Guide to Literary Terms

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What is the difference between a literary and a nonliterary text?

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There is a classical sense in which literary and nonliterary may be distinguished. This distinction is important for those studying Literature. In the context of classical literature studies, literary and nonliterary refer to stylistic elements. This is also a distinction important to those wishing to establish careers as literary authors.

Literary works are those that have significantly complex and detailed literary devices particularly in metaphor and symbolism. Also important are literary elements of chronology and psychological characterization. Metaphor and symbolism are significant and distinguish literary from nonliterary because deeper meanings are embedded in the text through these techniques. A text rich in metaphor and symbolism will impart both literal and figurative meanings and will accommodate deeper and more layered themes.

The element of chronology is significant because the times present, past and future can be used to serve greater purposes than cause and effect, before and after sequencing of events. Chronology can either develop unity or create fragmentation; it can be cohesive or it can disrupt and disturb. Psychological characterization, which makes the character more important than the character's actions,  develops and exposes the mental, cognitive and emotional processes that build or curtail relationships, drive or thwart motivation, bring happiness and luck or despair and anguish.

In contrast, nonliterary refers to texts that are thin on metaphor and symbolism: these texts want to tell a story and to entertain. The thematic elements and issues are simple and easily identifiable, if there are themes rather than simple morals. Chronology is true to life with a few flashbacks for providing backstory if needed. Action and events outweigh character development and psychological depth.

These distinguishing characteristic are applicable, with variations, to fiction and nonfiction. Literary nonfiction may be considered represented by biographies and autobiographies that seek to explore the metaphors and the symbols suggested by real life experience in order to understand universal characteristics of human life. Chronology may be used to explore a wider range of associated events and relationships, while psychological understanding drives the progress and depth of the narrative revealing inner motives, confusion, restlessness etc in order to examine the human condition and the driving forces behind success and failure, happiness and sorrow.

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In the context of new national educational standards, all students, particularly high school students, will be required to read an increasing amount of non-literary and non-fiction texts. As such, the difference between literary and non-literary texts is an important distinction. The texts included in and categorized by the new standards can be distinguished as...

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