Literature can refer to a body of written or oral work, but it commonly refers specifically to writings considered to be an art form, especially prose fiction, drama, and poetry, in contrast to academic writing and newspapers. In recent centuries, the definition has expanded to now include oral literature, much of which has been transcribed.
Literature, as an art form, can also include works in various non-fiction genres, such as autobiography, diaries, memoir, letters, and the essay, as well as in the disciplines of history and philosophy.
Its Latin root literatura/litteratura was used to refer to all written accounts. Developments in print technology have allowed an ever-growing distribution and proliferation of written works, which now includes electronic literature.
Literature is classified according to whether it is poetry, prose or drama, and such works are categorized according to historical periods, or their adherence to certain aesthetic features, or genre.
DefinitionsDefinitions of literature have varied over time: it is a "culturally relative definition". In Western Europe prior to the 18th century, literature denoted all books and writing. A more restricted sense of the term emerged during the Romantic period, in which it began to demarcate "imaginative" writing. Contemporary debates over what constitutes literature can be seen as returning to older, more inclusive notions; cultural studies, for instance, takes as its subject of analysis both popular and minority genres, in addition to canonical works.
The value judgment definition of literature considers it to cover exclusively those writings that possess high quality or distinction, forming part of the so-called belles-lettres tradition. This sort of definition is that used in the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition when it classifies literature as "the best expression of the best thought reduced to writing." Problematic in this view is that there is no objective definition of what constitutes "literature": anything can be literature, and anything which is universally regarded as literature has the potential to be excluded, since value judgments can change over time.
The formalist definition is that "literature" foregrounds poetic effects; it is the "literariness" or "poetic" of literature that distinguishes it from ordinary speech or other kinds of writing. Jim Meyer considers this a useful characteristic in explaining the use of the term to mean published material in a particular field, as such writing must use language according to particular standards. The problem with the formalist definition is that in order to say that literature deviates from ordinary uses of language, those uses must first be identified; this is difficult because "ordinary language" is an unstable category, differing according to social categories and across history.
Etymologically, the term derives from Latin literatura/litteratura "learning, a writing, grammar," originally "writing formed with letters," from litera/littera "letter". In spite of this, the term has also been applied to spoken or sung texts.
History of literature, along with Sumerian literature, are considered the world's oldest literatures. The primary genres of the literature of ancient Egypt—didactic texts, hymns and prayers, and tales—were written almost entirely in verse; By the Old Kingdom, literary works included funerary texts, epistles and letters, hymns and poems, and commemorative autobiographical texts recounting the careers of prominent administrative officials. It was not until the early Middle Kingdom that a narrative Egyptian literature was created.
Many works of earlier periods, even in narrative form, had a covert moral or didactic purpose, such as the Sanskrit Panchatantra or the Metamorphoses of Ovid. Drama and satire also developed as urban culture provided a larger public audience, and later readership, for literary production. Lyric poetry was often the speciality of courts and aristocratic circles, particularly in East Asia where songs were collected by the Chinese aristocracy as poems, the most notable being the Shijing or Book of Songs. Over a long period, the poetry of popular pre-literate balladry and song interpenetrated and eventually influenced poetry in the literary medium.
In ancient China, early literature was primarily focused on philosophy, historiography, military science, agriculture, and poetry. China, the origin of modern paper making and woodblock printing, produced the world's first print cultures. Much of Chinese literature originates with the Hundred Schools of Thought period that occurred during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. The most important of these include the Classics of Confucianism, of Daoism, of Mohism, of Legalism, as well as works of military science and Chinese history. Ancient Chinese literature had a heavy emphasis on historiography, with often very detailed court records. An exemplary piece of narrative history of ancient China was the Zuo Zhuan, which was compiled no later than 389 BCE, and attributed to the blind 5th-century BCE historian Zuo Qiuming.
In ancient India, literature originated from stories that were originally orally transmitted. Early genres included drama, fables, sutras and epic poetry. Sanskrit literature begins with the Vedas, dating back to 1500–1000 BCE, and continues with the Sanskrit Epics of Iron Age India. The Vedas are among the oldest sacred texts. The Samhitas date to roughly 1500–1000 BCE, and the "circum-Vedic" texts, as well as the redaction of the Samhitas, date to c. 1000‒500 BCE, resulting in a Vedic period, spanning the mid-2nd to mid 1st millennium BCE, or the Late Bronze Age and the Iron Age. The period between approximately the 6th to 1st centuries BCE saw the composition and redaction of the two most influential Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, with subsequent redaction progressing down to the 4th century AD. Other major literary works are Ramcharitmanas & Krishnacharitmanas.
