The Problematical Nature Of The Concept Of Literature

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Last updated: April 9, 2019

Discussion surrounding the nature of literature has been ongoing amongst scholars for a great many years. Throughout this time, even the most elevated and educated minds cannot give an absolute definition of literature-certainly not one with which they all agree.

This essay attempts to discuss why the concept of literature is so difficult to define and also looks at the various attempts of others to describe it. In his book `Literary Theory’, critic Terry Eagleton outlines some of the attempts to define literature. Perhaps the simplest and most common definition would be to say that literature equates to `fine writing. (Eagleton-Literary Theory)The problem here is that we then have to define what constitutes fine writing. Quite obviously different people will have different ideas as to what makes a piece of writing fine or great. Naturally personal tastes intervene in objective judgement on such a subject as literature as there is a demand from most writers for their readers to become emotionally involved with their works. Indeed many people-including myself-would say that it is the attachment we can form with characters in a novel that makes a work enjoyable and consequently we would say it was great or fine.However we do not get this same emotion from a newspaper article; yet they provide historical records of events that will preserve the past and present.

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Surely these have just as much literary significance as any other more elevated works? Maybe this concept could be revised. Should we say instead that literature should be deemed a piece of writing that has value to society? `With this reservation, the suggestion that `literature’ is a highly valued kind of writing is an illuminating one. But it has one fairly devastating consequence.It means that we can drop once and for all the illusion that the category literature is objective. ‘(Eagleton, `Literary Theory’. ) The problem here would be that literary value becomes entirely subjective of cultural identity.

One of the greatest examples of this would be the English literary canon. The canon contains what is considered to be the epitome of fine English writing and you would find most of our famous writers throughout history, (Shakespeare, DH Lawrence, Austen etc) within it. However, the canon lacks variety in its content.

The vast majority of all the writers in the canon would fall under the description of white, male and middle class. Austen and the Bronti?? sisters are the only really noticeable exceptions to the rule. The reason for all this being that the white, male, middle class has been throughout English history the most prominent cultural force in this country and therefore held the power to decide what constituted literary value. Literary critic FR Leavis wrote on this subject-what he calls `The Great Tradition’ which is essentially what the English Literary Canon is supposed to represent.His views are perhaps a little more extreme than most other critics `except Jane Austen, George Eliot, James and Conrad, there are no novelists in English worth reading. ‘ (Leavis `The Great Tradition’. ) We must bear in mind however that Leavis too was a part of the white, male middle class. The works of the previously mentioned novelists were used to educate women and the working classes of the time.

Think of the opening lines of Austen’s `Pride and Prejudice’, `It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife. Although this is still probably one of the most famous and enjoyable novels of all time-Austen’s opening remarks are no reflection on today’s society. Society has altered considerably and few people can identify with the issues presented in not only this novel but in others too.How many of our parents attempt to force us to marry our cousin’s in order that the family estate is not entailed away from the family? The point essentially must be that as society changes-so too do its values. Novels such as `Pride and Prejudice’ give insight into a past society (also give us a wonderful story-but this is entirely subjective. Would we say though that this novel could not be classed as `literature’ simply because it has no real significance to today’s society? If that were the case there would never be a piece of literature any older than about twenty or thirty years.

Clearly someone somewhere believes that the older texts of the canon do have value as pieces of literature. Why else would I, my parents and my grandparents all have studied the same or at least similar works throughout our education? `Shakespeare’ for example is never removed from the core curriculum texts that we study from the age of about fourteen onwards.He has what has been referred to as `universalism’ (Harold Bloom-Shakespeare’s Universalism) His works are studied all over the world. `No one, before or since Shakespeare, made so many separate selves. ‘ (Harold Bloom, Shakespeare’s Universalism) Perhaps then it is the ability of a writer to shape their texts’ words and characterisation through their use of the English Language that makes a work literary.

This theory surrounding literature is known as `formalism… essentially the application of linguistics to the study of English. (Eagleton-Literary Theory) The idea being that a piece of literature would use more formal language in an unusual way. In Shakespeare’s `Hamlet,’ Hamlet says `To be or not to be, that is the question. ‘(Shakespeare, Hamlet Act III, Scene 1, Line 68).

This is a line that none of us would expect to hear in everyday conversation; yet it is famously associated with Shakespeare and literature at the peak of Hamlet’s madness. It is true that the idea of the literary text is unique. The ambiguity of the language of literature; often that of poetry, could be said to characterise it.Does that then mean we can understand the true nature of literature through its language alone? Could we set down rules and definitives in order to classify that which is literary and that which is not? Matthew Arnold a 19th century critic, contributor to and promoter of the English canon believed that literature should represent truth through art.

So strong was his faith in literary truth that he believed it should replace religion as a source of guidance. Yet how do we discern literary truth through the elevated language?Truth itself is completely dependant on perspective. For many people truth is completely unimportant in the novels or poetry they read.

One of my favourite novels is Bram Stoker’s `Dracula’ yet I don’t attach so much value to it because I believe it to be true; quite the reverse in fact. It is the fantasy of fiction that is so appealing. Surely though literature cannot be defined on a fiction or non-fictional basis? Literature cannot be entirely defined by its fiction no more than it can be defined by its truth.

Some of the finest novels merge the two. Regeneration’ by Pat Barker tells the story of both fictional and non-fictional characters in the setting of World War One. When reading the novel, the emotional aspects of the story were intensified by the knowledge that this war and some of the events actually happened. Biographies and autobiographies bear great historical significance as true accounts of the lives of some of the most influential people to have lived-yet you will not find them in the literary canon. Does this then mean they are inferior in a literary sense? In my opinion, no it does not.

One of the characterising features of literature is its value and significance to society. Such books as autobiographies, encyclopaedias, text books used in education-are often astounding works of literature (consider the `Encyclopaedia Britannica’); yet they do not rely on a happy ending to make them great. Nor does that take anything away from Shakespeare, Austen, Lawrence or Dickens because of the fact that they probably never wrote a single work on real people in their lives. Their merit and their value is the entertainment they bring.To me, part of the beauty of literature is that it is indefinable. Imagine if instead of writing this essay we were picking apart poetry such as Blake’s `Tyger, Tyger’ (Norton Anthology 7th Edition, Volume 2) and instead of discussing the astonishing Romantic imagery; we had to disparage it as non-truth. For similar reasons we certainly cannot agree with the formalists.

Eagleton quotes Russian formalist `Roman Jakobson’ in his book `Literary Theory’ as saying that the language of literature is `organized violence committed on ordinary speech. How can we ever describe the elevated poetry of Romantic poets such as Blake, Shelley or Keats in this way? Their writing causes no violence to the page, only the passion of their sensitivity and emotion. The nature of literature demands that it must have value to society and also have value as entertainment. Wherever those values come from, as a result of great fiction or a representation of harsh truth; for poetic language or the straight-talking of modern times-it matters not. In my opinion, one element without the other will never be enough to describe a true example of great literature.

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