What is Literature?

As a student of Literature and Creative Writing, it is hard for me to explicitly define literature; the literature student in me wants to calmly assert that any “writing of value, that is, writing that expresses a poignant world view, opinion, or set of morals can be defined as literature”, but the writer in me screams, “NO! It is any writing that expresses the emotion of the writer”. As a whole, I think I lie firmly between the two, you only have to look at my review of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga to see that I don’t think all writing is worthy of the title, literature. However, I do like to think I am a lot more accepting of modern expression that the literary ‘elite’. This poem by Tim Minchin is probably my favourite poem ever written, yet it is denounced by one of my tutors at University who believes it can’t be classed as literature because it contains a few swear words which to be honest I find ridiculous, Shakespeare uses swear words all the time and she loves him. Anyway, enjoy:

Tim Minchin

The dictionary (google – because I don’t have a physical dictionary to hand) defines literature as “Written works, esp. those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit“. At first glance this definition seems to be fairly appropriate, stating that all writing is literature, but good writing is better literature; it is in its own class. As always, I neither agree or disagree with this definition, it just seems inadequate, however it does ‘so the job’ to some extent.

Hellen Keller once said that “Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness.” Here she is suggesting that literature is what we, as readers, love to read; I personally think that a huge variety of books/texts can be seen as literature, however my Mum dislikes anything that doesn’t involve some aspect of mystery or crime, while my Dad enjoys reading car manuals, and once asked me how I could read Iain Banks’ ‘The Wasp Factory’, because it didn’t have any pictures in it. I think everyone has their own definition of literature and we should accept that for what it is. I know I poke fun at writers like Meyer but that’s just my opinion, I don’t expect everyone to take that on board, and sure I’ll laugh if someone tells me she’s their favourite author, but I won’t think any less of them for it.

On that note, I’m going to stop here; I could write for pages and pages but I think most people would consider that a bit excessive. Feel free to comment and tell me what your definition of literature is, I would be happy to hear it, although I won’t go as far as to explicitly ask you to do it, as that would make me seem desperate and lonely…and that’s…not…(trails off before clicking the ‘publish’ button).


2 responses to “What is Literature?

  1. Like you, I lie between the two definitions. I don’t think everything is literature. When I think of the word “literature” I think of the classics….I think of works and authors that had an impact of the literary world of their day, but those who have also impacted future generations of readers/lovers of literature. (if that makes sense). Also, I love the Helen Keller quote you included. 🙂

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