What is “literature”?


In any conversation, the participants need to share an understanding of the “thing” being discussed.  If, for example, we’re going to talk about the film The Big Lebowski, we’d need to both agree that when we use the title of that movie, we’re referring to the 1998 film starring Jeff Bridges and John Goodman and written and directed by the Cohen brothers.  If this were a course in cellular biology, we’d need to share a definition of a “cell” (what it is; what it isn’t; what its defining characteristics and behaviors are, etc) in order to talk meaningfully about it.  If this were a course in business ethics, we’d have to share a definition of “ethics” (and “business”).  Our conversations this semester will be about "literature" and about "critical inquiry," and so we need to have some shared understanding of what we mean and what we don’t mean when we use those terms.   The purpose of the discussion here is to help us start our conversation about the meaning of the term "literature."


A safe place to begin when discussing definitions is a dictionary.  Dictionary.com defines literature, in part, as follows:

"writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays."


That seems to make enough sense, and it represents a common definition of literature found in most dictionaries.  But as all dictionaries do, Dictionary.com  goes on to offer more definitions, one of which is this:

"any kind of printed material, as circulars, leaflets, or handbills."


This problematizes our discussion a bit: is “literature” anything printed (like advertisements and financial aid pamphlets and the CR course schedule) or is "literature" only particular kinds of printed material (like poems and short stories and plays).  It won’t work for us to take a relativistic path and say simply that “literature is whatever each person thinks it is.”  If we do that, then we  won’t really be able to have a conversation about literature since you may be using the word to refer to poems and I may be using it to refer to my “to-do” list or to coupons in the newspaper.  We don’t have to agree exactly on every aspect of our definition, but we do need to be in the same general area together.  So for our discussions this semester, let’s agree that when we refer to “literature,” we ARE NOT referring to just “any kind of printed material” but only certain kinds of printed material—specifically, the kinds that possess some kind of artistic merit.


Well, now I’ve really complicated things.  Defining “literature” seems easier than defining “artistic merit.”  After all, what is “art”?  Again, it simply won’t work to take the relativistic path and say that it is whatever each individual thinks it is.  If anything qualifies as “art,” then everything qualifies as “art,” and, consequently, nothing is really “art.”  And art isn’t simply what I like.  There are many things I like immensely that don’t qualify as “art” (Backpacker magazine, for example), and there is much art that I can’t stand (for example, almost all of the poetry of Robert Frost).  So what is “artistic merit”?  Here it may be helpful to go back to part of our Dictionary.com definition of literature:


"…expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features."


What does this really mean?  I understand it to mean first that a work we call "literature" says something (i.e. the "expression") about issues, experiences, or ideas that are of intense, ongoing interest to many, many people (i.e. the "ideas of permanent and universal interest").  Furthermore, a work we call "literature," will not simply address topics we care about and are interested in; it will address these topics in special ways.  That is, the "form" of the expression or how the expression is presented somehow contributes to the uniqueness of the work.  To break it down further, let's look at  three elements of this definition.


1. "...connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest."  Since people create ideas and give them permanence and universal interest, we can paraphrase this part of our definition to mean that literature addresses topics that are of deep interest to many, many people.  What are these topics?  Probably the things that make our lives both complicated and worth living--freedom, truth, beauty, love, loyalty, despair, hope, hopelessness, etc..  Contemplative people across places and throughout time have concerned themselves with these ideas and have represented and explored them through literature.  It is this that caused American poet Ezra Pound to describe literature as “news that stays news” and American historian Barbara Tuchman to describe it as “humanity in print” and a “carrier of civilization.”


2. Furthermore, our definition of literature above implies that what a work of literature says about an  issue or subject of deep interest is important.  It’s not a particular opinion we’re looking for in literature; we're looking for insight into the topic that is of "permanent and universal interest."  A “literary” text is one that freshens, intensifies, deepens, and/or challenges our understanding of something we are interested in.  Literature should “rock” us, shake us up, rattle us, and make us feel like we understand something new about what it means to be human and experience the world we live in.  Nature writer Annie Dillard described it this way:


"Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? . . . . Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?"


Franz Kafka was more blunt: 

"If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it?… What we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves….A book must be an ice-axe to break the frozen sea inside us."


Many stories and poems deal with love and war and truth and psychology and human emotion, but literary texts will make us feel like we see something about these things that we didn’t see before or didn’t see as clearly or didn’t feel as intensely.  And sometimes, as Kafka implies in the quote above, this deepened understanding may be brought to us violently, shattering our illusions and wrestling away from us our comfortable assumptions.  


