What do you think of when you think of literature? Classics, contemporary, genre, or something else entirely? We are leaving this one up to you to come up with and share the literature that you want to chat about the most. Feel free to share a list of your favorites, break down your favorite genre, feature your favorite authors, and be creative about all things literature in general.
Defining literature is probably one of the areas in which bibliophiles struggle most. In my sophomore year of undergrad, as my American Literature class opened up its copies of the Norton Anthology of Literature, the professor challenged us to look at the table of contents and ask ourselves why some of the texts included were, at least by the Norton editors, considered literature. A lot of the works, particularly the early ones, were works of nonfiction and not even creative nonfiction: things like the Declaration of Independence. (Apparently early America was sadly lacking in interesting fiction.) Ultimately we were asked to write a paragraph or so on why The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass may be considered literature. I scribbled some thoughts on its eloquence and how “it requires thought on the part of the reader to determine the meaning and full implications of what he/she is reading.” While I did, and do, believe that, I was somewhat appalled at essentially being asked to define “literature” and never felt I did an adequate job. I’ve come back to the question again and again on my own (maybe it’s an English major thing), but I have never attempted to put my thoughts into works a second time. Until now, at the request of Armchair BEA.
I still believe “literature” is a gray area, and we may never be able to come up with a complete definition or a definition that everyone will agree on. However, I do think there are certain characteristics that books, or works, that are could be considered literature have in common.
Literature is fiction or creative nonfiction.
I know I am excluding texts that the Norton editors clearly consider literature. However, I generally consider literature to be a narrative of some type, and something that took a bit of creativity to write. Texts like the Federalist Papers may be deep and well-written, but, perhaps purely for personal reasons (capricious ones), I don’t count them as literature.
Literature has good prose.
Literature should be the full package: good ideas and good writing wrapped into one. It is hard for a reader to take an author seriously if he or she cannot write well, and it is hard for a book to last and grow an audience if it is not a pleasure to read.
Literature has many layers. It bears rereading and it needs interpretation.
This, for me, is the most important characteristic of literature. The other points could be left behind (not every classic author has a great writing style). But literature must mean something, and it must take a little effort on the part of the reader to get to that meaning. Literature is more than a quick read or cheap entertainment. It says something about important human topics, and its thoughts have layers, bear scrutiny, and last generations.
Literature does not exclude genre fiction.
A few pieces of genre fiction have made it into the literary canon: the mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the science fiction of H. G. Wells, the fantasy of the King Arthur legends. In general, however, genre fiction is still considered by many (at least many of the keepers of literature (the types of people who compile anthologies and collections of classics) to be “not serious enough” to be “real literature.” It is clear, however, that a lot of genre fiction possesses the characteristics of literature: skillful writing, layers of meaning, ability to speak to various generations of readers. It is time for us as readers to realize that books about imaginary worlds have a lot of serious and profound things to say about the real world and officially stamp these books as classic literature.