The Issue

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

What is literature, what is not literature, and who decides are hard to define. Few critics make serious attempts at defining what literature is; few, however, have resisted the temptation of constructing a set of standards by which literature may be judged as superior or inferior; in fact, whole academic disciplines and degrees are based on the study of literary theory and criticism. The study of literature entails examination of a recognized body of “literary” works not only in their historical context but also as successful or unsuccessful works of art in themselves. One may therefore argue that standards for literature exist not only to define what literature is—and what good literature is—but also to exclude forms of literature that the critic deems unworthy. Such judgments are likely to generate controversy. Moreover, literary standards shift with the times; many works have risen and fallen in critical estimation, sometimes being considered nonliterary during periods in which critics do not favor the works, and sometimes being “rediscovered” long after they were written when social and political attitudes favor them.