 3. Our definition of "literature" above implies that when determining whether or not a text is "literary" we should consider not just what is said but also how it is said.  Herein lies an often-forgotten criteria of literature: form.  By form we do not mean novel, poetry, short story, or play; we mean the specific conventions used within those genres to create particular effects.  There are many, many texts that speak thoughtfully and insightfully about issues that matter to the masses, but that doesn’t make them “literary” texts.  A history book, a psychology textbook, a field guide to edible native plants…all of these may offer valuable insight into issues we care about, but they are likely not literary texts because they don’t offer this insight in a way that is, itself, remarkable for the way it functions in conjunction with the ideas to create an experience that is greater than the ideas themselves.  Usually, in an artistic work, the form of the presentation (the rhythm of a song, the perspective of a painting, the metaphors in a poem, etc.) works to achieve a particular effect—that is, the form works to create a special impact on the ways listeners of a song, the viewers of a painting, or the readers of a story think about, feel, understand, and relate to the ideas represented in the artistic work.  The insight that literature offers is not often  just mental; it is often felt.  Literature, Ezra Pound says, “is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree,” and according to literary theorist Terry Eagleton, it “transforms and intensifies ordinary language.”  This attention to the ways of communicating for effect and to intensify and deepen one’s felt understanding is what caused writer Iris Murdoch to describe literature as “a sort of disciplined technique for arousing certain emotions.” 


It is these three qualities in combination that begin to define literature.  Many things possess one or two of these qualities.  Perfume advertisers, for example, use special techniques to emotionally impact audiences about issues of ongoing interest to the masses (e.g. beauty or love), but these advertisements usually fail to achieve the second quality above because most commercials don’t offer much fresh insight into the issue or deepen our understanding of it.  Usually, in fact, they accomplish just the opposite: advertisements reduce the depth of our understanding of important issues by oversimplifying them.  Most established religious texts, though, are literary because they employ special techniques like metaphors (think snake, flood, whale, and apples) and they have narrative plots (think of the stories of the Buddha) and they use characters to help readers deepen their understanding of particular issues of universal and ongoing interest to the masses—issues like how to live a satisfying and/or moral life; the nature of good and evil; the relationship between humans and the earth and so on and so on.  The messages of these religious texts can usually be boiled down to just a few pages or less that explain how people should live (think 10 commandments or the “golden rule”).  But if the messages were presented as simple straightforward orders they’d be ignored.  Dramatize these messages with narratives and characters and symbols and now you have something that has a unique and lasting impact.  That’s literature.


Okay, so what then is literature….

Back the original question.  An example may help.  The stories of Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King have similarities: works from both authors deal with terror, murder, the supernatural, and characters encountering extreme conditions.  But while most everyone classifies Poe’s works as literary, most do not give King’s work the same honor (even King, himself, usually rejects the label of literature for his stories).  Why?  Generally because people believe that Poe’s stories satisfy all three criteria above whereas King’s satisfies one or none.  Poe’s stories are scary horror stories to be sure, but more than that they are explorations of the human mind, of the depths of the human heart, of the nature of love and death and fear, and of the nature of reality.  And Poe’s stories offer insight into these issues of universal interest in extremely artistic ways, using metaphors and diction and the actual sounds of words in highly technical ways.  King tells stories and tells them well.  His stories are highly entertaining, but rarely do readers find their understanding of important issues deepened by his work.  And while King certainly uses literary devices like plot, character, imagery, etc. he doesn’t use them in the artistic manner that Poe does.  If we accept this line of reasoning, then it becomes clear that works like Chicken Soup for the Soul and Tuesdays with Morrie (both of which provide a kind of “Aw shucks” confirmation of what we want to believe is true) are not rightly classified as literature, but works like Walden by Henry David Thoreau and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are. 


It might also be helpful to think about a poem like “My Papa’s Waltz.”  This very short poem uses simple forms of upbeat rhythms and bright rhymes mixed with harsh diction and disturbing images to point to the complexity of father/child or husband/wife relationships.  The combination of form and subject create a deep level of insight into these relationships for readers—specifically, that these relationships are so complex that they often defy logical description. 


A Final Note

It’s important to note that everything written here is to provide a kind of basic level of shared understanding for our specific conversations this semester.  The question “what is literature?” is much, much more complicated than I’ve indicated here, and many fine works of literature only possess one of the three qualities I mentioned.  For example, much Modernist literature (1917-1940 or so) explicitly rejects the first two criteria (issue and insight) and argues that literature needs to possess only the third quality (form) since pure beauty is all that matters and meaning is largely unachievable.  And many people argue that Native American oral stories (not even printed texts) and letters from slaves and early women settlers are “literary” not because they provide insight into issues that have universal interest and not because they use literary forms but simply because they provide insight into the experiences of historically underrepresented groups of people.  So there’s still enormous room to argue about what makes something literary, and I hope that’s just what we do.