What Is Literature? Essay
What Is Literature?
Since the 18th century, the definition of the concept “literature” has become a problematic and a controversial issue among various literary schools. What is literature? What are the qualities that distinguish a literary text from a non-literary one? Does literature have any particular function in society? These are some crucial questions whose answers were supposed to limit and define the scope of “literature”.
However, various literary and critical schools have advanced different and contradictory responses to these same questions, which have consequently led to a failure in producing an authoritatively established definition of “literature”. This failure can be ascribed to many reasons, but because the length of the paper doesn’t allow to tackle all of them, the forthcoming paragraphs will be devoted to discuss only two main reasons.
The first reason is the difficulty to distinguish between “fact” and “fiction” in some works which, as it will be clarified in the few coming paragraphs, were anthropological and documentary and were later seen as fictional, or vice versa. The second reason resides in the different perspectives upon which different literary theories have based their views about literature. This paper is, therefore, an attempt to shed light on the indeterminacy of the concept “literature” by explaining and extending on these two main reasons.
To begin with, the concept of “literature”, originated from the Latin word “littera”, was introduced into English in the fourteenth century. In its beginning, it was not vague or indeterminate as in its modern use. It was used then to refer to “a condition of reading: of being able to read and of having read” (Williams, Marxism and Literature, 46). Hence, it was used to have a meaning similar to that of “literacy”, which was coined and introduced into English in early nineteenth century when the concept “literature” was developed and got a different sense.
This new sense, which was ascribed to the development of printing, was “a specialization ? to the printed word and especially the printed books with certain quality [imaginative works]” (Williams, 46). To elaborate on this definition, R. Wellek and A. Warren have stated that “in all of them [the printed books with certain quality], the reference is to the world of fiction, of imagination” (Wellek and Warren, Theory of Literature, 25).
However, a simple review of the history of prose narrative forms would show that this definition of literature as a category of fictional and imaginative writings is irrelevant. Many writings which were written as anthropological documentaries were making use of fiction, while many other fictional works were given the status of documentary and factual writings. All travelogue writings and western historiography between the middle ages and the twentieth century are good examples to illustrate 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 use of both fact and fiction. Moreover, at the time of their appearance, most of these works were conceived of by the western audience as factual and documentary writings. Later on, due to some historical and political changes in the world, these writings became conceived of as fictional and imaginary works. Thus, defining literature on the grounds of fact versus fiction is questionable and invalid.
With the development of criticism in the West in the nineteenth century, various attempts, based on new ideas other than the distinction between fact and fiction, have been advanced by different approaches in order to produce “accurate” definitions to “literature”. However, the contradictory perspectives, upon which these attempts have been based, have made the project of defining “literature” more complicated; they have constituted a hindrance to the production of an authoritatively established definition of “literature”.
In fact, despite all the differences and the specificities that distinguish each of these approaches, the definitions they have advocated can be classified in two major categories: 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 ideology. Both theories have defined literature in relation to the world outside the literary text, basing on the socio-cultural and the historical contexts.
The latter, represented here by Russian Formalism and New Criticism, have believed in a total absence of ideological aspects in literature. Unlike the first trend, Russian Formalists and New Critics have focused on the “inside” of the literary text rather than its “outside” in order to define what “literature” is and what it is not. Both Russian Formalism and New Criticism have aimed at providing a scientific and objective study of literature by analyzing its internal literary and linguistic devices, such as sound, imagery, rhythm, syntax, meter, rhyme, irony, paradox and ambivalence.
Russian Formalists, for instance, have claimed that much importance should be given to the literary form and to the “literariness” of the literary text, which distinguish it from other types of writing. Thus, the author and the socio-cultural contexts are not important for them. Their definition of “literature” is therefore based uniquely on form and language, which they conceive of as the unique carriers of content and meaning of any literary text. Moreover, ? defamiliarization’, or the estrangement effect, is the major characteristic that Russian Formalism ascribes to literature.
What makes the literary language specific and distinguishes it from other types of discourses is its ability to “deform” the ordinary language. The use of the above mentioned literary devices renders the ordinary language “intensified, condensed, twisted, telescoped, drawn out, turned on its head,? strange” (Eagleton, Literary Theory, “Introduction: What is Literature? ” 04). This estrangement, according to the Formalists, makes the everyday life unfamiliar and more “perceptible”.
