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The Question of Literature and Other Quandaries

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For several years now there has been a term that has truly perplexed me: literature.  The term “literature” is something that every student is exposed at some time or another, but I find that it often isn’t satisfactorily explained. When I was a student in high school, teachers would often just mention the term in passing or in reference to one of the books that was being read in class, but they never actually explained it fully. As a result there are many questions that come to my mind when I think about the term literature.  Why are some works termed “literature” and others not? Who is the authority that makes such a distinction and what makes them qualified to do so? When did this term come into existence and has it evolved to mean something entirely different? These are just a few of the many that have bounced around in my school when the term literature has come up. My intention here is to delve into and see what answers I can find and maybe sooth or slacken some of the buzzing that the term bring to my mind.

I thought that I might begin my search with an etymological search, as I have done in several of my previous papers for this course. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, literature has a variety of meanings: 1) Acquaintance with “letters” or books; polite or humane learning; literary culture. Now rare and obsolescent; 2) Literary work or production; the activity or profession of a man of letters; the realm of letters; and 3) (a) Literary productions as a whole; the body of writings produced in a particular country of period, or in the world in general. Now also in a more restricted sense, applied to writing which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect, (b) The body of books and writings that treat of a particular subject, (c) Printed matter of any kind (OED). Each of these definitions has a slightly different connotation. The first definition definitely deals with a certain idea of being cultured and well educated, which I believe to be the traditional idea of literature. It seems to have first appeared as early as the 1300s, which also seems to indicate that this particular idea of the term was the first and has a long standing nature. However, the final definition listed has a much broader idea of the term as it defines it as “printed matter of any kind,” since this term was only used as of the mid 1890s, this would indicate that the term literature has gone through an evolutionary process. A definition that encompasses everything and one that is exclusive are two very different ideas to exist side by side in reference to one particular term.

From this point of understanding, I suppose that we have reached a partial answer to one of my questions: when did this question come into existence and has it evolved to mean something entirely different? The easy answer is that it first came about in 1375 according to the Oxford English Dictionary and it has in fact evolved to mean something different today than it did then, however, it is not entirely correct. Yes, that first definition of “literature” did seem to go out of use right around the time that the newer definition began to be used quite frequently, but that last definition does not quite ring true either, since there is a different level of respect or regard for certain works that one comes upon in opposition to others that are not offered this sort of treatment. For example, in some bookstores there is often a separate section for great literary works and works of a different genre. I find that quite odd, since by definition, literature seems to be anything at all that is in print. If one relies on that definition, the pop culture genres, such as paranormal fiction, should be under the title of literature alongside the works of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, for they are all printed works. I find that it is an interesting question.

Jonathan Culler also attempted to answer the question (What is literature?) in his book about literary theory. At the beginning of the explanation he attempts to define it. Like the Oxford English Dictionary, Culler notes that the definition has noticeably changed from the initial use of the term to more modern times, but his idea of the definition doesn’t entirely follow the one I had discovered in the Oxford English Dictionary. Culler claims that “prior to 1800 literature and analogous terms in other European languages meant ‘writings’ or ‘book knowledge’ (Culler, 21). That does not hold true to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of literature being an “acquaintance with ‘letters’ or books of any kind; polite or humane learning; literary culture.” It seems to indicate that the definition was more simplistic and set than the one that was given by this repudiated source. There are some links between these two definitions, but they are not the same idea by a long shot. The modern definition he describes as being something that is very complex, too complex to explain since in different cultures it means different things.

He came up with some other interesting points throughout his explanation that sent my mind whirring. He first brings up the idea that the context in which the question is asked does make the answer vary. For example, “If a 5-year-old boy is asking, it’s easy. ‘Literature’, you answer, ‘is stories, poems, and plays’” (Culler, 20). He then goes on to explain that if a literary theorist were to ask the same question the answer would be so complex that it would be difficult to begin. The context of the question is not the only the thing that he explains is a critical point when considering the question. No the context of the actual work that is under question of being literature or not is also a key piece to the puzzle. If a sentence from any text were taken out and rearranged to fit the form of a poem, would that be literature? That is the question that Culler explains he is facing in attempting to describe literature in any whole and encompassing way. Literature just has such a wide variety of applications and therefore connotations that it is difficult to sum up very easily.

Culler argument is an intriguing one and very well thought out as well. He explains that while many things within non-literary works could have some “literariness” about them (Culler, 19). He uses a variety of examples to illustrate that point. The fact of the matter is though, he does create an argument where there is a clear division between what is considered literature and what is not. I feel that I cannot agree with that particular stance, as well reasoned as it is and as well defended as it is.

I would argue that literature need not be a dividing factor in regards to written works as it often is now. Literature, as Culler thinks of it, is a teaching tool that exemplifies particular written works as well-written or as we brought up in our discussion of the literary canon near the end of the course “best.” I feel the need to ask what it is that determines what is well-written. What is it that determines what is defined as “best”? I don’t know if there are any answers to that question other than what the educated public finds to be of lasting interest for a long period of time. That is a valid point, even if it isn’t the best or most exacting of answers. However, should past interests dictate to the modern era what should or shouldn’t be considered literature, even if it just used as a teaching tool?  I think that there shouldn’t be such a divide.

The problem really is though that the divide now is pretty deep. Works of literary merit or works that are considered literature today are defined as such because they have the award and recognition to back up the claim of being well-written or “best.” There are books that are recognized on national and international television programs and then there are those that are given exemplary awards. Books of other persuasions that are popular, but just don’t seem to come up to the level of “best” are left to exist in the realms of pop-culture or any number or other genres where they will eventually be forgotten. I believe that many works in this day in age are not able to become widely available or known because of the vast quantity of written works that exist in the world. There are thousands of books that are published each year and most of those thousands and thousands of books will never be widely read by the general public. It makes me wonder how works of literature even come to be found, I am sure not every written work that is defined as being well-written or “best” has been discovered and coveted as those in the literary canon have been.

