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Thread: What is literature?

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Hi, My name is Yuearian, a long time lurker who has decided to step out from the shadows! I am a third year university student and am currently taking a course on critical theory. We are reading Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Dante, Shelley, etc and trying to find our own definition of literature. I love LOTR and The Hobbit and would define them as literature but should they be called literature or simply a work of fiction? I'm still trying to find my own definition but to me something that resonates with you, that can stand the test of time, cross barriers of time, culture, countries, etc and still have some sort of meaning, provoking thought, interest, and discussion. It certainly helps if the work is entertaining and well written. How would you define literature? Does Tolkien's works count as literature? Is it on the same level as say The Iliad, The Canterbury Tales, The Divine Comedy, Wuthering Heights, or [insert any great work of fiction here]? What purpose does literature serve in our modern society? To teach? To entertain? Any thoughts would be much appreciated!
Hi Yuearian. What a great thread.

I'm not sure of what the term literature really means. I think many of us mix up great ancient and famous works automatically as literature and therefore very few modern works of greatness.

I for one would most certainly place Tolkien amoungst the great literary writers. His works have great depth, heart and have an important tangible lesson for all mankind. I guess perhaps these and the fact that his books are written in a formal English format makes them indeed English literature.

I can't say a thing on your question since I'm not smart enough Smile Smilie


but I come with a request: When you have time could you possible PM me about your studies a bit. I'm really interested in them. When ever someone talks about Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Dante, Shelley and company I just have to hear more! I would truly love some of your thoughts on them if you don't think me too bold for asking

Heh, it doesn't have to be a smart answer! People have argued about what literature is and isn't for centuries. Differing opinions doesn't necessitate that there is only one correct answer; it seems to prove that everyone's definition will be unique. Humans are subjective creatures after all. If people can justify their answer, who's to say it isn't valid? That is why it is a debate. Thank you for sharing, I hope more people will join in!

Arath this isn't a question about smarts, it's a question about confidence in your beliefs!! Besides, I'd say responding to a question about critical theory is a good start if you plan on actually studying critical theory...

Anyways, I don't think theres any question that Tolkien's work should be considered literature. In fact, I find it insulting it's even up for debate (just kidding....sort of)!!! It meets every requirement you mentioned and has survived the test of time while still going strong. It has changed and helped shape countless numbers of lives. It has inspired modern literature and its influence will be felt until the last written page has disintegrated into the earth.

To be honest I think every written word is considered literature. The only reason one would say otherwise is because of their disdain for a certain work, thus they want to elevate what they do enjoy and make it seem superior, regardless of their opinion not being unanimous. That is the subjectivity, not literature itself. Perhaps the line should be between literature and Great Literature, because there lies the difference. Any book has the ability to break boundaries, change lives, entertain for countless hours, bring people together, push people apart etc, etc. It's unfair to classify the hard work someone put into their art as something lesser than that which made a lot of money or has a movie named after it. I've read some unheard of books that I loved more than some of the most mainstream books. And so I don't think literature is a subjective term in its definition, only in its contextual use.

if you plan on actually studying critical theory...


I am just extremely curious ^^


I have this problem of wanting to know everything. Or a little bit of everything. This is the reason why I can't focus on one subject for long. I've gone through several schools and am currently contemplating whether or not to enroll again next year.

Carpentry, Metalwork, Physics, Computer science and perhaps psychology if I decide I can bear the pressure of studying again Smile Smilie

"Jack of all trades but master of none, yet often better then one."

i think you've answered your own question.

you've already said that you believe Tolkiens work to be literature, and as you've already pointed out, people have argued over the definition of literature for centuries.

and that's actually very important (in my opinion). if they were ever to clearly define what literature is, then it would actually lose its meaning and value... people who seek to write great literary works in the future would simply ensure they stuck to the set of arbitrary guidelines that are in place by the definition. and as such, the written word, and even the essence of narration would cease to evolve and would ultimately become stagnant.

so while some people may feel stung at the thought that their favorite writers work may be up for debate as to whether it is literature or a simple work of fiction, i say the fact that it is up for debate is fantastic, and can only further the endeavors of writers in the present and future.

as for my own opinion?

Tolkiens work is still read in great numbers around the world coming up on a century after its conception (not publication of course). it's well thought out, and carries many subtle themes which translate directly into society. so for me, yes it's literature.


it does make me wonder if, at the time, people considdered Homer's work to be allegory, and "simple fiction" hah.

I agree with Balgrogs R Us - is it a written work?  Then it's literature.  Book, pamphlet, brochure, article, etc.

Is it GOOD literature or MEDIOCRE, or BAD, well, that's a different question.  I like Dorothy Sayers' ideas in her book "The Mind of the Maker".  She defines (if I remember correctly) a "good work" as a work that successfully embodies the overarching concept that the author (or maker) had for the work.

Whether or not the author's concept or idea was itself good, that's a separate question too!  And here I think you have to ask "good for what"?  Is it good for entertaining, for teaching, for advertising, for cathartic experience, for inspiring, for reference, for making into a movie, for quoting, for a doorstop, or what?

And then there is the question of whether or not a work of literature can be good "for me" but because of culture, language, education, personality, etc., might not be good for someone else.  Or whether or not a reader can be trained or educated to be able to enjoy a book as "good" when they were not previously able to?  

And then what if a book is intrinsically good but it is in a language foreign to me and it is translated badly?  Or vice versa - suppose the work is really terrible but in translation becomes something better?

I have often thought of literature as a piece of writing which moves me.  Whether it be a book, essay, or poem.  As Sam put it in Lord of the Rings "the stories that really mattered."  Literature does stand the test of time and leave an impression upon the reader.