What Is Literature? Essay

Since the eighteenth century. the definition of the construct “literature” has become a debatable and a controversial issue among assorted literary schools. What is literature? What are the qualities that distinguish a literary text from a non-literary one? Does literature hold any peculiar map in society? These are some important inquiries whose replies were supposed to restrict and specify the range of “literature” .

However. assorted literary and critical schools have advanced different and contradictory responses to these same inquiries. which have accordingly led to a failure in bring forthing an magisterially established definition of “literature” . This failure can be ascribed to many grounds. but because the length of the paper doesn’t allow to undertake all of them. the extroverted paragraphs will be devoted to discourse merely two chief grounds.

The first ground is the trouble to separate between “fact” and “fiction” in some plants which. as it will be clarified in the few coming paragraphs. were anthropological and documental and were subsequently seen as fictional. or frailty versa. The 2nd ground resides in the different positions upon which different literary theories have based their positions about literature. This paper is. hence. an effort to cast visible radiation on the indefiniteness of the construct “literature” by explicating and widening on these two chief grounds.

To get down with. the construct of “literature” . originated from the Latin word “littera” . was introduced into English in the 14th century. In its beginning. it was non obscure or undetermined as in its modern usage. It was used so to mention to “a status of reading: of being able to read and of holding read” ( Williams. Marxism and Literature. 46 ) . Hence. it was used to hold a significance similar to that of “literacy” . which was coined and introduced into English in early 19th century when the construct “literature” was developed and got a different sense.

This new sense. which was ascribed to the development of printing. was “a specialisation? to the printed word and particularly the printed books with certain quality [ inventive plants ] ” ( Williams. 46 ) . To lucubrate on this definition. R. Wellek and A. Warren have stated that “in all of them [ the printed books with certain quality ] . the mention is to the universe of fiction. of imagination” ( Wellek and Warren. Theory of Literature. 25 ) .

However. a simple reappraisal of the history of prose narrative signifiers would demo that this definition of literature as a class of fictional and inventive Hagiographas is irrelevant. Many Hagiographas which were written as anthropological docudramas were doing usage of fiction. while many other fictional plants were given the position of docudrama and factual Hagiographas. All travelogue Hagiographas and western historiography between the in-between ages and the 20th century are good illustrations to exemplify this point. Works like T. E.

Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. W. M. Thackeray’s From Cornhill to Cairo. Kingslake’s Eothen. and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia made usage of both fact and fiction. Furthermore. at the clip of their visual aspect. most of these plants were conceived of by the western audience as factual and documental Hagiographas. Subsequently on. due to some historical and political alterations in the universe. these Hagiographas became conceived of as fictional and fanciful plants. Therefore. specifying literature on the evidences of fact versus fiction is questionable and invalid.

With the development of unfavorable judgment in the West in the 19th century. assorted efforts. based on new thoughts other than the differentiation between fact and fiction. have been advanced by different attacks in order to bring forth “accurate” definitions to “literature” . However. the contradictory positions. upon which these efforts have been based. hold made the undertaking of specifying “literature” more complicated ; they have constituted a hinderance to the production of an magisterially established definition of “literature” .

In fact. despite all the differences and the specificities that distinguish each of these attacks. the definitions they have advocated can be classified in two major classs: the sociologically based definition and the linguistically based one. The former. represented in this essay by the Marxist and the Postcolonial theories. has related literature to political orientation. Both theories have defined literature in relation to the universe outside the literary text. establishing on the socio-cultural and the historical contexts.

The latter. represented here by Russian Formalism and New Criticism. have believed in a entire absence of ideological facets in literature. Unlike the first tendency. Russian Formalists and New Critics have focused on the “inside” of the literary text instead than its “outside” in order to specify what “literature” is and what it is non. Both Russian Formalism and New Criticism have aimed at supplying a scientific and nonsubjective survey of literature by analysing its internal literary and lingual devices. such as sound. imagination. beat. sentence structure. metre. rime. sarcasm. paradox and ambivalency.

Russian Formalists. for case. hold claimed that much importance should be given to the literary signifier and to the “literariness” of the literary text. which distinguish it from other types of authorship. Therefore. the writer and the socio-cultural contexts are non of import for them. Their definition of “literature” is hence based unambiguously on signifier and linguistic communication. which they conceive of as the alone bearers of content and significance of any literary text. Furthermore. ? defamiliarization’ . or the estrangement consequence. is the major feature that Russian Formalism ascribes to literature.

What makes the literary linguistic communication specific and distinguishes it from other types of discourses is its ability to “deform” the ordinary linguistic communication. The usage of the above mentioned literary devices renders the ordinary linguistic communication “intensified. condensed. twisted. telescoped. drawn out. turned on its caput. ? strange” ( Eagleton. Literary Theory. “Introduction: What is Literature? ” 04 ) . This alienation. harmonizing to the Formalists. makes the mundane life unfamiliar and more “perceptible” .

To rephrase Shkolvsky. a major Russian Formalist figure. literature serves as a tool to estrange the reader from the familiar and the “automatized” mundane life. and to review his ordinary experiences whose uniqueness and specificity have become unseeable due to the modus operandi of ordinary experience and ordinary linguistic communication ( Williams. 89 ) . Like Russian Formalism. New Criticism has rejected the universe outside the literary text and built upon the internal literary devices to specify literature. New critics have conceived of the literary work as an aesthetic object independent of historical and societal contexts.

They have done a close reading to the literary text. handling it as a self-contained and self-referential entity. For them. significance is within the text and it should non be separated from the signifier of the text. Therefore. they have paid particular attending to literary devices such as sarcasm. paradox. ambiguity. metaphor. repeat of images and symbols. and ambivalency. Within the model of this school. literature is. hence. “defined on the footing of linguistic communication and its complexnesss with no mention to the universe outside the literary text” ( Eagleton. Literary Theory. “the Rise of English Novel. ” 24 ) .

Contrary to the first aforesaid theories. Marxist unfavorable judgment and Postcolonial unfavorable judgment have focused chiefly on the external contexts instead than on the internal facets of the literary text to specify “literature” . believing in a strong relationship between the latter and political orientation. In this respect. Marxist critics have linked the definition of “literature” to the outgrowth of capitalist economy and the representation of societal category struggles and category differentiations. By stressing the ideological function of literature. they have stated that “the standards of what counted as literature?

were frankly ideological: authorship which embodied the values and gustatory sensations of a peculiar societal category qualified as literature” ( Eagleton. Literary Theory. “The Rise of English Novel. ” 17 ) . Hence. literature as an political orientation is the vehicle of the values and the gustatory sensations of the dominant societal category. In this sense. it has offered to the multitudes a false and contrived political orientation that has served the ends of the businessperson category. contributed to the use of the multitudes by the businessperson category. and caused the disaffection of their perceptual experience of the universe.

In this respect. Terry Eagleton wrote that: Literature would practise the multitudes in the wonts of pluralistic idea and feeling. carrying them to admit that more than one point of view than theirs existed- viz. . that of their Masterss. It would pass on to them the moral wealths of bourgeois civilisation. impress upon them a fear for middle-class accomplishments. and. since reading is an basically lone. brooding activity. kerb in them any riotous inclination to collective political action ( Eagleton. Literary Theory. “The Rise of English Novel. ” 25 ) .

In the same vena. Postcolonial theoreticians have conceived of it non as an guiltless organic structure of inventive authorship. but as a unsafe tool of the imperialist undertaking. For them. literature is strongly affiliated with Western power and hegemony. Harmonizing to Elleke Bohemer. the danger of this literature. which was informed by theories refering the high quality of the European civilization and the rightness of imperium. resides in its parts that made imperialism and all its atrociousnesss seem portion of the natural order of things ( Boehmer. Theory of Literature. 03 ) .

Most Postcolonial critics have stated that Western literature has created an “Other” as the antonym of the West and its civilisation. and projected upon him all the negative properties such as crudeness. retardation. cannibalism. ignorance. brutality. indolence. pagan religion. etc. in order to warrant the cloaked “mission civilisatrice” of the West. Edward Said’s Orientalism shows: the collusion between the literary text and the procedure of Western political domination. and the creative activity of images of the?

Orient’ that separate the universes of the coloniser and the colonized. ever imaging the latter as inactive and rearward? fixed in clip ( Adim. The Colonial Rise of the Novel. 05 ) . Harmonizing to Edward Said. Western literature was used as a tool to set up and keep an political orientation that separates the West from its Other on the footing of the duality of superiority/inferiority. Hence. like Marxist critics. to specify “literature” . Postcolonial critics assume the necessity of associating it to the ideological and societal contexts that have produced it.

For them. hence. restricting oneself to the internal facets of the literary text is non a valid method to specify “literature” . In decision. on the footing of what has been stated above refering the two major grounds why “literature” is hard to specify magisterially: the trouble to separate between fact and fiction in literature ; and the unreconcilable differences between the socially-based definitions of “literature” and the linguistically-based 1s. indefiniteness remains the lone true nature ascribed to “literature” .

It remains unauthoritatively defined from different positions. and the contention over this issue still persists among the faculty members and the bookmans. Works Cited Adim. Firdaous. The Colonial Rise of the Novel. London: Routledge. 1993. Boehmer. Elleke. Colonial and Postcolonial Literature. London: Oxford University Press. 1995. Eagleton. Terry. Literary Theory. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. 1983. Wellek. R. and Warren. A. Theory of Literature. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1972. Williams. Raymond. Marxism and Literature. London: Oxford University Press. 1977.