On What is Considered Literature?

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Many great writers have written and spoken about literature and its importance, they have spoken about their love and admiration for it and their need for it. Many have tried to express it in the best way they can, some very simple and concise, and some very lyrical and poetic in their description of it.

C.S. Lewis said: Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.

Henry James stated: It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.

E.M. Forster explained: What is wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote and brings to birth in us also the creative impulse.

And Oscar Wilde even went as far as to say: Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it but molds it to its purpose. The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac.

There are thousands of such quotes on literature written by an equal number of writers. Now, which one is closest to the truth? a layman may wonder. Which one describes the importance and beauty of literature best? Which one truly captures it perfectly as it is?

Well, the answer may vary from one person to another. The answers may be as subjective as literature or art itself, for we all probably have a different view and understanding of the word and what it stands for (obviously, I only speak for the people who care, even remotely, about literature in general, or of any kind in particular). We each feel that maybe, possibly, highly probably, our description of literature, perhaps, captures the word and its meaning the best.

Maybe we are right. Maybe we are not. Mostly, we cannot possibly make such a judgment at all. It is impossible.

I for one believe that all those different views on literature, by all those different writers and admirers of it, hold true. Each and every one of them, without exception, is true and complete and accurate, and meaningful. For that is the subjective beauty of literature.

What is Literature exactly? one may wonder, including me. And what exactly is considered Literature? If someone asked me to describe the meaning of literature and explain its importance, I would go blank, speechless. I would be unable to even begin describing or explaining it, let alone describe or explain it poorly and inaccurately.

And that is exactly why I had to resort to writing it down on this nascent blog of mine, after much careful thought and some light research, just so I could collect my thoughts on this universal, ancient word called Literature and what it consists of, and try to understand it and lay it down once and for all. For I am absolutely convinced that if someone asked me otherwise, expecting me to give them a verbal answer on the spot, I would, no doubt, fail to articulate it as I could possibly do now, by taking my own sweet time to put down my thoughts, alter them, delete them, rewrite them, revise them, judge, condemn and ridicule them, copy them based on someone else’s views, and then present it as if I had written it down on the spur of the moment.

I must confess, without hesitation or shame, that that is exactly what I will be doing. That is exactly how my chaotic process of writing down this essay would look like. And in my defense, all I would like to say is that I have no choice. That is how it is. It is the reality, the truth, that I cannot even begin to describe or explain a subject I love so much. That is the subject of literature.

And now, as I continue to write this essay, I cannot help but feel that I have rambled on needlessly for too long, boring my reader to death, speaking of things that are pointless and directionless, resulting in an utter waste of their time. And just for that, dear reader, I must sincerely apologize, for I get carried away too easily and too often.

So let me begin to address the actual subject of this essay – what is considered literature? The importance of the written word. The importance and necessity of, what might be called, the greatest invention of mankind.

Allow me to begin with another confession. I have absolutely no idea where this essay is heading. Have no plan or outline or even a gist of what I am going to address here. Not even a hint of how to go on writing about this seemingly easy yet deceptively complex subject. But, I hope to figure it out as I go along, as I usually do. It may not turn out to be good by any measure, but it may be something. In short, I am lost but hopeful.

The term Literature is derived from the Latin word Literatura/Litteratura meaning “writing formed with letters”. Basically, literature can be described as a body or collection of written work. Now, this is obviously quite a broad description of literature. If one cares to narrow it down to how the word is commonly understood today, one finds that the word literature is usually used for writings considered or extolled to be an art form in itself, such as poetry, prose fiction, and drama.

In the modern-day, the term also tends to include oral or spoken literature, a lot of which has been transcribed in recent centuries. Literature can play a political role or a social one, or even a spiritual or psychological one. It can be serious and educational, or fun and educational. It can also be purely for entertainment purposes, with no other aim than to distract and entertain the reader.

The term, over the centuries, has come to be associated with writings of creative imagination, such as poetry, fiction, and drama, in which the language used by the writer and the message portrayed through their work is considered to be a higher art form of greater and more refined quality with aesthetic appeal and excellence. And that is why, in the modern world, all writings are not usually considered to be a work of literature, even though they may represent a body of written work.

One inevitably looks at the style in which the work is written, the story and message that it involves, and the complexity of the work, in order to consider it a true work of literature. Hence, the never-ending debate of Genre Fiction (or Commercial or Popular Fiction) vs Literary Fiction, wherein the former is regarded as a lower art form compared to the latter (a view I wholeheartedly disagree with), and, therefore, not deserving enough to be considered a work of literature.

This is usually because the former type of fiction is not driven by style or aesthetics, does not include fancy or difficult words and sentences, is easier to read and understand due to its straightforward, unadorned language, and its tight, gripping plots whose purpose, in most cases, is purely to entertain the reader and not to educate him. And toward that purpose, they indeed succeed beautifully.

