What is Literature?

A Handbook to Literature

The American Heritage College Dictionary (3rd edition)

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (online – www.britannica.com)

Encyclopedia Britannica (online – www.britannica.com)

A body of written works. The name is often applied to those imaginative works of poetry and prose distinguished by the intentions of their authors and the excellence of their execution. Literature may be classified according to a variety of systems, including language, national origin, historical period, genre, and subject matter.

Definitions of the word literature tend to be circular. The Concise Oxford Dictionary says it is “writings whose value lies in the beauty of form or emotional effect.” The 19th century critic Walter Pater referred to “the matter of imaginative or artistic literature” as a “transcript, not of mere fact, but of fact in its infinitely varied forms.” But such definitions really assume that the reader already knows what literature is. And indeed its central meaning, at least, is clear enough. Deriving from the Latin littera, “a letter of the alphabet,” literature is first and foremost mankind’s entire body of writing; after that it is the body of writing belonging to a given language or people; then it is individual pieces of writing.

But it is already necessary to qualify these statements. To use the word writing when describing literature is itself misleading, for one may rightly speak of “oral literature” or “the literature of preliterate peoples.” The art of literature is not reducible to the words on the page; they are there because of the craft of writing. As an art, literature is the organization of words to give pleasure; through them it elevates and transforms experience; through them it functions in society as a continuing symbolic criticism of values.

Major Areas of Course Content / A.R.C.C. Common Course Outlines for Literature Courses: