What is Literature?

I read all the time, and I think that books are some of the most powerful storytelling tools that we have.  As much as I love movies, TV shows, and even videogames as ways of telling stories, books are much more effective in dealing with character emotions and because of this I think they tend to have a longer lasting effect on a person.  I tend to remember storylines very well, and yet many movies and videogames that I’ve played multiple times don’t come to mind easier than books that I’ve read only once.

So what caused me to write this post?  I was looking through random posts with the tag “books” the other day and came across two that had similar ideas:

http://textcommunitymission.wordpress.com/2011/08/10/reading-for-pleasure-or-for-duty/

http://indecentimmortalbastards.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/is-harry-potter-literature/

After looking at these two posts, I started to think about what I consider literature.  Before I get to my ideas as to what qualifies as literature, lets start with a basic definition (via dictionary.com):

  1. writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays
  2. the entire body of writings of a specific language, period, people, etc: the literature of England

So what does all this mean?  For a very simple definition, literature is the written word.  This is complicated somewhat by the “genre” of literary fiction.  The very name leads one to think that it is somehow a better example of literature than popular fiction.

So what qualifies as literature?  As a more interesting question, what qualifies as quality literature?  In the first post that I linked to, the author talked about how reading popular fiction is a good way of eventually getting into the classics, which they thought of as a higher level of fiction.  I replied to this post saying that I think some recently released books of popular fiction are just as strong (if not stronger) thematically than some of the classics that are generally cited as the best books of all time.
Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 are two classic books that both deal with a very oppressive government, putting down most of the populace while supported the privileged and elite few.  While this is a powerful idea, I think that the same theme is explored just well in the first book of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy.
In a similar vein, SlaughterhouseFive and Catch-22 are regarded as two of the best books ever written that show the ugliness of war.  Personally, I think Suzanne Collins Hunger Games trilogy is much more effective in showing the horrors of war and the long term effects that it can have on people than either of the two books that are considered classics.
So where does the distinction come from as to what is considered high literature and what is not.  It mostly comes from the educated elite who tend to be professors at universities or teachers in schools.  Now don’t get me wrong, I do read a fair amount of classic books along with all of the popular fiction that I read.  There are classic books that I really enjoy: 1984, A Separate Peace, and The Scarlet Letter were all books that I enjoyed reading.  On the other hand, I thought that SlaughterhouseFive was horrible and I personally think that Great Expectations is the worst thing I’ve ever read.
The second post that I linked to posed a very direct question: Is Harry Potter Literature?  The author quoted critics who said that the Harry Potter series wasn’t great literature in large part because it achieved nothing ‘new’ in terms of themes, character motifs, morals, and overall meaning of the series.  To this question I ask, does a book have to to be good?  If you look objectively and try to simplify books, there are really very few story types and almost no ‘new’ ideas to come to stories for quite some time.
But does something have to be groundbreaking to be literature?  I’ve said before (maybe not on my blog) and commented on the post saying that I think the Harry Potter series is arguably the most important literary contribution of the past 10-15 years.  This is an argument I readily make and the reason is simply because the Harry Potter series caused kids to have an interest in reading books that I can’t recall happening at any other time in my life.  I remember seeing news stories with kids waiting at bookstores at midnight to buy the books as soon as they can, and kids staying up all night to read the books.  I think that’s wonderful and anything that causes kids to want to read is easily a great piece of literature.
While I may not like some of the classic books, I can at least appreciate some of what makes them considered great.  I personally think that we’re going to see a change in what is considered great literature over the next 10-20 years.  The reason is simple, the people who are going to be the teachers and literature professors of the future are growing up now, when Science Fiction is accepted more than ever before and we may be entering something of a golden age of Fantasy novels.  Are we ever going to see the day when Ender’s Game and Harry Potter are taught alongside Shakespeare and Jane Austin?  I certainly hope so, and I really think that everyone who enjoys reading quality books will be better off when it happens.
So throughout the whole post (all 900 or so words thus far) I didn’t really answer my own question.  I’d say it’s essentially anything written for the purpose of telling a story, arguing a point, or educating another person (essentially the first definition I gave).  The definition of good literature is another question altogether.  I would say that every person will have a different definition of good literature, although I would define it as anything that you enjoyed reading (for a story) or was thought-provokng (for an essay or lesson).
So I’ve given my thoughts as well as some reasons for why I think that way, what are your thoughts?  What is literature in the first place?  What is good literature?  Beyond that, how do you think some of the most popular books of the past 25 years stack up to the classic books that have been taught in schools forever?
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2 Comments

  1. Side Note: For some reason The formatting I tried to have for this post doesn’t seem to want to stick, and I don’t feel like fighting with wordpress to figure out how to make it stick, so it’s going to stay like it is, I apologize if it’s hard to read with the last several paragraphs in a smaller font and no gaps between them.

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  2. I think good literature is something that forces you to think.

    Reply

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