In order for us to study literature with any kind of depth, first we must decide what constitutes literature. While works like William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird are almost universally accepted as literature, other works are hotly debated, or included or excluded based on the context. For example, while most consider Toni Morrison’s Beloved literature, others debate whether more recent publications such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Rupi Kaur’s Instagram poetry constitute literature. And what about the stories told through tweets, like Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box”? What about video games, like Skyrim, or memes, like Grumpy Cat?
Students often throw their hands up in the air over such distinctions, arguing literature is subjective. Isn't it up to individual opinion? Anything can be literature, such students argue. At first glance, it could seem such distinctions are, at best, arbitrary. At worst, such definitions function as a means of enforcing cultural erasure.
However, consider a story about Kim Kardashian’s plastic surgery in People Magazine. Can this be considered on the same level of literary achievement as Hamlet? Most would concede there is a difference in quality between these two texts. A blurb about Kim Kardashian’s latest plastic surgery, most would agree, does not constitute literature. So how can we differentiate between such works?
Literature vs. literature
As illustrated in the somewhat silly example above, one way we can define what constitutes literature is by identifying what is definitely not literature. For our intents and purposes of defining most terms in this textbook, we will use the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions. Many professors who teach Literature use the concept of Big L Literature vs. little l literature (Rollison).
"written work valued for superior or lasting artistic merit" ("Literature" - OED)
"Printed matter of any kind; esp. leaflets, brochures, etc., used to advertise products or provide information and advice" ("literature" -OED)
While the definition of little l literature is fairly easy to understand and apply, the definition of Big L Literature remains amorphous. What makes a work “artistic”? How do we define “superior” or “lasting”?
Let’s break down some of the defining qualities of literature in a bit more detail, starting with the word “artistic.”
Consider the following works of art.
Which of these images do you feel is higher quality or more “artistic”? Which is lower-quality or less artistic? Why? Justify your position by analyzing the elements of each artwork.
While there may be some debate, most students usually respond that Friedrich's painting is more artistic. This is due to several composition differences between the two works:
- Artist’s skill: it certainly appears as if the first image was produced by an artist with superior skill
- Fame: for anyone who knows art history, the first image is famous while the other is not
- Lasting quality: the first image has survived the test of time, remaining popular over two hundred years!
- Meaning: the first image likely conjures deeper feelings, themes, or ideas, such as isolation and the primacy of nature. This is why this image has become the face of Romanticism.
But what about the images demonstrate the artists’ superior skills? While the second image appears to be produced with a simple doodle, and quickly composed, the first indicates more complexity, attention-to-detail, and craft. Freidrich leverages different colors, textures, shapes, and symbols to evoke a feeling in the viewer. Skilled artists will use different techniques, like the way they move the paintbrush, the pressure they exert or the direction of the brush. They will use textured paintbrushes for a specific effect, such as the difference between the light fluffy clouds and dark mountain rocks. They will use different color pallets to project, as accurately as possible, the feelings they are trying to evoke. In short, while anyone can paint, true artists leverage many different skills, techniques, and materials to render what is in their imagination into a real-life product.
So how does this relate to our attempts to define literature?
Literature is art, but with words.
While the artist uses different colors, paintbrushes, mediums, canvases, and techniques, the writer uses different genres and literary techniques called literary devices. Just like different types of paint, paintbrushes, and artistic tools, there are literally hundreds of literary devices, but some of the most common are metaphor, simile, personification, and imagery. Genre is the type or style of literature. Each genre has its own conventions. Literary genres include creative nonfiction, fiction, drama, and poetry. Works that are literary tend to masterfully use genre conventions and literary devices to create a world in the mind of the reader. Works that are less literary tend to be for practical and/or entertainment purposes, and the writer dedicates less focused energy towards artfully employing literary devices.
However, just because a work is not as literary as another does not mean it cannot be enjoyed. Just like a stick figure or cartoon character might be perfectly fine if intended for a particular audience or purpose, readers can still enjoy People Magazine even though it is not of the same literary quality as Hamlet.
