What is Literature?

From Terry Eagleton’s “Introduction” to Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983)

With the advent of literary theories in the twentieth century, various attempts have also been made to define ‘Literature’. It is no coincidence that the century that is defined by availability of multiple meanings, should also produce multiple interpretations of the term ‘Literature’. For example, one of the earliest definitions of the term under scrutiny explained its meaning as a kind of ‘imaginative’ writing, or in other words, fiction-writing. However, in today’s context, this definition would be considered incomplete. It is because in contemporary times, ‘Literature’ has surpassed the exclusivity accorded only to fiction, in order to include essays, sermons, autobiography, history-writing, speeches, letters, and many other forms of creative writing. Moreover, the fine distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ has long been dismantled. Therefore, even though the authors of Genesis might have believed themselves to be depicting a historical fact, yet now its veracity is open to contention.  It may still be considered a ‘fact’ by many, while ‘fiction’ by many others. It may be pointed out, further, that if Literature encompasses a lot of factual writing on one hand, it also discards different forms of fictional writing from being considered Literature on the other. Such is the case with Superman comics and Harlequin romance novels. Therefore, the definition of ‘Literature’ as a form of fiction-writing fails to validate itself.

Another definition, propagated by the Russian Formalists, describes Literature as a kind of writing that distorts and recreates ordinary language. Thus, Literature represents what the Formalist Roman Jakobson called an ‘organised violence committed on ordinary speech’. Terry Eagleton in Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) explains this definition of Literature. He states:

Literature transforms and intensifies ordinary language, deviates systematically from everyday speech.

In propounding this definition of Literature, the Formalists analysed literary works through the prism of linguistics. Therefore, rather than focusing on the analysis of the content of the literary text, they drew attention to the formal aspects of the same. These formal aspects were those inter-related elements or ‘devices’ or ‘functions’ that were arbitrarily assembled in the text. Such functions included sound, imagery, rhythm, rhyme syntax, metre, narrative technique, etc. Thus, in the Formalists’ worldview, content only provided with motivation to occasion the exercise of these literary devices.

Using this analysis of Literature, the Formalists concluded that literature had an ‘estranging’ or a ‘defamiliarising’ effect on the readers. It is because it enables distortion of everyday language which further makes the mundane world suddenly appear strange. Paradoxically, it is this very estrangement that makes us notice closely the real world that we tend to take for granted. In this way, literature renews our habitual responses and renders our surrounding objects more perceptible. Thus, readers are better able to grasp reality and experience the norm of everyday living more intimately.

However, this explanation of the concept of Literature is not without its flaws. It is
a well-established fact that there does not exist a single ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal’ language. As Terry Eagleton points out, ‘a common currency shared by all members of society, is an illusion.’ Language, even within itself, is subject to variation, vis-à-vis class, religion, gender, status, etc. Therefore, one person’s norm may be another’s deviation. The Formalists recognized this differentiation in language according to social or historical context. So, they too concluded that Literature was estranging only against a certain normative linguistic background and a change in this normative could result in a literary work being ceased to be perceived as literary. Using this conclusion, we could argue that the Formalists were not really out to define ‘Literature’, as much as they were attempting to define ‘literariness’, which also could not be considered an eternally given property.

Nevertheless, the Formalists upheld the core of their theory, that ‘making strange’ was the essence of the ‘literary’.  However, the concept of the novel written in prose contradicts this definition. Thus, it could be seen that the Formalists, in talking about
the estranging effect of language in a literary text, mostly considered only poetry to be the true form of literature. Even while analyzing prose writing, these literary theorists delved only into the realm of devices of simile, imagery, metaphor, etc. Moreover, the estranging effect of language can be seen outside of literary texts as well. A statement like, ‘Dogs must be carried on the escalator’, as seen in London Underground system, also consists of various ambiguities for a reader. This shows that each reader applies certain conventions of reading to a piece of writing, an operation carried out in literature too.

The Formalists’ conceptualization of Literature has prompted another definition
of Literature as a non-pragmatic discourse. It means that Literature does not serve an immediate practical purpose; rather it refers to a general state of affairs. So, if a poet describes his lover like a red rose, it may be understood that he is talking about love
and women in general. Therefore, the ‘way of talking’ about a particular object becomes significant. In the above example, the way of talking about a woman becomes more important than talking about a real-life woman. In this sense, then, literature conveys a self-referential language which talks about itself.

However, this definition too does not do complete justice to the term ‘Literature’. Firstly, if literature is to be treated as a merely non-pragmatic discourse, then it becomes dissociated from its objectivity. For example, essays such as those of George Orwell, which have also been perceived as a part of literature in recent times, would lose their practical value, and more importantly, they would lose their truth-value, if they were to be analysed not according to their themes, but , instead, according to the way those themes have been discussed. Then, this gives way for the possibility of the reader deciding what is to be read as literature, and not deciding the definition of Literature as per what is written. In the purview of this explanation, the focus shifts from the text per se and falls on the readers and the critics. In this context, the academic institutions play an important role, primarily, because in constructing the curriculum, these institutions, in a way, define what is to be read as literature. However, in this construction of a canon, ‘Literature’ is ripped off of its inherent qualities, as it assumes the ways in which people relate, or rather the authority relates to a piece of writing.

Thus, Literature has no real essence of its own. It becomes an esoteric concept and relates to a kind of writing which, for inexplicable reason, has come to be valued highly. Therefore, Literature is a purely formal, empty sort of writing, the worth of which is based on certain value-judgements. However, these value-judgements are also subject to variation. As a result, the definition of ‘Literature’ as a highly valued entity is also not stable. It is because value judgements are a necessary concomitant to our own interests. This gives rise to a plethora of different meanings and ways of reading literary texts. However, our interests do not imply personal interests and value-judgements. They are closely related to the ideology of the community at a given period of time. People living in a society share common beliefs and perceptions. It is these notions which inform the value-judgements of an individual living in that society. These modes of perceiving, valuing and believing have a close relation to the maintenance and reproduction of social powers. Thus, it is ideology that colours the readers’ expectations as to what literature is supposed to be, as well as their assumptions and their fulfillments which they anticipate they would derive from reading a particular text. A change in this ideology within the same society over time also leads to a change in interpretation of the same texts, though they remain in the category of Literature. That is how some texts, like classical Greek texts, have retained their value across centuries. It is for the same reason that a text may be considered as philosophy in one era and as literature in the next. It is owing to this very fact that Terry Eagleton remarks: ‘Some texts are born literary, some achieve literariness, and some have literariness thrust upon them.’


(c) Tejaswita Payal 2016
What is Literature?


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