley wanted to include some legislative statutes of parliaments under poetry because they created order and harmony out of disorder.  There is recurring agreement amongst theorists though that for a work to be called literature must display excellence in form and style.  Something may also be literary by association – that is, because V.S. Naipaul is a literary figure through his novels, his private letters are passed as literature as well.

There is also general agreement that literature foregrounds language, and uses it in artistic ways.  Terry Eagleton goes some way towards a definition of literature and its relationship to language: “Literature transforms and intensifies ordinary language, deviates systematically from everyday speech”.  Just as architecture is the art form that arises out of the human ability to create buildings, literature is the art form that arises out of the human ability to create language.

The common definition of literature, particularly for university courses, is that it covers the major genres of poetry, drama, and novel/fiction.  The term also implies literary quality and distinction.  This is a fairly basic view of literature because, as mentioned in the introduction, the meaning of the term has undergone changes, and will no doubt continue to do so.  Most contemporary literary histories show a shift from the belles-lettres tradition, which was concerned with finding beauty, an elevated use of language, emotional effects and moral sentiments before something could be called literature. 

The three main ways of approaching a definition of literature are relativism, subjectivism and agnosticism.  With relativism, there are no value distinctions in literature; anything may be called good literature.  Subjectivism, as the term implies, means that all theories of literary value are subjective, and that literary evaluation is a purely personal matter.  Agnosticism follows from subjectivism, though it argues that though there may be real distinctions in literary value, our subjective value systems prevent us from knowing anything about the real values.

what is litreature

Definitions of literature change because they describe and clarify a reality, they do not create the reality they describe.  Or it may be that definitions tell us what we ought to think literature should be.  At a dinner party you would be swiftly corrected if you referred to Mills & Boon as literature.  This might occur for two reasons:  the common perception of literature as described by current definitions doesn't include mass-market romance novels; or Mills & Boon might well be literature, but contemporary definitions tell us it shouldn't be.

Does it really matter what “literature” is?  Does everyone have to agree?  Because there is no hard and fast definition of literature, perhaps it is more beneficial to seek an analysis instead.  What purposes does literature serve?  What distinguishes literature from non-literary works?  What makes us treat something as literature?  How do we know when something is literature?  Would it be easier to ask “what isn't literature”? 

Literature is as literature does.  In exploring ideas about what literature is, it is useful to look at some of the things that literature does.  Literature is something that reflects society, makes us think about ourselves and our society, allows us to enjoy language and beauty, it can be didactic, and it reflects on “the human condition”.  It both reflects ideology and changes ideology, just like it follows generic conventions as well as changing them.  It has social and political effects: just ask Salman Rushdie or Vladamir Nabakov.  Literature is the creation of another world, a world that we can only see through reading literature.

E xtra Reading:

Extra Reading:

Eagleton, Terry.  Literary Theory: An Introduction.  Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1996.

Hernadi, Paul. Ed.  What is Literature?  Bloomington & London, Indiana University Press, 1978.

Wellek, René and Austin Warren.  Theory of Literature.  Mitcham, Victoria: Penguin, 1963.

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What Is Literature?

T here’s a new definition of literature in town. It has been slouching toward us for some time now but may have arrived officially in 2009, with the publication of Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America. Alongside essays on Twain, Fitzgerald, Frost, and Henry James, there are pieces about Jackson Pollock, Chuck Berry, the telephone, the Winchester rifle, and Linda Lovelace. Apparently, “literary means not only what is written but what is voiced, what is expressed, what is invented, in whatever form” — in which case maps, sermons, comic strips, cartoons, speeches, photographs, movies, war memorials, and music all huddle beneath the literary umbrella. Books continue to matter, of course, but not in the way that earlier generations took for granted. In 2004, “the most influential cultural figure now alive,” according to Newsweek, wasn’t a novelist or historian; it was Bob Dylan. Not incidentally, the index to A New Literary History contains more references to Dylan than to Stephen Crane and Hart Crane combined. Dylan may have described himself as “a song-and-dance man,” but Marcus and Sollors and such critics as Christopher Ricks beg to differ. Dylan, they contend, is one of the greatest poets this nation has ever produced (in point of fact, he has been nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature every year since 1996).

“Two Tall Books,” by Abelardo Morell. Courtesy the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York City

“Two Tall Books,” by Abelardo Morell. Courtesy the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York City

The idea that literature contains multitudes is not new. For the greater part of its history, lit(t)eratura referred to any writing formed with letters. Up until the eighteenth century, the only true makers of creative work were poets, and what they aspired to was not literature but poesy. A piece of writing was “literary” only if enough learned readers spoke well of it; but as Thomas Rymer observed in 1674, “till of late years England was as free from Criticks, as it is from Wolves.”