So, to use an example from earlier:
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
While some literature falls into clear designations of literature or not literature, most works are open to debate. Given the sometimes difficult task of determining whether a work falls into one camp or the other, it may be more helpful to think of Literature less as a dichotomy than a spectrum, with popular magazines on one end and works like Hamlet and Beloved on the other, and most written works falling somewhere between the two extremes.
The Literary Spectrum
This spectrum can be a helpful way to think about literature because it provides a more open-ended way to discuss writing as art than simply labeling works as literary or not. After viewing the above chart, why do you think popular magazines and a Calculus textbook are considered "less literary"? In terms of popular magazines, they do not fit the definition of literature as "lasting" in the sense that they usually fade from relevancy quickly after publication. Additionally, the authors of such magazines are striving for quick entertainment rather than leaving a meaningful impression on the reader. They tend not to use literary devices, such as metaphor, in a masterful way. On the other end, Shakespeare's Hamlet definitely fits the definition of "lasting," in that it has survived hundreds of years. It is full of literary devices used for rhetorical effect and, one would argue, it touches upon deep themes such as death, the afterlife, murder, vengeance, and love, rather than trifling issues such as a starlet's most recent plastic surgery.
Certainly, works of literature are up for debate: that is the quintessential question literary scholars might ask. What makes certain literary works survive the test of time? What makes a story, poem, or drama "good"? While literary scholars are less interested in proving a certain work is "good" or not -- and more focused on analyzing the ways to illuminate a given work -- it can be helpful for you to consider what kinds of literature you like and why you like it. What about the way it was written causes you to feel the way you do about it?
Who Decides What is Literature?
Now that we have at least somewhat clarified the definition of literature, who decides what works are or are not literature? Historically speaking, kings, queens, publishers, literary critics, professors, colleges, and readers (like you!) have decided which works survive and which works do not.
Aristotle was one of the first writers to attempt to decide what works fall into the category of literature, and what works do not. While Aristotle was most famous for his contributions to science and philosophy, he is also considered one of the first literary critics. A literary critic is a person who studies and analyzes literature. A literary critic produces scholarship called literary criticism. An example of this would be Aristotle’s Poetics, in which he identifies the defining qualities of a “good” Tragedy. Aristotle’s analysis of Tragedy was so influential that it is still used today, over two thousand years later!
When a work is officially decided to constitute literature, it enters something called the Canon. Not to be confused with the large metal tube that shoots bombs popular in the 16th through the 19th centuries (cannon), the Literary Canon is a collection of works that are considered by the powers that be to constitute literature. A work that falls into this designation is called canonical. So, to use an example from Aristotle’s Poetics, Aristotle defined Sophocles’ Oedipus Trilogy as the pinnacle of the Tragic Genre. From there, in part due to Aristotle's influence, Greek society valued Oedipus so much that they kept discussing, reading, referencing, and teaching it. Thus, it became a kind of shining example of the Tragic Canon, one which has lasted thousands of years and continues to be read and lauded to this day. Other tragedies, fairly or not, are often judged on their quality in comparison to Sophocles' works. It seems crazy to think but someone who died thousands of years ago still influences what we consider literature today!
Memes and Video Games: Today's Literature?
All this talk of thousands-of-years-old texts might seem out of touch. A lot of people think "old and boring" and literature are synonymous. Students are often surprised to hear that comic books and video games can, arguably, be considered literature, too. There are plenty of arguments to be made that comic books, such as Maus by Art Spiegalman (1991) or Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2006) are literature. Cutting edge literary scholars argue video games like Kentucky Route Zero by Cardboard Computer (2015) can be considered literary. There is also literature that is published in tweets, like Jennifer Egan's "Black Box" (2012). Some might even consider memes literature!
Generative question: do you think memes can be literary?
A meme is an image or video containing cultural values or ideas, often represented through allusion (implied reference to another work, without naming that work or its author). Memes can spread rapidly spreads through social media. Why? Because the best ones are #relatable; that is, they speak to a common human experience.