Another question that has occurred to me is the definition of a well-written work. What does a well-written piece of writing actually signify? Is it a work that is grammatically and structurally correct or is it a work that is filled with rhetorical devices and interesting story development? Is there even a set definition for the idea of a well-written work? Upon further thought I have to believe that there isn’t one particular set of qualifications that applies universally to all well-written works, although a grammatically and structurally correct work is something that most lovers of the English language would probably insist upon. Other than that the possibilities are numerous. A well-written work could be like the story Jane Eyre where Charlotte Bronte creates a particular setting and story line due to a number of factors such as rhetorical device and sentence structure variants, and she does this quite well. It is one of the more widely read books that are considered to be a part of the more classic literary canon. I read it myself before my senior year of high school for my AP English Literature class and I remember enjoying it immensely. It had that element of interest that Culler describes as being inherent in the literature category. It was my first time to really experience it, but it was not the most engaged I have ever been in a book.

I believe that interest often comes from the ability to connect with the text. It maybe a personal connection such as an emotional connection to one or many of the characters or it might be something quite different. I am usually more interesting in reading the books that I choose of my own accord because then I don’t have to search so hard to find the interest, since I wouldn’t have opened it or even taken it off the shelf if there weren’t a glimmer of interest there originally. I don’t even appreciate it when other people try to push books onto me even though they are “so sure” that I will love it. Regardless of the genre or the person recommending I am skeptical initially and predisposed to dislike it. I have been presently surprised this way, but I have also confirmed that idea as well. I truly do believe that interest is a key factor in making a book something lasting for a person, but it should not necessarily make a particular book lasting for generations of people. I can appreciate that works such as Jane Eyre or the Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne have aspects within their pages that make working with the English language interesting, but it is not necessarily something that I want to be the deciding factor in regards to works that I am made to read in order to learn certain things.

If all English departments were to take up the idea that certain well-written examples of writing are guidelines for the students so that they can learn what might be appealing and what has been appealing, but then be able to apply these concepts to their own ideas of enjoyable reading then there might be more readers in this world. Reading is something that can teach, but it can also provide pleasure. A truly excellent book whether “literary” in nature or not should do both.

Another interesting point is to acknowledge and understand that people do not comprehend or understand the same things when they are given a certain piece of information. It is the very nature of knowledge to be a unique process for each person receiving it. If knowledge acquisition is different for everyone than the need or expectations for a great well-written will probably vary as well and undoubtedly do in actual practice, which leads me to the idea that literature should not have a universal application. If it should in fact exist at all to divide up books as “best” and not “best,” then it should exist in a highly individualized way. People have different cultural background and intellectual aspirations and therefore require a variety of difference in the books that they choose to read for whatever purpose that they choose to read them. Literature doesn’t seem to take this idea into consideration. There is one category of “best” and it is very small, exclusive, and is known as the literary canon: the crème de la crème of the literary idea. I suppose that my true issue with the idea of literature does not actually derive from the idea of literature itself but rather from the idea of the literary canon and the types of things that it has dictated to our intellectual culture over time.

I feel that the literary canon most likely needs a revision, which is an idea that we mentioned in discussion in those last couple weeks of class. Literature is not considered to be the same thing that it was when the canon was first created and in this age of technology there should be a faster way into the canon since everything else seems to be processed faster. Literature needs to keep up if it doesn’t want to become an idea that is distasteful and old fashioned. Literature could learn to encompass a vaster idea than even Culler suggests in his definition that would be given to a very young child: ‘stories, poems, and plays’ (Culler, 20). It should grow to encompass the text that has become exclusively found on the internet such as e-journals and blogs where there are writing forums. In the course the Evolution of Stories and the Stories of Evolution, we utilized an online writing where we would post our thoughts and ideas. Those very same thoughts and ideas should have the same opportunity to be considered well-written that any other written work should have.

The endpoint of my particular argument is that literature is something that either needs to be eliminated all together or it needs to evolve to be a more flexible term. There needs to be variation in the idea as there is variation everywhere around us in the world. There needs to evolution and change since that is the essential nature of all things to some degree or another. It doesn’t have to be a radical change but a continuous change as it is in the process of biological evolution. Literature has the potential to be a wonderful idea and create a place for written work everywhere to aspire to, as may have once been the case at the initial change in the definition. Change is a natural and beautiful process that creates new opportunities and possibilities for a different and maybe better future. Hopefully that can be something that the idea of literature can go through. It isn’t inherently bad, but maybe dated and exclusive in a way that is from generations past and that we as human beings should be trying to move past.

I still have questions in regards to the idea of literature and some of them may never be answered satisfactorily, but I think I have successfully learned my personal frustration with the term and hopefully helped other people learn something new about an idea that is inherently complex and hard to explain. Literature is multifaceted and has a great deal of depth behind it, but it needs to become mixed in with the modern time period so that current generations and future generations are not stuck with a set idea of well-written and “best.” They will hopefully end up with an idea that is more flexible and all encompassing; where books like Harry Potter can be recognized immediately as a great written work or where something extremely new and experimental will immediately get that same consideration as well.

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Works Cited:

“Literature.” Oxford English Dictionary 2nd Edition. 1987. Oxford University Press. 11

May 2009:

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: New

            York, 1997.