The nature and essence of literature
The nature and essence of literature

Every interpretation of a text is always an authoritarian operation, so, as Hans Magnus Enzensberger argued, it would require a more open and anarchic reading of the works.
Carl William Brown

What the dead had no speech for, when living, they can tell you, being dead: the communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
T.S. Eliot

The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important, since there is nothing new to be said. Shakespeare, Balzac, Homer have all written about the same things, and if they had lived one thousand or two thousand years longer, the publishers wouldn’t have needed anyone since.
William Faulkner

We can have every sort of literature and language, provided that they should always remain human, humane litterae.
Carl William Brown

Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.
Ezra Pound

Religion is only literature, but luckily literature is not only religion!
Carl William Brown

Literature is the expression of a feeling of deprivation, a recourse against a sense of something missing. But the contrary is also true: language is what makes us human. It is a recourse against the meaningless noise and silence of nature and history.
Octavio Paz

Ronald Carter and Peter Stockwell (2008) see the literary work as an actualization of the text as object, produced only by an observing consciousness. The literary work comes into existence only when read.
Katie Wales

Literature that is not the breath of contemporary society, that dares not transmit the pains and fears of that society, that does not warn in time against threatening moral and social dangers – such literature does not deserve the name of literature; it is only a facade. Such literature loses the confidence of its own people, and its published works are used as wastepaper instead of being read.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn

The function of literature, through all its mutations, has been to make us aware of the particularity of selves, and the high authority of the self in its quarrel with its society and its culture. Literature is in that sense subversive.
Lionel Trilling

Part of literature’s aesthetic value also comes from its affective appeal to the emotions of the reader, and its ability to entrance. In various ways, then, literature is seen as an art form, to be compared with music, painting, sculpture, etc.
Katie Wales


Literature (n). Early 15c., “book-learning,” from Latin literatura/litteratura “learning, a writing, grammar,” originally “writing formed with letters,” from litera/littera “alphabetic letter” also “an epistle, writing, document; literature, great books; science, learning”.

Definition: What is literature? Why do we read it? Why is literature important? Literature is a term used to describe written or spoken material. Broadly speaking, “literature” is used to describe anything from creative writing to more technical or scientific works, but the term is most commonly used to refer to works of the creative imagination, including works of poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction. Why do we read literature? Literature represents a language or a people: culture and tradition.

But, literature is more important than just a historical or cultural artifact. Literature introduces us to new worlds of experience. We learn about books and literature; we enjoy the comedies and the tragedies of poems, stories, and plays; and we may even grow and evolve through our literary journey with books.

Ultimately, we may discover meaning in literature by looking at what the author says and how he/she says it. We may interpret the author’s message. In academic circles, this decoding of the text is often carried out through the use of literary theory, using a mythological, sociological, psychological, historical, or other approach.

Whatever critical paradigm we use to discuss and analyze literature, there is still an artistic quality to the works. Literature is important to us because it speaks to us, it is universal, and it affects us. Even when it is ugly, literature is beautiful.

Tristan Tzara quote on literature
Tristan Tzara quote on literature


The first problem to confront us is, obviously, the subject matter of literary scholarship. What is literature? What is not literature? What is the nature of literature? Simple as such questions sound, they are rarely answered clearly. One way is to define “literature” as everything in print. We then shall be able to study the “medical profession in the fourteenth century” or “planetary motion in the early Middle Ages” or “witchcraft in Old and New England”.

As Edwin Greenlaw has argued, “Nothing related to the history of civilization is beyond our province”; we are “not limited to belles-lettres or even to printed or manuscript records in our effort to understand a period or civilization”, and we “must see our work in the light of its possible contribution to the history of culture”.

According to Greenlaw’s theory, and the practice of many scholars, literary study has thus become not merely closely related to the history of civilization but indeed identical with it. Such study is literary only in the sense that it is occupied with printed or written matter, necessarily the primary source of most history. It can, of course, be argued in defence of such a view that historians neglect these problems, that they are too much preoccupied with diplomatic, military, and economic history, and that thus the literary scholar is justified in invading and taking over a neighbouring terrain.

Doubtless nobody should be forbidden to enter any area he likes, and doubtless there is much to be said in favour of cultivating the history of civilization in the broadest terms…

As for the functions of literature, for the time being just think to these two concepts, “art for art’s sake” and “art for progress”. “Art for art’s sake” is the usual English rendering of a French slogan from the early 19th century, “l’art pour l’art”, and expresses a philosophy that the intrinsic value of art, and the only “true” art, is divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function.

Such works are sometimes described as “autotelic”, from the Greek autoteles, “complete in itself”, a concept that has been expanded to embrace “inner-directed” or “self-motivated” human beings. A Latin version of this phrase, “Ars gratia artis”, is used as a motto by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and appears in the circle around the roaring head of Leo the Lion in its motion picture logo. “L’art pour l’art” (translated as “art for art’s sake”) is credited to Théophile Gautier (1811–1872), who was the first to adopt the phrase as a slogan.