Usually memes take the form of text superimposed on an image. For example, the meme above conveys the dramatic reaction students sometimes give when I assign an essay. This is done primarily through a literary device called hyperbole, or exaggeration for rhetorical effect. It conveys its message comically through certain conventions that come along with the meme genre, such as the syntactic structure "me, a [insert noun]" and asterisks, which convey action. Just like in the Shakespearean drama, the colon indicates what each character (me and the students, in this case) is saying or doing. My chihuahuas' face looks silly and very dramatic. Through this use of image, text, format, and convention, the meaning I intended to convey was that I was making fun of my students for being over-dramatic about what to me seems like a fairly simple assignment. While some might dismiss memes as shallow, when you start to unravel the layers of meaning, they can actually be very complex and even, dare I say, literary!
Think about a recent meme you have seen, or your favorite meme of all time. Imagine explaining this meme to someone who has no idea what it means. What is the message or idea behind the meme? What cultural reference points does it use to convey this message? In what ways might this meme be considered literature? How might this compare to a short poem, like a haiku?
Let's say you come to the conclusion that a meme, a gossip magazine, or the Twilight Series is not literary. Does that mean you have to feel guilty and give up reading it forever? Or that it is not "good"?
Just because a work is not literary does not mean it is "bad," that it does not have value, or that one cannot enjoy it. Indeed, there are plenty of examples of written works that are on the less literary side of the spectrum but are still fun and enriching to read. Joe Dirt is not on the same artistic level of cinema as Schindler's List, but my husband still loves watching it. Nothing Taylor Swift has produced is as deep as Tupac Shakur's "Changes" (1992) or Mitski's "Last Words of a Shooting Star" (2014), but listening to Taylor Swift is my guilty pleasure. This is all to say that whether a text is literary or not is not as important as the methods of analyzing texts. In fact, texts which were excluded from literature are often argued into the literary canon through such analysis. Part of what makes analyzing literature so fun is that it means the definition of literature is always up for debate! This is especially important given the history of the canon.
The Problem with the Canon
In an ideal world, literature would be celebrated purely based on its artistic merit. Well-written works would last, poorly-written works would wither from public memory. However, that is not always the case. Works often achieve public prominence or survive based on qualities unrelated to skill or aesthetics, such as an author's fame, wealth, connections, or acceptance by the dominant culture. William Wordsworth, for example, was named Poet Laureate of England and has been taught as one of the "Big Six" major Romantic-era authors ever since. Indeed, he is accepted as part of the literary canon. One would be hard-pressed to find a Literature anthology that does not feature William Wordsworth. However, how many people have read or heard of Dorothy Wordsworth, William Wordsworth's sister, who arguably depicted Romantic themes with equal skill and beauty? Or James Hogg, a Scottish contemporary of Wordsworth who was a lower-class shepherd? Similarly, while most readers have encountered F. Scott Fitzgerald or Edgar Allen Poe in their high school literature classes, how many have read Frederick Douglass in these same classes? In short, all artistic skill (arguably) considered equal, why do some authors predominantly feature in the Canon while others do not?
Let’s perform an experimental activity.
- Find a piece of paper or a whiteboard. On this piece of paper or whiteboard, write down as many works of literature that you feel constitute “Big L Literature.” Perhaps they are works you read in high school, works which have been made into films, or works you have been taught or told are literary masterworks. Don’t turn the page until you have written them down. Try to think of at least 10, but a larger sample size is better. Once you are finished, continue to the next paragraph.
- Alright, now look at your list. If you know the author of the literary texts you named, write their name next to the work. If you do not know the author, Google the information and write it down. Continue doing this until you have named the author of each work. Once you are finished, read on to the next paragraph.
- Now, as uncomfortable as it seems, label the gender/race/age/presumed sexual orientation of the authors you listed. After you have categorized them to the best of your ability, consider the following questions:
- What percentage of the authors are male?
- What percentage of the authors are white?
- What percentage of the authors are old/dead?
- What patterns do you notice? Why do you think this is?
