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What is Literature?

The word literature, simply put, is defined as any printed matter. According to Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary  the following definition is given:

“Writings in prose or verse; especially : writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest . . . the body of works produced in a particular language, country, or age . . . the body of writings on a particular subject <scientific literature> . . . printed matter (as leaflets or circulars) <campaign literature.>”

The term literature (italics mine) also includes plays, music, opera, essays, etc.

The term printed matter (italics mine) is key.

Here are some general applications of the word literature:

-She is an expert in Renaissance literature.

-He studied French literature in college.

-He took courses in history and literature.

-She distributed sales literature.

Books-She reviewed travel literature before going to Europe.

Literature is generally divided into two major types: Fiction and non-fiction.

Non-Fiction

Examples of non-fiction literature include newspapers, text books, biographies, essays and sales catalogs.

Fiction

Some examples of fictional literature include novels, short stories, poems, plays, operas and even music. These types of creative literature can be further sub-divided into genre (a type, style or form).  Some of the many examples of genre are: Mystery, science-fiction, romance and historical fiction. Music too can be subdivided into genres such as, for example, alternative-rock, be-bop, classic-rock and retro . Poetry can subdivided into free-verse poetry, metered or rhythmic poetry, and even more.

For purposes of this website, we will narrow our focus to fiction, primarily in the form of short stories, poetry and occasionally the novel. We may also address the essay. These are, for the most part, the types of literary studies found in high-school and college-level literature-survey courses. We will study and/or analyze various selections from each group.

But what makes literature great? What makes literature classic? The typical answer is this: It stands the test of time. But what does the test of time actually mean? We have “The Odyssey,” “The Iliad ,” “The Aeneid,” “The Divine Comedy”,”The Epic of Gilgamesh,” “The Brothers Karamazov,” “Gulliver’s Travels,” and the list goes on.  Some of these works , written hundreds, even thousands of years ago started out as mere oral storytelling, myth told through generations of telling and re-telling before they were ever penned. These examples are considered classics by virtually all. And here’s why: As Webster’s says on literature these works clearly contain “writings in prose or verse; writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” However, one must read these great works of art in order to find that “writing having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” Granted, these works can be tough–really tough– to read from beginning to end. In light of this prose and/or abridged versions may be more appropriate for younger readers.

Just how many years is this test of time?  Consider this:  William Stunk Jr. and E.B. White’s non-fiction classic writers guide “The Elements of Style” was published around 1920, give or take.  The New York Times hit the bullseye by saying, “Study, enjoy it. It’s as timeless (italics mine) as a book can be in our age of volubility.”  Or, how about the American novel “The Great Gatsby,” written in 1925 by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It has stood the test of time for 88 years, and is still a big seller. How about the “Catcher in the Rye?” Penned in 1951 by J.D. Salinger, this classic coming-of-age story is still a top-selling novel.  Both of these novels still exist in thousands, if not millions of copies and both are considered classics.

Typically, though, at least in terms of literary parlance the test of time generally means hundreds or thousands of years. Today, these works are generally referred to as a canon, or a collection of literary texts penned or recited by numerous authors. A sort of bible, if you will, of highly-valued literature; the kind of literature collections found in many high-school and university literature-survey courses. Canons of literature are usually grouped into anthologies such as the Norton Anthology of English Literature (A western canon) and the Norton Anthology of World Literature (A world canon.)  Of late, however, the Western Canon has fallen into a bit of disrepute for two primary reasons: (1) the rise of multiculturalism in America and, (2) because many young college students simply don’t want to read dead white guys anymore. Thus, the recent anthologies of World literature. The hole in this argument, however, is that many world literary anthologies themselves contain writings of dead white guys. Numerous examples back this claim, but for the sake of space and the scope of this article I will not at this time cite these examples.

But the real question is what does great literature do for the reader?  What does the reader walk away with?  Great literature pulls the reader into the narrative, forms a bond between reader and author, evokes deep emotion, paints a visual/mental image for the reader, enables the reader to see him/herself in the story, and gives the reader a feeling of identity with fictional characters that ring true.

Brain Teaser:

Does a text message, a Tweet, or for that matter, any electronic text qualify as literature?

Source:  Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.  Accessed May 11, 2013

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