Homer's, epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, are central works of ancient Greek literature. It is generally accepted that the poems were composed at some point around the late eighth or early seventh century BC. Modern scholars consider these accounts legendary. Most researchers believe that the poems were originally transmitted orally. From antiquity until the present day, the influence of Homeric epic on Western civilization has been great, inspiring many of its most famous works of literature, music, art and film. The Homeric epics were the greatest influence on ancient Greek culture and education; to Plato, Homer was simply the one who "has taught Greece" – ten Hellada pepaideuken. Hesiod's Works and Days and Theogony, are some of the earliest, and most influential, of ancient Greek literature. Classical Greek genres included philosophy, poetry, historiography, comedies and dramas. Plato and Aristotle authored philosophical texts that are the foundation of Western philosophy, Sappho and Pindar were influential lyric poets, and Herodotus and Thucydides were early Greek historians. Although drama was popular in ancient Greece, of the hundreds of tragedies written and performed during the classical age, only a limited number of plays by three authors still exist: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The plays of Aristophanes provide the only real examples of a genre of comic drama known as Old Comedy, the earliest form of Greek Comedy, and are in fact used to define the genre.
, one of the most prolific German writers
Roman histories and biographies anticipated the extensive mediaeval literature of lives of saints and miraculous chronicles, but the most characteristic form of the Middle Ages was the romance, an adventurous and sometimes magical narrative with strong popular appeal. Controversial, religious, political and instructional literature proliferated during the Renaissance as a result of the invention of printing, while the mediaeval romance developed into a more character-based and psychological form of narrative, the novel, of which anearly and important example is the 16th century Chinese Journey to the West.
Psychology and literatureTheorists suggest that literature allows readers to access intimate emotional aspects of a person's character that would not be obvious otherwise. That literature aids the psychological development and understanding of the reader, allowing someone to access emotional states from which they had distanced themselves. Some researchers focus on the significance of literature in an individual's psychological development. For example, language learning uses literature because it articulates or contains culture, which is an element considered crucial in learning a language. This is demonstrated in the case of a study that revealed how the presence of cultural values and culturally familiar passages in literary texts played an important impact on the performance of minority students in English reading. Psychologists have also been using literature as a tool or therapeutic vehicle for people, to help them understand challenges and issues - for example in the integration of subliminal messages in literary texts or in the rewriting of traditional narratives to help readers address their problems or mold them into contemporary social messages.
Hogan also explains that the time and emotion which a person devotes to understanding a character's situation makes literature "ecological valid in the study of emotion". Thus literature can unite a large community by provoking universal emotions, as well as allowing readers to access cultural aspects that they have not been exposed to, and that produce new emotional experiences. Theorists argue that authors choose literary devices according to what psychological emotion they are attempting to describe.
Some psychologists regard literature as a valid research tool, because it allows them to discover new psychological ideas. Psychological theories about literature, such as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs have become universally recognized.
Psychologist Maslow's "Third Force Psychology Theory" helps literary analysts to critically understand how characters reflect the culture and the history to which they belong. It also allows them to understand an author's intention and psychology. The theory suggests that human beings possess within them their true "self" and that the fulfillment of this is the reason for living. It also suggests that neurological development hinders actualizing this and that a person becomes estranged from his or her true self. Maslow argues that literature explores this struggle for self-fulfillment. Paris in his "Third Force Psychology and the Study of Literature" argues that "D.H. Lawrence's 'pristine unconscious' is a metaphor for the real self". Literature, it is here suggested, is therefore a tool that allows readers to develop and apply critical reasoning to the nature of emotions.
can contribute to shaping psychological and aesthetic responses to texts.
PoetryPoetry is a form of literary art which uses the aesthetic qualities of language to evoke meanings beyond a prose paraphrase. Poetry has traditionally been distinguished from prose by its being set in verse; prose is cast in sentences, poetry in lines; the syntax of prose is dictated by meaning, whereas that of poetry is held across meter or the visual aspects of the poem. This distinction is complicated by various hybrid forms such as the prose poem and prosimetrum, and more generally by the fact that prose possesses rhythm. Abram Lipsky refers to it as an "open secret" that "prose is not distinguished from poetry by lack of rhythm".
Prior to the 19th century, poetry was commonly understood to be something set in metrical lines; accordingly, in 1658 a definition of poetry is "any kind of subject consisting of or Verses". Possibly as a result of Aristotle's influence, "poetry" before the 19th century was usually less a technical designation for verse than a normative category of fictive or rhetorical art. As a form it may pre-date literacy, with the earliest works being composed within and sustained by an oral tradition; hence it constitutes the earliest example of literature.
