What is Literature?

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Novels. Poems. Plays. Short stories. Memoirs. Essays. Diaries. Cartoon strips. Films. Songs. Computer games. Advertising slogans. Instruction manuals. Snapchat messages. Conversations. Football matches. Where do you draw the line? Clearly, some of these would usually be called ‘literature’. Others wouldn’t. But how can you decide which are and which aren’t? What does that word, ‘literature’, even mean? Does it matter?

At first, it might seem obvious. For example, you might say literature has to be written down—but then what about plays where the script is never fixed, or poems and stories that are only meant for live performance? Maybe it has to be an individual, creative expression—but then what about collaborations between writers, or anonymous traditional texts? Maybe it has to be part of some kind of literary tradition—but then isn’t that even harder to define? How do you test if something is part of a tradition or not?

This module is intended to investigate where literature starts and ends. But there is no clear, final answer. ‘Literature’ is a powerful word, and one that people care about too much to ever agree conclusively on a definition. So why use the term at all, then? This is a valid question, and something to bear in mind as you work through the activities. Do you think ‘literature’ is a useful category for analysing and appreciating the culture or cultures you’re part of? Or is it just a piece of outdated jargon? Doctors used to describe any illness they didn’t understand as an ‘ague’, and practically anything to do with Asia used to get called ‘oriental’: has ‘literature’ become a pointless catch-all like those words?

In the activities, you will find three examples, which act as test cases to explore these questions further. Each one looks at a recent occasion when someone’s work seems to be just on the borderline of ‘literature’, and could go either way:

Activity 1: The singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. But does that mean his song lyrics have to be seen as poetry? Are they ‘literary’ in their own right? Or did the judges just make the wrong decision?
Activity 2: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is one of the bestselling novels of recent years, but you won’t find it on many university syllabuses or award shortlists. Many people would say that a novel like this, though exciting and gripping, is not what you’d call ‘serious literary fiction’. Are they just being snobs?
Activity 3: Ian Hamilton Finlay had one of the all-time great job descriptions: he was a poet-artist-gardener. In ‘Little Sparta’—the garden he made near Edinburgh, which you can still visit—he combined all three. Can a place be a poem? What about the other way round?

Once you’ve worked through the activities, you might not feel much closer to a watertight definition of what literature is and isn’t. But you’ll have started developing your own questions about what’s included in an ‘English literature’ degree and why, and how even traditional ‘works of literature’ might get tangled up—for better or worse—in the complexities of that definition.