Category Archives: Literary Theory

What is Literature?

What is Literature?

When I first had the idea for this blog one of my key motivations was to boost my understanding and appreciation of literature. In the back of my mind I envisaged reviewing some good books, wearing my slippers, and quaffing brandy late into the night. Okay, perhaps my preconceptions weren’t quite so archaic and clichéd, but I had naively assumed I’d delve straight into literature itself and not get bogged down in the endless side alleys that lead off the subject.

Of course, investigating the myriad of festivals, awards, and changes promised by digital technology is interesting in its own right; add in the complexities of evolving media laws and the ongoing retrenchment of the publishing industry and it’s obvious there’s a myriad of complex issues that feed the literary Zeitgeist. However, although such issues have some importance to the contemporary world of literature, they are, at best, periphery to the heart of literature, which, with thousands of years of history, has a fundamental basis that transcends the capricious sway of cultural and social fashions.

While there’s a many approaches to dig into the fundamental character and form of literature, the most obvious starting point is, perhaps, to ask the age-old question what is literature? The simplest answer is to consider a literal translation from the Latin, which translates to acquaintance with letters. Although such an answer might be interesting for language scholars, it’s about as much use as scythe to the modern reader of literature. Enriching the translation a touch, then literature could be described as the art of the verbal and the written word, but while such a terse answer seems broadly reasonable, it fails to meet the qualitative aspect of literature which suggest that not all verbal and written should rightfully qualify as literature. The qualitative aspect of literature is, of course, an embodiment of the dichotomy between high-culture and low culture, and as such is an amorphous boundary that defies easy definition.

Although there’s little to argue that deep treatises on philosophy or fictional epics classify as literature, what about the text of a cartoon strip, the copy of an advert, an email, or perhaps just a tweet? Is there an ingredient that demarcates high-cultured writing from low? What aspect—by its presence or lack of presence—marks some verbal composition as worthy of cultural praise, and others as culturally void? Is it simply a matter of a composition’s aesthetic value, or perhaps its cultural permanence, a mixture of these, or some other, more complex values?

Since the question’s been grappled with by some of history’s keenest minds—such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s in his essay What is Literature—I’m by no means naive enough to assume I could ever approach an answer with anything but the most modest aspirations. So rather than set myself up to fail by attempting to answer the question with any more detail I instead intend use the question as a launchpad into the realm of literary criticism. Hopefully as my literary investigations expand so will my understanding of the true scope of literature, and if not I will at least find myself on common ground with writers and readers through the ages, even if the ground is decidedly shaky to boot.