Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing, and Publishing ~

What Is “Literature”?


Defining “Literature” is a more slippery task than writing it…

What Is Literature?

Image Courtesy of ostillac callisto ~ http://www.freeimages.com/profile/ostillac

If you look to the root meanings of the word, you find it becoming a letter—written to the reader…

The best definition I’ve found is “well-written” and “dealing with universal ideas”…

Naturally, “well-written” does not mean written in a way that confuses the average reader—in spite of the opinions of various “literary ‘experts'”…

And, also naturally, “dealing with universal ideas” doesn’t mean the book isn’t exciting, gripping, and hard to put down…

Some folks would define literature as “not genre” (check out my past articles on genre); yet, I wrote, in one of those past posts:

“I’ve read ‘literary fiction’ that seemed to me to be insipid and tortuously self-contained—hardly wrestling with universal dilemmas; more like whining about over-valued pet peeves

“And, I’ve read ‘genre fiction’ that met every qualifier of that ‘definition’ of ‘literary fiction’.”

And, concerning “genre”, this comment, on the post I drew that quote from, by Jane Watson, is quite enlightening:

“I think that you nailed it when you commented on: ‘…how ‘issues’ can be created from ‘imagined’ ‘facts…’. Personally I think ‘genre’ of any kind, including ‘Literary Fiction’ is a marketing term used by publishers to ‘sell’ books to people, who they think can’t make up their mind on what to buy – but I believe readers are very smart and can tell if they like a book or not and usually judge and pick it, not on genre, but on whether it reads well for them in the first few pages or is described well in a review or a recommendation from a friend. I am hardly ever told by a friend recommending a book — ‘You’ll love this – it’s Chicklit’. — but am often told — ‘You’ll love this, it’s great!'”

So, shall we believe that “Literature” is in the eye (and heart) of the reader?

Then, perhaps, we could ask: “What does literature do for us, the readers, that other writing doesn’t do?”

One perspective on that question is explored in the article What Books Do for the Human Soul: The Four Psychological Functions of Great Literature:

  1. IT SAVES YOU TIME
  2. IT MAKES YOU NICER
  3. IT’S A CURE FOR LONELINESS
  4. IT PREPARES YOU FOR FAILURE

And, if those functions of Literature seem less than worthy determinants for such important writing, watch this video:


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4 responses to “What Is “Literature”?

  1. Nicole October 31, 2014 at 7:40 pm

    For me, definitely in the eye (and heart) of the reader! :)

    I always think of literature as writing that’s artfully written, like maybe the writer took his or her time detailing every possible element and doing so in a way that is unique or lovely. I relish reading good books like this because I feel like with every line I’m given something precious to chew on and take with me as I move forward in the story.
    That being said, I also love reading stories that are very simple and just seem to tell a story in a very basic way. “He burped. She frowned. Men.” Maybe that isn’t as admired or respected when it comes to readers who expect more than just the simple telling of a story, but I can appreciate all styles of story telling, fancy, formal, or not.
    Jane, in my opinion, said exactly how I feel when it comes to genres. It’s like they’re meant as a guide, but I very rarely pay attention to them. At the end of the day, if I’m hearing something is just plain awesome, and I take a look at it and it interests me, i don’t care who wrote it or what it’s about (within reason), I’ll most likely give it a look.

    The video was so fun! :)

    I really enjoyed this post, thank you for sharing, Alex.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Alexander M Zoltai October 31, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    I Must quote you, Nicole:

    “I relish reading good books like this because I feel like with every line I’m given something precious to chew on and take with me as I move forward in the story.”

    “I also love reading stories that are very simple and just seem to tell a story in a very basic way. ”

    “At the end of the day, if I’m hearing something is just plain awesome, and I take a look at it and it interests me, i don’t care who wrote it or what it’s about (within reason), I’ll most likely give it a look.”

    To me, Nicole, all three sentences are talking about “Literature”…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. jalapenopopey November 1, 2014 at 7:19 pm

    In my library all fiction is alphabetical by authors let the readers decide. I moved Zoltai to Z, King to K, even Hemmingway lost his classics sticker and is now simply an H. A reader will find her book and the book will find its reader within that process of what you want and why is some sort of defining rule of literature. I think….great post and fun video.

    Like

    • Alexander M Zoltai November 1, 2014 at 7:30 pm

      You hit on a critical determinant in assessing what “Literature” is, JohnPaul—the mind of the reader…

      Like

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