Defining Literature

Defining literature is always difficult.  There are several overlapping definitions.  Some concentrate of where the words are–as our discussion is when it questions whether something can be literature if it’s oral.  This gets at only part of the question.  Other definitions get at what literature feels like to the audience/reader.  Other definitions focus on the differences between literature and everyday use of language.  By using a combination of approaches (being flexible) we can arrive at a definition.

I’m including a long quote from Jonathan Culler’s wonderful little book Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction.  Culler teaches at Cornell.  If any of you are serious about English as a major, you should probably read this book.  The reason I mention this is that Culler makes literary theory understandable and he cuts through a lot of the current trends in criticism–that’s saying a lot, if you’ve seen some of the strange things to come out of our field of study lately.  I wish I had read a book like this before tackling those English classes! Anyway, I’m not going to say much else about this–he goes from pages 18-41 trying to define this strange thing we call literature.

See what you can say about Culler’s take on defining literature.  You could respond to it for some discussion postings.

Remember that epic poems like The Odyssey and The Iliad were initially oral–they were only written down much later.  They are in our canon.  The origins of poetry are oral rather than written.

Note that Culler’s book is published by Oxford UP, so it’s going to have single quotes where there should be double–and other British usages like single – instead of the– for quick shifts in thought.  You should continue using Standard American English and MLA format.

The Definition of Literature

What sort of question?

We find ourselves back at the key question, ‘What is literature?’, which will not go away. But what sort of question is it? If a 5-year-old is asking, it’s easy. ‘Literature’, you answer, ‘is stories, poems, and plays.’ But if the questioner is a literary theorist, it’s harder to know how to take the query. It might be a question about the general nature of this object, literature, which both of you already know well. What sort of object or activity is it? What does it do? What purposes does it serve? Thus understood, ‘What is literature?’ asks not for a definition but for an analysis, even an argument about why one might concern oneself with literature at all.

But ‘What is literature?’ might also be a question about distinguishing characteristics of the works known as literature: what distinguishes them from non-literary works? What differentiates literature from other human activities or pastimes? Now people might ask this question because they were wondering how to decide which books are literature and which are not, but it is more likely that they already have an idea what counts as literature and want to know something else: are there any essential, distinguishing features that literary works share?

This is a difficult question. Theorists have wrestled with it, but without notable success. The reasons are not far to seek: works of literature come in all shapes and sizes and most of them seem to have more in common with works that aren’t usually called literature than they do with some other works recognized as literature. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, for instance, more closely resembles an autobiography than it does a sonnet, and a poem by Robert Burns – ‘My love is like a red, red rose’ -resembles a folk-song more than it does Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Are there qualities shared by poems, plays, and novels that distinguish them from, say, songs, transcriptions of conversations, and autobiographies?

Historical Variations

Even a bit of historical perspective makes this question more complex. For twenty-five centuries people have written works that we call literature today, but the modern sense of literature is scarcely two centuries old. Prior to 1800 literature and analogous terms in other European languages meant writings’ or “book knowledge.” Even today, a scientist who says ‘the literature on evolution is immense’ means not that many poems and novels treat the topic but that much has been written about it. And works that today are studied as literature in English or Latin classes in schools and universities were once treated not as a special kind of writing but as fine examples of the use of language and rhetoric. They were instances of a larger category of exemplary practices of writing and thinking, which included speeches, sermons, history, and philosophy. Students were not asked to interpret them, as we now interpret literary works, seeking to explain what they are ‘really about’. On the contrary, students memorized them, studied their grammar, identified their rhetorical figures and their structures or procedures of argument. A work such as Virgil’s Aeneid, which today g is studied as literature, was treated very differently in schools prior to 1850.

The modern Western sense of literature as imaginative writing can be traced to the German Romantic theorists of the late eighteenth century and, if we want a particular source, to a book published in 1800 by a French Baroness, Madame de Staël’s On Literature Considered in its Relations with Social Institutions. But even if we restrict ourselves to the last two centuries, the category of literature becomes slippery:

would works which today count as literature—say poems that seem snippets of ordinary conversation, without rhyme or discernible metre -have qualified as literature for Madame de Staël? And once we begin to think about non-European cultures, the question of what counts as literature becomes increasingly difficult. It is tempting to give it up and conclude that literature is whatever a given society treats as literature—a set of texts that arbiters [tastemakers, critics] recognize as belonging to literature.

I hope this helps!

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