Guide to Literary Terms

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

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Literary texts are characterized by complex use of literary devices such as metaphor, symbolism, sophisticated chronology, and psychological characterization, which allow for deeper, layered themes and rich character development. Nonliterary texts, on the other hand, prioritize storytelling and entertainment, with simpler themes and minimal use of literary devices. Nonliterary texts often have a straightforward chronology and focus more on action and events than character development. In educational settings, literary texts may include fiction, drama, and poetry, while nonliterary texts can be informational, such as maps, charts, or government documents.

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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 literary fiction, literary non-fiction, or non-literary.

The new standards, called the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), divide literary fiction texts into the categories of stories, drama, poetry. Literary non-fiction and non-literary texts are bundled in a category called “informational.” This category may include a range of types of non-fiction including speeches, letters, and autobiographies.

Literary non-fiction is also known as creative nonfiction. Literary non-fiction, a.k.a. creative non-fiction, tends to share some similar characteristics with literary fiction. For example, creative non-fiction may use techniques such as setting scenes, a distinctive author’s voice,  or dialogue to advance a story, which are common fiction writing techniques. Creative non-fiction relies at least in part on facts and true events, rather than solely on the author’s imagination.  According to the CCSS for the 9th-10th grades, “Hope, Despair and Memory” by Elie Wiesel and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou are examples of literary, or creative nonfiction. 

In contrast, non-literary informational texts in the CCSS solely transmit information or facts for interpretation or analysis on a particular topic or content area. Examples include maps, charts, graphs, and government documents.

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Simple distinctions provide a starting point. Nonliterary texts are found in newspapers, magazines, leaflets, advertisements plus popular fiction and nonfiction genres (informational, mass media texts and everday text plus spy novels etc and with how-to books etc). Literary texts are novels, short stories, poems. Popular genre nonfiction tends to be nonliterary. However, biographies, with their entertaining narratives are literary.

The two types of text tend to use different techniques: consider in particular metaphors and analogies, both of which compare one thing to another. Analogies are used in nonliterary texts to make things clearer; hence my surgery's leaflet described the detached retina as coming away from the wall of the eye in the same way damp wallpaper peels away from a wall. This ties in with one common aim of the nonliterary text which is to inform clearly about an unfamiliar topic, like a school text book. Other nonliterary text seek to entertain like a spy novel, adventure or science fiction novel or romance.

On the other hand, metaphors and symbols, with deep figurative meanings, are used in literary texts to intrigue and perhaps puzzle. Hence, Vernon Scannell's poem 'Nettles', uses the metaphor 'regiment of spite' suggesting, on reflection, how the nettles and the regiment both line up and how they both wound. This ties in with a common aim of the literary text which is to make readers think, make them elicit meaning from within layers of text for themselves, like an anthologized poetry collection.

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