Gautier was not, however, the first to write those words: they appear in the works of Victor Cousin, Benjamin Constant, and Edgar Allan Poe. For example, Poe argues in his essay “The Poetic Principle” (1850), that “We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem’s sake […] and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force: – but the simple fact is that would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem, this poem per se, this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem’s sake”.

“Art for art’s sake” was a bohemian creed in the nineteenth century, a slogan raised in defiance of those who — from John Ruskin to the much later Communist advocates of socialist realism — thought that the value of art was to serve some moral or didactic purpose. “Art for art’s sake” affirmed that art was valuable as art, that artistic pursuits were their own justification and that art did not need moral justification — and indeed, was allowed to be morally neutral or subversive…

Carl William Brown

What is literature?
What is literature?

Literary language and literariness

One of the commonest questions continually asked in literary criticism, literary theory and in stylistics, is “What is literature?”. A related question, equally popular, is “Literary language – does it exist?”. What is meant by literature has, since the nineteenth century, very much involved imaginative, inventive or fictional writing, in the genres of prose, poetry and drama. However, earlier senses of the word included other forms of learned compositions, and other cultured disciplines such as philosophy and history. (There is an inclusive sense currently in colloquial use today, namely when we talk of reading all “the literature” on cat-breeding, skiing holidays or air pollution.) Derived from Lat. litera “letter”, literature has always been associated predominantly with the written medium, although literature is in many societies orally composed and delivered, and such a body of compositions existed in English society in the early days of the Anglo-Saxon settlements.

One problem arising from the definition of literature as imaginative writing is that some works which are not imaginative have come to be classed as literary; e.g. the Authorized Version of the Bible, and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This suggests either that literature characteristically has certain features of form which distinguishes it from other writing, or that it has a special effect on readers different from the response to other discourse, or both. Certainly, it is often more memorable. Derek Attridge (2004) is probably right when he stresses the ability of readers to experience a literary text as being fresh or different many readings later or many centuries later. More generally, Ronald Carter and Peter Stockwell (2008) see the literary work as an actualization of the text as object, produced only by an observing consciousness. The literary work comes into existence only when read.

The question of the literariness (Roman Jakobson) of literature has preoccupied many schools of thought. Literature is often discussed in terms of aesthetic value or effect, for instance: texts, especially poetic, which are admired for their formal “beauty” arising from their structural coherence or patterning, or expressive and connotative qualities of meaning and their imagery. Certainly literature, especially poetry, has commonly foregrounded language and meaning consciously and creatively in a way that overrides a simple informative function, as the formalists and Prague school linguists stressed. It also leads to difficulties in translation. Yet there are many literary works, especially prose, which employ no remarkably unusual or deviant language

Literature and humanism
Literature and humanism

Their language is literary not in a special sense, but only in the sense that it belongs to a work regarded generically as literature, as opposed to a newspaper or recipe. But part of literature’s aesthetic value also comes from its affective appeal to the emotions of the reader, and its ability to entrance. In various ways, then, literature is seen as an art form, to be compared with music, painting, sculpture, etc. Yet it has to be admitted that aesthetic appeal is not wholly intrinsic, but is based somewhat subjectively on what is regarded as beautiful by a culture or society in any given period. We should also note that some works of literature seem to be distinguished from others, equally “fictional”, in subjectively evaluative terms: we can talk of “serious” and “popular” literature.

The novels of Thomas Hardy or Henry James, for instance, are more highly regarded in traditional literary criticism than the novels of Dick Francis or Barbara Cartland. Indeed, for many people, literature is only used as term in this qualitative sense, and hence canons of “major” and “minor” authors are established, on the basis of a judged moral vision or universal appeal, etc. However, evaluation is “objective” to the extent that it is usually based on the appraisal of features of form; of structuring; and the de-familiarizing use of language; as well as of the complexity, depth and range of subject matter, characterization and theme.

Early stylistics of the 1960s followed those literary critics who stressed the autonomy of literature and concentrated attention on texts whose language was stylistically marked in some way. But under the influence of such disciplines as various as discourse analysis, Marxist criticism and postmodernism, critical perspectives shifted to the study of literature and its language in relation to other discourses such as the media, in terms of a continuum rather than a polarity. Neither approach cancels out the other: literary language can be different and yet not different from “ordinary” or non-literary language; there is, as it were, a “prototype” of literary language, and also numerous variants. But it is the impossibility of defining it in any simple way that is its most defining feature.

From A Dictionary of Stylistics by Katie Wales  Routledge, 1990, New York.

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The nature and essence of literature ultima modifica: 2015-04-02T14:54:26+00:00 da Carl William Brown