What Is Literature?

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Since the 18th century, the definition of the concept "literature" has become a problematic and a controversial issue among various literary schools. What is literature? What are the qualities that distinguish a literary text from a non-literary one? Does literature have any particular function in society? These are some crucial questions whose answers were supposed to limit and define the scope of "literature". However, various literary and critical schools have advanced different and contradictory responses to these same questions, which have consequently led to a failure in producing an authoritatively established definition of "literature". This failure can be ascribed to many reasons, but because the length of the paper doesn't allow to tackle all of them, the forthcoming paragraphs will be devoted to discuss only two main reasons. The first reason is the difficulty to distinguish between "fact" and "fiction" in some works which, as it will be clarified in the few coming paragraphs, were anthropological and documentary and were later seen as fictional, or vice versa. The second reason resides in the different perspectives upon which different literary theories have based their views about literature. This paper is, therefore, an attempt to shed light on the indeterminacy of the concept "literature" by explaining and extending on these two main reasons. To begin with, the concept of "literature", originated from the Latin word "littera", was introduced into English in the fourteenth century. In its beginning, it was not vague or indeterminate as in its modern use. It was used then to refer to "a condition of reading: of being able to read and of having read" (Williams, Marxism and Literature, 46). Hence, it was used to have a meaning similar to that of "literacy", which was coined and introduced into English in early nineteenth century when the concept "literature" was developed and got a different sense. This new sense, which was ascribed to the development of printing, was "a specialization … to the printed word and especially the printed books with certain quality [imaginative works]" (Williams, 46). To elaborate on this definition, R. Wellek and A. Warren have stated that "in all of them [the printed books with certain quality], the reference is to the world of fiction, of imagination" (Wellek and Warren, Theory of Literature, 25). However, a simple review of the history of prose narrative forms would show that this definition of literature as a category of fictional and imaginative writings is irrelevant. Many writings which were written as anthropological documentaries were making use of fiction, while many other fictional works were given the status of documentary and factual writings. All travelogue writings and western historiography between the middle ages and the twentieth century are good examples to illustrate this point. Works like T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, W.M. Thackeray's From Cornhill to Cairo, Kingslake's Eothen, and Sir Thomas More's Utopia made use of both fact and fiction. Moreover, at the time of their appearance, most of these works were conceived of by the western audience as factual and documentary writings. Later on, due to some historical and political changes in the world, these writings became conceived of as fictional and imaginary works. Thus, defining literature on the grounds of fact versus fiction is questionable and invalid. With the development of criticism in the West in the nineteenth century, various attempts, based on new ideas other than the distinction between fact and fiction, have been advanced by different approaches in order to produce "accurate" definitions to "literature". However, the contradictory perspectives, upon which these attempts have been based, have made the project of defining "literature" more complicated; they have constituted a hindrance to the production of an authoritatively established definition of "literature". In fact, despite all...
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