What is Literature?

Having started a degree in English, I have been forced to rethink my concept of literature. Prior to completing the recommended reading, which was the first chapter of Terry Eagleton’s literary theory book, an easy way to summarize my view on literature would have been to say that it is all forms of fiction.

My lack of imagination when it comes to defining literature might show a lack of enthusiasm for fictional writing overall. And if you had assumed that then you would probably be correct. However in recent years, I have come to enjoy various forms of literature in various categories. So, rather than ask the question what is literature; I asked myself what else can literature be.

Now, it’s my understanding that literature is often classed as canon, artistic and fictional. Yet, as Eagleton shows in his introductory chapter, there is no clear line when it comes to defining what is and, more specifically, what isn’t literature. Eagleton throws various opinions at us but in the end it seems to be that it comes down to creative language for him and I would say I share this opinion.

Whilst form does matter, as does content, I would put style above both of these. Which is rather telling because I used to be one of those people that would rather look good and suffer than look unfashionable and warm. This has changed as I’ve got older as have my reading tastes.

Thinking of nonfiction as literature was a rather interesting exercise for me as the bulk of what I write and read I would not have normally classed as literature. My favorite pastime is reading philosophy and politics books. Would I consider some of these literature? Some of the more academic texts I would definitely not and even Terry Eagleton’s Marx was right is it difficult one to place. And then of course you have the more florid texts such as Marx, Badiou and Zizek of whom I would probably class as literature, but only with a stretch of the imagination.

Rather than thinking of what it as is just fiction or nonfiction, I decided to think of a writer who writes both.

Undoubtedly, George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 have both been taught on English courses throughout the world and would be classed as literature. However popular these stories may be, and they are a lot more popular now because they are out of copyright, for true Orwell fans, his earlier non fiction work is up there with what were his most famous and last works.

Orwell never went from writing nonfiction to writing fiction. He spent much of his life searching for inspiration for his writing and it was only towards the end of his life that he got a taste of fame. Some of my favorite work of his is an essay called ‘The Hanging’ which is based on his experiences as a colonial police officer in Burma in his early twenties. This short essay is about a man being taken to the gallows to be hung. Orwell writes beautifully to bring out the prisoner’s humanity in such a bleak atmosphere. This skill is also repeated in another famous essay about shooting an elephant. It’s been heavily disputed whether Orwell is the protagonist in question in this short story but it is certainly based on his experiences as a police officer serving for the British empire. It would probably be classed as creative nonfiction if you believe in such a genre.

Whilst his nonfiction during this era would have been early evidence of the great writer that was yet to come, his fictional writing left much to be desired. In fact, Orwell wrote four novels that were published before Animal Farm was even put to paper. And in all honesty I think they are terrible. Would they still be classed as literature? Probably. But is that because of the author that wrote them or is that because they are fiction? It’s difficult to know.

As I delve deeper into the world of literary critique and English literature overall, I hope to expand my horizons and experience new forms of literature. Maybe then I can break out of writing stale antidotes that sound like the beginning of a Star Trek episode. I suppose I have to boldly go where only brave readers have gone before.

That said I very much enjoyed Terry’s description of literature and also how he made the connection around ideology which is of deep interest to me. Until next time ciao.

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