So when did literature in the modern sense begin? According to Trevor Ross’s The Making of the English Literary Canon, that would have been on February 22, 1774. Ross is citing with theatrical flair the case of Donaldson v. Beckett, which did away with the notion of “perpetual copyright” and, as one contemporary onlooker put it, allowed “the Works of Shakespeare, of Addison, Pope, Swift, Gay, and many other excellent Authors of the present Century . . . to be the Property of any Person.” It was at this point, Ross claims, that “the canon became a set of commodities to be consumed. It became literature rather than poetry.” What Ross and other historians of literature credibly maintain is that the literary canon was largely an Augustan invention evolving from la querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, which pitted cutting-edge seventeenth-century authors against the Greek and Latin poets. Because a canon of vastly superior ancient writers — Homer, Virgil, Cicero — already existed, a modern canon had been slow to develop. One way around this dilemma was to create new ancients closer to one’s own time, which is precisely what John Dryden did in 1700, when he translated Chaucer into Modern English. Dryden not only made Chaucer’s work a classic; he helped canonize English literature itself.

The word canon, from the Greek, originally meant “measuring stick” or “rule” and was used by early Christian theologians to differentiate the genuine, or canonical, books of the Bible from the apocryphal ones. Canonization, of course, also referred to the Catholic practice of designating saints, but the term was not applied to secular writings until 1768, when the Dutch classicist David Ruhnken spoke of a canon of ancient orators and poets.

The usage may have been novel, but the idea of a literary canon was already in the air, as evidenced by a Cambridge don’s proposal in 1595 that universities “take the course to canonize [their] owne writers, that not every bold ballader . . . may pass current with a Poet’s name.” A similar nod toward hierarchies appeared in Daniel Defoe’s A Vindication of the Press (1718) and Joseph Spence’s plan for a dictionary of British poets. Writing in 1730, Spence suggested that the “known marks for ye different magnitudes of the Stars ” could be used to establish rankings such as “great Genius & fine writer,” “fine writer,” “middling Poet,” and “one never to be read.” In 1756, Joseph Warton’s essay on Pope designated “four different classes and degrees” of poets, with Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton comfortably leading the field. By 1781, Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets had confirmed the canon’s constituents — fifty-two of them — but also fine-tuned standards of literary merit so that the common reader, “uncorrupted with literary prejudice,” would know what to look for.

In effect, the canon formalized modern literature as a select body of imaginative writings that could stand up to the Greek and Latin texts. Although exclusionary by nature, it was originally intended to impart a sense of unity; critics hoped that a tradition of great writers would help create a national literature. What was the apotheosis of Shakespeare and Milton if not an attempt to show the world that England and not France — especially not France — had produced such geniuses? The canon anointed the worthy and, by implication, the unworthy, functioning as a set of commandments that saved people the trouble of deciding what to read.

The canon — later the canon of Great Books — endured without real opposition for nearly two centuries before antinomian forces concluded that enough was enough. I refer, of course, to that mixed bag of politicized professors and theory-happy revisionists of the 1970s and 1980s — feminists, ethnicists, Marxists, semioticians, deconstructionists, new historicists, and cultural materialists — all of whom took exception to the canon while not necessarily seeing eye to eye about much else. Essentially, the postmodernists were against — well, essentialism. While books were conceived in private, they reflected the ideological makeup of their host culture; and the criticism that gave them legitimacy served only to justify the prevailing social order. The implication could not be plainer: If books simply reinforced the cultural values that helped shape them, then any old book or any new book was worthy of consideration. Literature with a capital L was nothing more than a bossy construct, and the canon, instead of being genuine and beneficial, was unreal and oppressive.

Traditionalists, naturally, were aghast. The canon, they argued, represented the best that had been thought and said, and its contents were an expression of the human condition: the joy of love, the sorrow of death, the pain of duty, the horror of war, and the recognition of self and soul. Some canonical writers conveyed this with linguistic brio, others through a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of experience; and their books were part of an ongoing conversation, whose changing sum was nothing less than the history of ideas. To mess with the canon was to mess with civilization itself.

A lthough it’s pretty to think that great books arise because great writers are driven to write exactly what they want to write, canon formation was, in truth, a result of the middle class’s desire to see its own values reflected in art. As such, the canon was tied to the advance of literacy, the surging book trade, the growing appeal of novels, the spread of coffee shops and clubs, the rise of reviews and magazines, the creation of private circulating libraries, the popularity of serialization and three-decker novels, and, finally, the eventual takeover of literature by institutions of higher learning.

These trends have all been amply documented by a clutch of scholarly works issuing from the canon wars of the Seventies and Eighties; and few critics today would ever think to ignore the cultural complicity inherent in canon formation. 1 Consider, for example, the familiar poetry anthology. As Barbara Benedict explains in Making the Modern Reader, the first anthologies were pieced together less out of aesthetic conviction than out of the desire of printers and booksellers to promote books whose copyrights they held. And because poets wanted to see their work anthologized, they began writing shorter poems to increase their chances for inclusion.

By the early 1800s, according to Thomas Bonnell, author of That Most Disreputable Trade, uniform sets of poetry or the “complete works” of writers were standard publishing fare; and because the books looked and felt so good — The Aldine Edition of the British Poets (1830–52) was bound in morocco and marbled boards with gilt on the front covers and spines — each decorative volume seemed to shout “Literature.”? 2 But it would be small-minded, as well as excessive, to claim that commerce alone drove the literary enterprise. Simply because anthologies or serialization influenced the composition of poems and novels didn’t mean that writers tossed aesthetic considerations aside. Canon formation continued to rely on a credible, if not monolithic, consensus among informed readers.

I n time, the canon, formerly the province of reviews and magazines, was annexed by institutions of higher learning, which cultivated eminent professors of English and comparative literature and later recruited famous poets and writers to act as gatekeepers. In 1909, Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard, claimed that anyone could earn a sound liberal-arts education simply by spending fifteen minutes a day reading books that fit on a “five-foot shelf.” The shelf, as it turned out, held exactly fifty-one books, which were published by P. F. Collier & Son as the Harvard Classics and went on to sell some 350,000 sets. Eliot’s exhortations notwithstanding, the books were a publishing rather than an educational venture. It wasn’t until John Erskine of Columbia and Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago lobbied, in the 1920s, for a list of indispensable works in literature and philosophy that the canon became equated with a syllabus.

More than anyone else, however, it was Erskine’s student Mortimer J. Adler who popularized the idea of the Great Books. Adler, who also ended up at Chicago, went on to write the best-selling How to Read a Book (1940), whose appendix of “Recommended Reading” (all of it “over most people’s heads”) served as a springboard for the 1952 Encyclopædia Britannica ’s ancillary fifty-four-volume series of Great Books of the Western World, selected by — who else? — Adler and Hutchins.

Although the canon could groan and shift in its place, as late as 1970 there was probably little disagreement as to what constituted literature. 3 Despite the Nobel Prize’s being awarded to some unlikely recipients, as well as to Bertrand Russell, literature generally meant the best literature; and the canon, despite the complicity of institutions and the interests of those involved in the promotion of books, was essentially an aesthetic organism tended by literary and academic gardeners.

In a sense, the canon was like an imposing, upstanding tree, an elm or Sierra redwood, whose main branches originally consisted of epic poetry, comedy and tragedy, a few satires, some religious and philosophical treatises, and the shorter poems and prose works of various Greek and Roman writers. As the tree aged, other limbs formed capable of sustaining Elizabethan drama, nineteenth-century novels, essays, short stories, and lyric poems. Adler’s list of Great Books enumerates 137 authors (including Newton, Poincaré, and Einstein). Adler, who died in 2001 at the age of ninety-eight, may have regretted his strong constitution. The tree he had helped cultivate now bent dangerously under the weight of its own foliage. Other genres — mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and romance — extended from the trunk, sprouting titles that Adler must have bristled at, including those by women and minority writers whose books flourished, so it was claimed, because of their sex and ethnicity.

In the late Seventies, the anticanonites began taking over the universities, and the English-department syllabus, the canon by another name, was dismantled. Even critics who wrote for general-interest magazines appeared fed up with the idea that some books were better for you than others. Leslie Fiedler, for one, owned up to his susceptibility to not-so-great novels in What Was Literature? (1982). Fiedler maintained that he had been brainwashed by highbrow criticism to the detriment of his own natural enjoyment of pure storytelling. Certain novels, despite “their executive ineptitude and imprecision of language,” moved him, and he wasn’t going to deny it. Such novels, he argued, appealed on some primitive storytelling level; they expressed our need for myth and archetype and had to be considered literature even “at their egregious worst.”

Terry Eagleton has recently gone one better: questioning whether “something called literature actually exists,” in his 2012 book The Event of Literature. Eagleton, who once proposed replacing departments of literature with departments of “discourse studies,” refuses, thirty years after the publication of his highly readable Literary Theory, to cede to literature a single objective reality. As he did in his earlier book, Eagleton incisively surveys the theory surrounding literature and concludes that it can’t really sustain an overarching definition, since there is nothing verbally peculiar to a literary work, and no single feature or set of features is shared by all literary theories.

In sum, we live in a time when inequality in the arts is seen as a relativistic crock, when the distinction between popular culture and high culture is said to be either dictatorial or arbitrary. Yet lodged in that accusatory word “inequality” is an idea we refuse to abandon. I mean, of course, quality. The canon may be gone, but the idea of the canon persists. 4 Penguin Books is now issuing a series of “modern classics,” which the publisher has decided are classics in the making. No doubt some of these novels deserve our consideration — Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge shouldn’t offend even unrepentant highbrows — but what about those books shoehorned in because they occasioned “great movies” or constitute “pure classic escapism”? Do Charles Willeford’s Miami Blues and Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, enjoyable as they are, rate as modern classics? Clearly the idea of greatness continues to appeal, and just as clearly our definition of it has changed — as has our definition of literature.

E ighty-five years ago, in The Whirligig of Taste, the British writer E. E. Kellett disabused absolutists of the notion that books are read the same way by successive generations. Kellett concluded his short but far-ranging survey by noting that “almost all critical judgment . . . is in the main built on prejudice.” This, of course, makes consensus about books only slightly more probable than time travel. But if there is even a remote chance of its happening, the first thing we have to do is acknowledge our own deep-seated preferences. The adept critic Desmond MacCarthy once observed that

one cannot get away from one’s temperament any more than one can jump away from one’s shadow, but one can discount the emphasis which it produces. I snub my own temperament when I think it is not leading me straight to the spot where a general panorama of an author’s work is visible.

Although the snubbing of temperament is not easily accomplished, we can try. We can move from being ecstatic readers to being critical readers, hesitating to defend a book because we like it or condemn it because we don’t. For when it comes to books, it isn’t always wise to follow our bliss when bliss gets in the way of reason, and reason alone should be sufficient to tell us that War and Peace is objectively greater than The War of the Worlds, no matter which one we prefer to reread.

Here’s the trick, if that’s the right word: one may regard the canon as a convenient fiction, shaped in part by the material conditions under which writing is produced and consumed, while simultaneously recognizing the validity of hierarchical thinking and aesthetic criteria. Writers may not be able to “escape from contingency,” as the new historicists used to say, but those sensitive to their prisons can transform the walls that confine them — a transformation that requires an awareness of the great poets and novelists who preceded them. Artists look backward in order to move forward. Which is why hierarchical rankings of writers are as natural as those teeming lists of great boxers, tenors, composers, and cabinetmakers. The canon may be unfair and its proponents self-serving, but the fact that there is no set-in-stone syllabus or sacred inventory of Great Books does not mean there are no great books. This is something that seems to have gotten lost in the canon brawl — i.e., the distinction between a list of Great Books and the idea that some books are far better than others.

I n a word, Marcus and Sollors are wrong. “Literary” does not refer to “what is expressed, what is invented, in whatever form,” and literature does not encompass every book that comes down the pike, however smart or well-made. At the risk of waxing metaphysical, one might argue that literature, like any artifact, has both a Platonic form and an Aristotelian concreteness. Although examples of imaginative writing arrive in all sizes and degrees of proficiency, literature with a capital L, even as its meaning swims in and out of focus, is absolutist in the sense that all serious writers aspire to it. Although writers may be good or bad, literature itself is always good, if not necessarily perfect. Bad literature is, in effect, a contradiction. One can have flawed literature but not bad literature; one can have something “like literature” or even “literature on a humble but not ignoble level,” as Edmund Wilson characterized the Sherlock Holmes stories, but one can’t have dumb or mediocre literature.

[inline_ad ad=3]The truth is we want from poetry and prose what Bob Dylan and advertisements and even many well-written commercial novels cannot provide. We want important writing (bearing in mind that not every successful poem, play, or story need be utterly serious) to explore the human condition, and we want our writers to function, as T. S. Eliot said of the metaphysical poets, as “curious explorers of the soul.” Such exploration may be mediated by personal as well as historical forces, but the work will always reveal human nature to be more obdurate than are the institutions that seek to channel it. Indelible truths, as Auden might say, stare from every human face, and they are not at the whim of regime change. So while lesser writers summon enthusiasm or indifference, great writers power their way into our consciousness almost against our will.

More than the distinctive knit of his verse or prose, a writer is what he (or she) chooses to write about, and the canon is the meeting place where strong writers, in Harold Bloom’s agonistic scenario, strive to outmuscle their precursors in order to express their own individuality. That’s what literature is about, isn’t it? — a record of one human being’s sojourn on earth, proffered in verse or prose that artfully weaves together knowledge of the past with a heightened awareness of the present in ever new verbal configurations. The rest isn’t silence, but it isn’t literature either.

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