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What is Literature?

Updated on July 29, 2011

I agree with Terry Eagleton, when he asserts in Literary Theory: An Introduction, that literature is not exclusively fiction. Notwithstanding that the Nobel Prize for literature appears to be reserved for works of fiction, the body of literature has limbs and organs of nonfiction ( I would argue that these include the works of Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and, more recently, Howard Zinn).

It's also true that literature cannot be adequately defined in terms of form and literary devices, since form and literary devices are commonly used in everyday speech.

Mr. Eagleton is also correct when he writes that intent is a poor criterion for distinguishing literature, for not all literature was necessarily intended as such, and not all writing that aspired to the status fulfilled its aspirations. Clearly, Mr. Eagleton is a keen, discerning, and highly knowledgeable man, but he errs in his contention that “There is no ‘essence’ of literature whatsoever”(p. 8).

With wonderful insight, Mr. Eagleton points out that “one can think of literature less as some inherent quality or set of qualities displayed by certain kinds of writing…than as a number of ways in which people relate themselves to writing”(p. 8).

He fails to recognize, however, that the catalyst between readers and the writing we label “literature” is craft. Loving, devoted craft is what induces us to relate to writing.

Craft is the essence of literature.

An inspired writer can take the seemingly mundane task of relating historical events and create a thoroughly engaging, suspenseful, and illuminating oeuvre for the ages. After all, what fiction can possibly surpass the genuine heroism, nobility, and compassion scattered throughout the history of humanity? What tale can reach the depths of humanity's cowardice, corruption and inhumanity? What can offer us greater insight into the human condition than the human condition itself? The chronicle of the life of Rasputin, for example, needs no exaggeration to captivate. Here was a monk who rose to the heights of power and who’s life ended only after having been poisoned, stabbed, shot, and finally drowned. In the hands of a gifted wordsmith, the recounting of Rasputin's life, with each word carefully measured and weighed and each sentence lovingly crafted, could well be literature in the making.

It is craft, which we recognize intuitively and which cannot be defined by any single, particular quality, which sets literature apart from mere writing. It is the talent and meticulous care in the writing of a mother’s letters or a philosopher’s erudite treatise that can potentially distinguish their work from all other writing. It is our appreciation for a mother’s talent or for a philosopher’s meticulous care that is the essence of literature.

Literature is the fruition of craft.


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