While, on the other hand, the latter usually stands for the exact opposite of the former.

The same example as mentioned above can be applied to poetry and drama as well, wherein a certain type of work in these forms is considered worthy of being regarded as literature, while most others are not.

Now, I have no intention of turning this essay into a Genre Fiction vs Literary Fiction kind of debate. I shall address that in another post someday in the future. The reason I wished to bring this up was to lay down my first thought on literature, my first solid opinion, that I am firmly opposed to the division of any written work into categories of literature and not literature.

Literature cannot and must not be divided. And I believe that it must necessarily include each and every kind of writing, regardless of whether it is aesthetically pleasingly or not, complex or not, a work of so-called higher art form or not. It does not and should not matter. The purpose of the writing, that is, whether for educational, political, social, or purely entertainment purposes or for any other reason, does not and should not matter. It must all be considered a part of literature and be sheltered by the umbrella of literature.

Therefore, I believe that the works of Stephen King or John Grisham or J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin, or J.R.R. Tolkien should be considered important works of literature just as the works of Toni Morrison or John Steinbeck, or Chinua Achebe are.

For such divisions and categories achieve nothing at all. In fact, they only serve to weaken literature and hamper its spread and growth toward every single person on earth. Such divisions, in turn, divide us. Now, I am aware that this sounds like a gross exaggeration, and probably is somewhat, but not entirely.

Let me explain. What I mean to say is that such divisions lead a certain section to believe that they are too literate, too smart, too clever, and cultured, to enjoy any written work that is not considered literature. They think it is beneath them to read a work of popular appeal, which is purely for entertainment purposes and easy to read.

While on the other hand, a certain section is turned off by the so-called literary work, which is understood to be meant for only critics and elite people, who either really understand it or pretend to do so. They consider the fancy and difficult words and sentences to be snobbish, the style and language pretentious, and the story slow and dull and boring, lacking any form of entertainment or excitement.

I believe both of these sections to be wrong or misguided at the least. Granted, there is some truth in both those points of view. But by believing it to be the rule, one does the mistake of generalizing it to an extreme level, where there can be no point of return. Such opinions must be measured and contained to only a few written works, for I am convinced that if such a division of a written work into literature and not literature did not exist, then everyone would read everything regardless of the style, complexity, language, or purpose of the work. And the world would be a much better place because of it. And literature would flourish with variety and diversity, with entertaining works as well as educational ones, with aesthetically beautiful ones and plain simple ones. Literature would thrive and expand its territory under these circumstances.

Further to the above point, allow me to now lay down my second solid opinion on literature.

Even though I am aware of the fact that the term Literature also includes non-fiction works, I think it’s high time we actually begin to understand and believe it. For if one cares to look into such silly matters, as I have, one is rarely able to find a man who would consider a non-fiction work such as an essay or a biography or a memoir or diaries and letters as literature.

And if one asks them what literature consists of, they would usually go on to mention the usual suspects. They would say it consisted of the fictional works of Shakespeare or Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway or James Joyce or Virginia Woolf or Jane Austen or Leo Tolstoy or Samuel Beckett or William Faulkner or Mark Twain or Gabriel Garcia Marquez or some other great classic writer who has managed to go down in history as a great literary writer who has contributed to the literature of the nation and of the world at large. Or they would simply mention the poetry of Pablo Neruda or T.S. Eliot or Rudyard Kipling or William Butler Yeats or Maya Angelou or Robert Frost.

Now, please do not get me wrong. These answers are certainly not wrong at all. These writers really were masters of the craft of writing and deserve all the praise and worship they receive for as long as mankind exists.

But what bothers me most is that they would never even consider mentioning the great non-fiction works, such as the Philosophical Letters written by Voltaire, or the essays of James Baldwin or Henry David Thoreau or George Orwell or Ralph Waldo Emerson or Joan Didion or E.B. White. Or the amazing works of history written by great historians such as Thomas Carlyle or Yuval Noah Harari or Ramachandra Guha or William Dalrymple or even Plutarch for that matter.

And neither would they ever mention great biographies written by great biographers such as Walter Isaacson or Jon Lee Anderson or Richard Ellmann or Ramachandra Guha. Nor would they ever mention the countless inspiring autobiographies written by men and women who have, in their own humble way, changed the world.

And I believe, with all the certainty I can gather, that this is a problem. A mistake. And it should not be happening. It must be realized that non-fiction works are an equally important part of the literature of a nation, and thereby of the world.

And as far as considering oral literature as literature, I say why not? I say, let us transcribe all the folk tales and fables and parables and stories and mythologies of all the nations, of all the different regions of the world, and publish them as books for the world to enjoy and for literature to flourish and spread out even more than it already has.

That is surely an ideal we must all strive for. An ideal that would represent the collective history, culture, progress, essence, and conscience of mankind. An ideal that could only be achieved through the magic of literature.