Friday, 4 December 2015

What Is Literature?

It's a question I was first asked at A-Level and, more recently, in one of my seminars. 

(I hope you told them that it was 'written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit'.)

Sorry Ivy, but I have issues with that answer. Several issues in fact. 

(...The English language is dead, and it's people like you who killed it.)

Oh, don't be so melodramatic. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the Oxford English dictionary's definition.

(You'd better not be.)

I'm just saying that it's a tad ambiguous. 

(How so?)

I'm so glad you asked.

1. What do we class as a written work. Novels and poems are obvious, but what about plays? We've all studied them in school, but they aren't really supposed to be read. They're supposed to be watched and performed. Granted, they start out as scripts, but so do films. So do tv shows. Even video games have some form of script.

(What's your point?)

 My point is where is the line between what qualifies as written and what doesn't? And who draws that line? I'm not saying that we should class visual media as literature (I hate studying films in lit, mainly because I'm clueless on how to do it), just that the line is hazier than people seem to think.

2. All our great classics were originally released as mainstream works, but now there's an entire genre of literary fiction. From this has sprung the idea of contemporary classics. Traditional classics obviously have lasting merit because they've survived for centuries, but how can we tell which modern works will survive? Is there someone out there with a crystal ball that actually works? If there is, great! I want one. But if, as I suspect, there isn't, perhaps we should stop putting books on pedestals.
Yes, it's important (and frankly more enjoyable) to read newer books. Austen and the Brontës have a lot to say about the restrictions forced upon women in the past, but they can teach us very little about the perils and problems of the modern world. Were we only to study the old greats, we would do ourselves a disservice, but that doesn't mean we have to refer to them as superior beings.
A book is a book is a book.
Be it classic or contemporary. Realist or fantasy. Novel or poem or play.
Cut the lit snobbery already. 

How do you guys define literature? Leave me a small rant in the comments.