ProseProse is a form of language that possesses ordinary syntax and natural speech, rather than a regular metre; in which regard, along with its presentation in sentences rather than lines, it differs from most poetry. However, developments in modern literature, including free verse and prose poetry have tended to blur any differences, and American poet T.S. Eliot suggested that while: "the distinction between verse and prose is clear, the distinction between poetry and prose is obscure".
On the historical development of prose, Richard Graff notes that " recent scholarship has emphasized the fact that formal prose was a comparatively late development, an "invention" properly associated with the classical period".
The majors forms of literature in prose are novels, novellas and short stories, which earned the name "fiction" to distinguish them from non-fiction writings also expressed in prose.
Literary fictionis a term used to describe fiction that explores any facet of the human condition, and may involve social commentary. It is often regarded as having more artistic merit than genre fiction, especially the most commercially-oriented types, but this has been contested in recent years, with the serious study of genre fiction within universities.
The following, by the award-winning British author William Boyd on the short story, might be applied to all prose fiction:
seem to answer something very deep in our nature as if, for the duration of its telling, something special has been created, some essence of our experience extrapolated, some temporary sense has been made of our common, turbulent journey towards the grave and oblivion.
NovelA novel is a long fictional prose narrative. In English, the term emerged from the Romance languages in the late 15th century, with the meaning of "news"; it came to indicate something new, without a distinction between fact or fiction. The romance is a closely related long prose narrative. Walter Scott defined it as "a fictitious narrative in prose or verse; the interest of which turns upon marvellous and uncommon incidents", whereas in the novel "the events are accommodated to the ordinary train of human events and the modern state of society". Other European languages do not distinguish between romance and novel: "a novel is le roman, der Roman, il romanzo", indicates the proximity of the forms.
Although there are many historical prototypes, so-called "novels before the novel", the modern novel form emerges late in cultural history—roughly during the eighteenth century. Initially subject to much criticism, the novel has acquired a dominant position amongst literary forms, both popularly and critically.
NovellaIn purely quantitative terms, the novella exists between the novel and short story; the publisher Melville House classifies it as "too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story". Publishers and literary award societies typically consider a novella's word count to be between 17,000 and 40,000 words.
Short storyA dilemma in defining the "short story" as a literary form is how to, or whether one should, distinguish it from any short narrative and its contested origin, that include the Bible, and Edgar Allan Poe).
DramaDrama is literature intended for performance. The form is combined with music and dance in opera and musical theatre. A play is a subset of this form, referring to the written dramatic work of a playwright that is intended for performance in a theater; it comprises chiefly dialogue between characters, and usually aims at dramatic or theatrical performance rather than at reading. A closet drama, by contrast, refers to a play written to be read rather than to be performed; hence, it is intended that the meaning of such a work can be realized fully on the page. Nearly all drama took verse form until comparatively recently.
Greek drama is the earliest form of drama of which we have substantial knowledge. Tragedy, as a dramatic genre, developed as a performance associated with religious and civic festivals, typically enacting or developing upon well-known historical or mythological themes. Tragedies generally presented very serious themes. With the advent of newer technologies, scripts written for non-stage media have been added to this form. War of the Worlds in 1938 saw the advent of literature written for radio broadcast, and many works of Drama have been adapted for film or television. Conversely, television, film, and radio literature have been adapted to printed or electronic media.
Other narrative forms
- Electronic literature is a literary genre consisting of works that originate in digital environments.
- Graphic novels and comic books present stories told in a combination of sequential artwork, dialogue and text.
United KingdomLiterary works have been protected by copyright law from unauthorized reproduction since at least 1710. Literary works are defined by copyright law to mean any work, other than a dramatic or musical work, which is written, spoken or sung, and accordingly includes a table or compilation, a computer program, preparatory design material for a computer program, and a database.
Literary works are not limited to works of literature, but include all works expressed in print or writing.
AwardsThere are numerous awards recognizing achievement and contribution in literature. Given the diversity of the field, awards are typically limited in scope, usually on: form, genre, language, nationality and output.
The Nobel Prize in Literature was one of the six Nobel Prizes established by the will of Alfred Nobel in 1895, and is awarded to an author on the basis of their body of work, rather than to, or for, a particular work itself. Other literary prizes for which all nationalities are eligible include: the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Man Booker International Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Hugo Award, Guardian First Book Award and the Franz Kafka Prize.