What is Literature?

‘Anything can be literature, and anything which is regarded as unalterably and unquestioningly literature – Shakespeare, for example – can cease to be literature’


The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory defines ‘literature’ as  ‘a vague term which usually denotes works which belong to the major genres: epic, drama, lyric, novel, short story, ode (qq.v.). If we describe something as ‘literature’, as opposed to anything else, the term carries with it qualitative connotations which imply that the work in question has superior qualities: that it is well above the ordinary run of written works…’[i].  The inclusion of genre into this definition causes problems, as genres are established retroactively and are in a state of constant flux, being constantly transformed and challenged by new literary works, which can often generate new genres. However, the definition does well to immediately draw attention to the status of ‘literature’ as a ‘term’ rather than a concrete object. ‘Literature’ is an abstract category that has been appropriated to a certain body of writing within the last two hundred years. It is also important to note that the term has ‘qualitative connotations’ as this definition seems to be implicit within Eagleton’s statement. But if literature has ‘superior qualities’, what are they?

Literary theory in the first half of the 20th century generally aimed to find an objective set of criteria with which to define ‘literature’, beginning with the Russian formalists, who argued that literature is set apart from ordinary writing by its formal features. Lev Jakubinskij first argued that literature is characterised by connotative, rather than denotative language, or language, not purely for communication, but in which the ‘practical aim retreats to the background… and language resources acquire autonomous value’[ii]. Viktor Shklovsky developed this theory by arguing that ‘the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known’[iii]. This led to a focus on the construction rather than the motivation of a work, its form rather than its content. He believed that through the process of habituation we fall into a routine of recognising, rather than seeing our surroundings, and that literature ‘defamiliarises’ us from them, through ‘the slowness of perception’ created by innovative form, much like Wordsworth’s view that in poetry ‘ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect’. In Art as Technique Shklovsky backs up this view with a persuasive reading of Tolstoy. Related in ideas to the formalists was the American school of New Criticism as exemplified by Cleanth Brooks. In The Language of Paradox[iv] Brooks exemplifies the view that literature is ambiguous and paradoxical language that concretises universals, much like Jakubinskij’s view that literature is connotative language. The New Critics believed that through close reading of literature we learn moral lessons and gain insight into universal truths. However, these theories fall apart when applied to the works of other canonised writers. Hemingway’s language in the extract in Appendix A, for instance, is both denotative and incredibly simple in its description. Hemingway’s use of adjectival description is sparse, and when it is used, limited to the most basic adjectives possible to express an idea (‘old’, ‘good’, ‘sad’). His description is entirely concrete and lacks metaphor. This draws the reader’s attention away from the form of the writing to its actual content, which according to the rules of the formalists makes this extract ordinary writing rather than literature.

It could be argued that rather than defamiliarising us from reality, Hemingway defamiliarises us from a decadent, defamiliarising trend in literature prior to his own. This is not an argument in favour of the formalists as their focus was entirely on the distinction of form over content (not form over previous forms), however it does tie in with the theory of Jan Mukarovsky, who argued that literature is writing that subverts and breaks away from the literary status quo. This is an interesting idea as innovation is often respected and admired in works of literature but it does not account for the fact that any writing can unintentionally subvert the literary status quo, and still not be classed as literature, for example if it is a piece of journalism or advertising, and equally writer who are considered to be canonical have followed others in style. TS Eliot proposed a similar idea, which managed to avoid this problem. Eliot saw literature as writing that both influences and is influenced by the ‘literary tradition’. Both of these arguments suffer from circularity. How can one know which texts constitute the ‘literary tradition’ without first being able to define literariness. Indeed, Eliot seemed to believe that the ‘tradition’ could be chosen arbitrarily, and he made popular the metaphysical poets, whose work reflected his own aesthetic ideals, and attempted to discredit widely respected writers such as Milton (whose work did not) by arguing that they suffered from a dissociation of sensibility.

I will now run through some other potential definitions. It could be argued that ‘literature’ is written stories. However this definition is a two-fold failure. Literature can also be the expression of a moment, a stream of consciousness or a description of a landscape or scene. Equally a written story can be ‘non-literary’, as in a piece of journalism (though some journalism is thought of as literature). The idea that literature is fiction is refuted by the presence of diaries (Samuel Pepys), historical works (Bede’s Ecclesiastical History) and journalistic works (Hunter S. Thompson). Literature as ‘creative’ writing is based upon a linguistic flaw, as all writing is in essence an act of creation. The argument that literature is aesthetic rather than utilitarian writing is true in the case of a lot of canonised works, but it does not account for the numerous polemics, satires, philosophical dialogues and other motivated writings that can be found within the canon. Literature can be either aesthetic, or aesthetic and utilitarian, but it is also true that ‘non-literary’ writing can contain aesthetic qualities. The conversational style of the extract in appendix B plays on the contrasting of long streams of adjectival description, with short abrupt sentences. The adjectives in the first line convey a sense of warmth and companionship, creating a metaphor

Appendix A

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

Appendix B


Friendly, comfortable, generous and together; you could happily pour this all-rounder any time. Straight merlot is not normally my thing: a little dull; I like a twist of interest from another grape. I was convinced I could smell a little something undeclared else in here though, giving it a bewitching scent of redcurrant leaves over ripe June strawberries. “Yes,” said Jean-Claude Mas when I bumped into him by chance a few days later, “It has some cabernet franc in it.” Aha. Magic ingredient.

Appendix C

The fridge will be

emptied of all

expired items

every Friday evening

[i] J.A Cuddon (1977). The Penguin Dictionary of Litarary Terms and Literary Theory. 3rd ed. London: Penguin . p505-506.

[ii] L. Jakubinskij (1917). On Sounds in Verse Language (quoted in The Formal Method, B. Eichenbaum (1926)), Petrograd.

[iii] V. Shklovsky (1917) Art as Technique (in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. J. Rivkin and M.Ryan (1998), 2nd ed. Oxford)

[iv] C. Brooks (1947) The Language of Paradox (in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. J. Rivkin and M.Ryan (1998), 2nd ed. Oxford)


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