What is Literature?

Many Freshman level English courses offered in universities and colleges across the country pose a simple question at the start of every year: What is literature? 


That’s a whale, or something.

Honestly, it is difficult to come up with a complete answer to that question. Literature is a living notion — one that ebbs and flows along the tides of time. What is considered literature today, for example, may not be considered literature in the future. Moby-Dick and Wuthering Heights, for instance, were both maligned when they were initially released. Why, then, do we seek to so rigidly define the indefinable? Why are some books given the grand label of official “literature” over other books that are equally worthy? Although it is bad form to pose hypotheticals with no ready answer, I will commit that deadly writing sin for this case — these questions must be asked.

The word “literature” literally means “things made from letters.” Not very helpful. Is a stop sign a work of literature? While I’m sure some student somewhere has argued along that line, the literal argument for literature remains hopelessly broad.

Naturally, many famous figures of “literature” have (over the years) attempted to define what literature truly is. While many of these attempts were self-serving (as their specific works just happened to land into the newly created category), the quest to define literature is what, in turn, creates literature. Bear with me.

The search for an answer to any question often creates meaningful dialogue. The dialogue surrounding literature is intrinsically linked with the idea of inherent value or worth found in a text. For example, it is easy to declare something like Moby-Dick literature today because of how highly we currently regard the writing ability and style (the mechanisms by which we give worth to a text) of Melville.

But (as they say), therein lies the rub. Did people admire Melville’s style when he wrote the great novel? Certainly not. Will his style be admired two hundred years into the future? It is impossible to say. To declare what is literature today, then, is to make an immediate value judgement about the piece of work, and subsequently apply it, in perpetuity, to the work.


Great F. Scott Fitzgerald!

We can get around this thorny problem, of course, by applying temporal labels to literature. University courses tend to handle this issue well, as literature is often broken into very regimented time periods for the sake of discussion and analysis. Does the system work? Pretty much. Is it perfect? Of course not . The fact stands that we must compare the texts of the 1700’s or 1800’s or 1900’s to our current knowledge and understanding of literary theory because we are unable to time travel. The value of any given text, then, is entirely based upon contemporary valuation.

This is a problem! If one takes a relativistic approach, on the other hand, to define what literature actually is, one will be stuck with a realization that value distinctions are ultimately pointless — anything “good” can be called literature. Time does nothing but cause issues of determination and distinction. Do you enjoy the text? Did you gain something from it? Call it “literature.” Call it “good.” Call it whatever you like — as long it is a determination of your own.

While labels and designations must be followed for the sake of academic discourse, do not feel the need to accept them as the only rules to define and categorize your own thoughts.

Define literature, then, as you see fit.

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