Historically, literature has been defined and judged from two perspectives: formally, that is, in regard to how the work adheres to a recognized set of standards for its genre (such as drama, novel, epic poem), and substantively, insofar as its subject matter and themes are deemed acceptable and worthy of literary focus. It is the latter that has been the source of most controversy. The Greek philosopher Aristotle was the first to propose standards for both: In his Poetics (c. 334-323 b.c.e.) for example, he defines tragedy as “an imitation [mimesis] of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude . . . through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions”; formally, he defined the structure of tragedy and recommended it have unity of time, place, and action. The Roman poet Horace, in his Ars poetica (c. 17 b.c.e.), insists on decorum and states that poetry should instruct and please its audience. These and other “rules” of literature had a significant influence on writers, poets, and dramatists through the Renaissance and into the eighteenth century.
The rise of the novel and the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century brought other standards to bear as social concerns and the common individual began to dominate the subject matter of literature. Romantics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, for example, believed in the prominence of the human will and the individual’s subjective experience of the world; naturalists such asÉmile Zola and Theodore Dreiser emphasized those forces of society that shape the common individual’s fate; writers as diverse as James Joyce and T. S. Eliot have been applauded for the epic scope of their works’ concerns; and in the late twentieth century, as the world became smaller with increased telecommunications and interchange among diverse peoples, a multicultural ethic arose to accommodate and celebrate the literary expression of a plurality of cultures learning to coexist within the walls of the global village. Formal, as well as substantive, standards for literature have likewise shifted with the times; some even argue that written or printed literature and genres such as the novel will eventually die, to be replaced by multimedia works of art. The varied forces that shape literature, then, also influence what is called “good” literature.