what is literatureHow is literature defined and what constitutes literature?

Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Literature is history.  Its truth in recording the human experience far surpasses the accuracy of history books which are interpreted and reinterpreted by historians, and edited and reedited by the various powers who gain of the country in which these histories are written. 

Napoleon himself stated that "History is a fable agreed upon."  In his famous "War and Peace," Count Tolstoy writes a two-fold book:  a narrative set against the background of the Napoleonic Wars and a commentary on what forces enter into history.  In contrast to the contentions of many historians, Tolstoy dispels the theory of cause and effect in his reflections of the occurrences that constitute "historical events."  He realizes that there is an internal force in human beings which effects a revolution, not a particular incident.  History, much like his narrative, evolves from the hearts of man, Tolstoy purports.  The famous French critic and philosopher from the Enlightenment Period, Denis Diderot wrote,

The truest history is full of falsehoods,and your romance if full of truths.

Of paramount importance to any culture, literature is immortalized truth that is not tampered with; it is the veritable outpourings of men's souls, a truth that is renewed over and over with the recordings of other poets and writers....semper veritas.


lhc eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think of literature as being man's experience articulated through words; although many typically think of literature as being fiction and poetry, I think literary value and artistic merit can also be found in some of the best writers of narrative history, such as the late Shelby Foote.  His ability to weave the foibles and idiosyncrasies of the major and minor players into his works on the Civil War made for truly fascinating reading and very interesting commentary on the human condition.  I also tend to believe that many song lyrics can be said to fall into the category of literature; for example, some of the work of John Lennon and Paul McCartney would, in my mind, pass for pure poetry.  Just as the earliest generations of human beings passed down their experiences through an oral tradition, literature allows us to share our lives with future generations through the written word.

drmonica eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Preceding posters have defined the term, so I will comment on what I believe it means. Literature is anything that requires reading/hearing/viewing by an audience. Most people think of print items that are bound (books) when they hear the term. As a teacher of English, I came to learn that there are many forms of literature. My students taught me the value of using song lyrics that appeal to teenagers when teaching literary terms, figurative language, and analysis of poetry. MTV introduced the music video, a hybrid of written and visual music. Film is an excellent way to teach concepts that English teachers used to reserve for teaching novels. I think of film as visual text.

amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Literature is anything in written form.  Some of it is written well about deep issues (this is usually graduated to classics) and then it can run the gamut to the grocery list.  It is the thoughts and reactions of a people to their lives, the current events that surround them, the problems they face individually and as a family, city, state, nation, world.  It is raw emotion in word form. 

norlan7 | Student
literature is the inner emotions,thoughts;and ideas of any person.which in turn comes out in word,theater or music.it tells you of history and people in our world.my favourite piece of literature is poetry,it blends words together like the sweet saviour of exotic food.the feelings are soul cutting deep into your mind,which you fall in love.any literature is good once there is soul in it.
shafiwazir | Student

literature is the imaginative picture of a society.

krishna-agrawala | Student

Concept of literature can be very different for different people. In the broadest sense sense literature is meaningful arrangement of words which is created and preserved in some permanent form such as writing, audio recording. I personally think that movies or video recording should also be treated as literature, although using languages of very different kind.

Some people prefer to use the word literature only to mean poetry and prose of general type, as distinguished from technical or professional writings. For example as per this definition a textbook of history or of management will not qualify as literature.

Still other people interpret literature to mean only works of prose and poetry that are widely accepted in literary circles as of lasting value.

Unfortunately this last of the interpretation of literature, which appears to hold literature in the highest regard, is the one which is most responsible for making literature unpopular among the the common masses and the young, by trying to foist upon them the the old and outdated works of literature which are of no relevance of interest to them. People with such view of literature may also exhibit some kind of fanatic fervor to preserve the purity of their version of literature with its set pattern of thinking.

kc4u | Student

Perhaps I am bit too ambitious to answer this question of yours. The word 'literature' comes from the Latin 'littera', meaning 'letter'. Literature is the art of letters. Anything written/in print may be called a piece of literature. But literature can be older than writing/printing; in fact, the earliest forms of epic and lyric poetry were oral. On the other hand, you may find so many things written/in print around you which you wouldn't like to call literature.

'Literature' is primarily divided into three categories: Poetry, Drama, and Prose. Each category is further sub-divided into genres and sub-genres, e.g.-----

Poetry: epic, lyric(ode, sonnet)

Drama: tragedy, comedy, farce, radio-play, poster-drama

Prose: fiction> novel, short-story; non-fictional> essay

No definition of literature is really possible; perhaps not desirable either. What is literature can better be understood if we consider the following issues with the help of our actual experiences of reading:

* How is a work of literature--e.g. Fielding's novel, Tom Jones, or Eliot's poem, The Waste Land--related to its milieu?

* How is a story told in a work of fiction?

* Do the characters in a drama/novel resemble men and women in real life?

* Why has a play like Dr. Faustus or Hamlet attained universality? What makes the 'particular' so 'universal' in literature?

* What devices of language and structure are employed in a work of literature?

This list of issues is perhaps inexhaustible. Hope you can initiate your investigation whichever way you find interesting.