I have replicated this experiment dozens of times in the classroom, and, in most classes, the vast majority of what students have been taught are “Literary Masterworks” are written by (pardon my colloquialism) dead white males. Although, as time progresses, it seems there is increasing but not proportionate representation on average. For example, while women make up about half of the population, over 80% of the most popular novels were written by men ("Battle"). While there are many possible reasons for this discrepancy in representation (which could be the focus of an entire textbook), what does this mean for scholars of literature? For students? For instructors? For society?
As a cultural relic, similar to art, many scholars suggest literature is a reflection of the society which produces it. This includes positive aspects of society (championing values such as love, justice, and good triumphing over evil), but it can also reflect negative aspects of society (such as discrimination, racism, sexism, homophobia, historical lack of opportunity for marginalized authors).
For example, enslaved Africans were often prevented from learning to read and write as a form of control. When Phillis Wheatley published her book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) she had to defend the fact that she wrote it, as due to popularly held racist views that slaves were incapable of writing poetry. Later, Frederick Douglass wrote about how his masters banned him from reading and writing, as the slave owners realized "education and slavery were incompatible with each other" (Douglass). He later championed his learning to read and write as the means which conveyed him to freedom. However, even when trying to publish The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, his publishers were forced to prove that it was, in fact, a slave who wrote the story and not a white man who wrote it for him. Slave owners actively attempted to keep this book from circulation as it threatened the institution of slavery upon which they depended. Indeed, to this day, Douglass' book continues to be banned in some prisons (Darby, Gilroy).
How could black writers enter the canon en masse if they were not allowed to read or write? Or if they were forced to spend all of their waking hours working? And if those who had the means to read and write had to jump through absurd hoops just to have their works published? And if even those texts which were published were banned?
Similarly, throughout much of Western history, women have been discouraged from pursuing reading and writing, as it distracted from society's expectations for women to focus on motherly and household duties. Until the 1700s, women were not allowed to go to college. Even then, very few went: only the extremely wealthy. It was not until the 19th century that women truly began attending college. Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One's Own that if there are fewer works of literature written by women, it is only because society, historically, has not given women the time, education, funding, or space to do so. In this extended essay, she describes an imaginary sister of William Shakespeare who could have been just as great of a writer had she the same opportunities as her brother.
I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee's life of the poet. She died young—alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross-roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her.
Woolf argues that in our time those who have been excluded from literature can now join the canon by adding their voices. The inequity of representation in literature -- which has arguably improved, but in many ways persists today -- can be remedied if more people from a wide array of backgrounds and walks of life are empowered to study and create Literature. That is one reason why the current study of literature is so exciting. As a student and budding literary scholar, you have the power to influence culture through your reading and analysis of literature!
For one author and scholar's perspective on this topic, please watch this the following TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to see the ways in which such misrepresentations are harmful, and why it is important to veer away from the historically parochial Canon into what Chinua Achebe calls "a balance of stories" (qtd. Bacon).
What "single stories" do you know? What are the "single stories" people have told about you? What story would you tell if you could? What kinds of stories do you want to read? Throughout this class, you will get the opportunity to encounter many different voices and stories from all over the world. While we faced hurdles of copyright permissions, the authors of this textbook attempted to embody the values espoused in this TED Talk & Chinua Achebe's conception of the "balance of stories." As you read the textbook, consider the stories which were omitted, why they were omitted, and what works of Literature you would include in this class if you could.
Bacon, Katie. "An African Voice." The Atlantic, 2000.
Darby, Luke. "Illinois Prison Bans Frederick Douglass's Memoir and Other "Racial" Books." GQ, 20 August 2019.
Douglass, Frederick. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. 1845.
Friedrich, Caspar David. "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog." Hamburger Kunsthalle Museum, 1818.
Gilroy, Paul. "Banned Books of Guantánamo: 'An American Slave' by Frederick Douglass." Vice, 14 Nov. 2014.
"literature, n.; 3b & 5" OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2019, www.oed.com/view/Entry/109080. Accessed 6 September 2019.
Rollison, David. "Big L vs Little L Literature." Survey of World Literature I. College of Marin, 2008. Lecture.
Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. 1773.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. 1929.