To paraphrase Shkolvsky, a major Russian Formalist figure, literature serves as a tool to estrange the reader from the familiar and the “automatized” everyday life, and to refresh his ordinary experiences whose uniqueness and specificity have become invisible due to the routine of ordinary experience and ordinary language (Williams, 89). Like Russian Formalism, New Criticism has rejected the world outside the literary text and built upon the internal literary devices to define literature. New critics have conceived of the literary work as an aesthetic object independent of historical and social contexts.
They have done a close reading to the literary text, treating it as a self-contained and self-referential entity. For them, meaning is within the text and it should not be separated from the form of the text. Thus, they have paid special attention to literary devices such as irony, paradox, ambiguity, metaphor, repetition of images and symbols, and ambivalence. Within the framework of this school, literature is, therefore, “defined on the basis of language and its complexities with no reference to the world outside the literary text” (Eagleton, Literary Theory, “the Rise of English Novel,” 24).
Contrary to the first aforementioned theories, Marxist criticism and Postcolonial criticism have focused mainly on the external contexts rather than on the internal aspects of the literary text to define “literature”, believing in a strong relationship between the latter and ideology. In this regard, Marxist critics have linked the definition of “literature” to the emergence of capitalism and the representation of social class conflicts and class distinctions. By emphasizing the ideological role of literature, they have stated that “the criteria of what counted as literature?
were frankly ideological: writing which embodied the values and tastes of a particular social class qualified as literature” (Eagleton, Literary Theory, “The Rise of English Novel,” 17). Hence, literature as an ideology is the vehicle of the values and the tastes of the dominant social class. In this sense, it has offered to the masses a false and contrived ideology that has served the goals of the bourgeois class, contributed to the manipulation of the masses by the bourgeois class, and caused the alienation of their perception of the world.
In this regard, Terry Eagleton wrote that: Literature would rehearse the masses in the habits of pluralistic thought and feeling, persuading them to acknowledge that more than one viewpoint than theirs existed- namely, that of their masters. It would communicate to them the moral riches of bourgeois civilization, impress upon them a reverence for middle-class achievements, and, since reading is an essentially solitary, contemplative activity, curb in them any disruptive tendency to collective political action (Eagleton, Literary Theory, “The Rise of English Novel,” 25).
In the same vein, Postcolonial theorists have conceived of it not as an innocent body of imaginative writing, but as a dangerous tool of the imperialist project. For them, literature is strongly affiliated with Western power and hegemony. According to Elleke Bohemer, the danger of this literature, which was informed by theories concerning the superiority of the European culture and the rightness of empire, resides in its contributions that made imperialism and all its atrocities seem part 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 opposite of the West and its civilization, and projected upon him all the negative attributes such as primitiveness, backwardness, cannibalism, ignorance, barbarism, laziness, paganism, etc. in order to justify the masked “mission civilisatrice” of the West. Edward Said’s Orientalism shows: the collusion between the literary text and the process of Western political domination, and the creation of images of the?
Orient’ that separate the worlds of the colonizer and the colonized, always imaging the latter as passive and backward ? fixed in time (Adim, The Colonial Rise of the Novel, 05). According to Edward Said, Western literature was used as a tool to establish and maintain an ideology that separates the West from its Other on the basis of the dichotomy of superiority/inferiority. Hence, like Marxist critics, to define “literature”, Postcolonial critics assume the necessity of relating it to the ideological and social contexts that have produced it.
For them, therefore, limiting oneself to the internal aspects of the literary text is not a valid method to define “literature”. In conclusion, on the basis of what has been stated above concerning the two major reasons why “literature” is difficult to define authoritatively: the difficulty to distinguish between fact and fiction in literature; and the irreconcilable differences between the socially-based definitions of “literature” and the linguistically-based ones, indeterminacy remains the only true nature ascribed to “literature”.
It remains unauthoritatively defined from different perspectives, and the controversy over this issue still persists among the academics and the scholars. 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.