A Short Summary of Terry Eagleton's "What is Literature?"

Although numerous attempts have been made to define "literature" or identify its characteristics, no successful definition has fully accounted for the complexities of language and the diverse range of written texts. For instance:

Definition based on Imagination vs. Fact

Some define literature as imaginative or fictive writing, distinct from factual or historical works. However, this definition raises several challenges:

  1. The perception of "fact" varies across cultures and time periods. Is the book of Genesis or the entire Bible considered fact or fiction? Are the legends and myths from Greek, Scandinavian, and Native American cultures fact or fiction? Is Darwin's "Origin of Species" fact or fiction? Are news reports fact or fiction?
  2. Not all imaginative writing is considered literature. Comic books, computer game stories, and Harlequin Romances, despite their imaginative nature, are typically excluded from the category of "literature."
  3. Many works that are considered literature, such as biographies or philosophical writings, resemble history or philosophy more than traditional imaginative fiction. Thus, the dichotomy of fact vs. fiction is insufficient for distinguishing what is literary and what is not. Moreover, novels often contain factual elements and can be based on real historical events.

Definition based on Language Usage

Another perspective posits that literature transforms and intensifies ordinary language. The language used in literature is distinct from everyday speech in terms of texture, rhythm, and resonance. However, this perspective also presents challenges:

  1. Language that deviates from the norm exists in various contexts, such as specialized vocabularies used in sports, dance, music, or regional dialects. Despite their departure from the norm, these instances are not typically classified as "literary." Additionally, many swear words employ metaphorical or poetic language.
  2. The concept of a universal norm is problematic. What is considered ordinary language for one person may be seen as deviation by another. For example, terms like "cowboy boot" may sound poetical to someone from New York but be part of everyday speech in Laramie. Similarly, words used in British English can evoke a poetic quality for some individuals.
  3. Even sentences that do not sound literary on their own, when placed in the context of a novel or literary work, can take on a literary quality. Thus, the perception of what is literary depends on the surrounding context. Anything studied in an English class can be considered literature simply because it is read for the purpose of studying English.

Definition based on Utility

Another perspective suggests that literature is non-useful writing, serving no practical purpose. However, this perspective also presents challenges:

  1. One can find value in any text, even seemingly non-useful ones. For example, a shopping list can be appreciated for its metaphors, imagery, or beauty of language.
  2. A work initially considered literature can be repurposed for practical use. For instance, using a novel about sled dogs as a training guide for dogs. Does the book cease to be literature once it serves a practical function?

Definition based on Value and Preference

According to this perspective, literature is a highly valued form of writing that individuals enjoy reading. Under this definition, anything could be considered literature, and the classification of a text as literature or non-literature can change over time. However, this perspective raises the important implication that individuals do not solely determine what is literature. Our upbringing, education, and socialization shape our perception of what constitutes literature.

Eagleton argues that the categories of "literature" and the "literary" are highly subjective. Determining whether something is literature or literary based solely on its form or language is inadequate. The status of Shakespeare's works as literature has not always been consistent, and their future valuation remains uncertain.

Eagleton emphasizes the point that the category of "literature" is not objective, eternal, or immutable. He suggests that our opinions and value judgments are not neutral either. Our attitudes, beliefs, and values are interconnected with the power structures and relations of the society in which we live.

Consequently, the definition of literature reveals what we have been taught to value and what we have been taught to reject. Our education and environment shape our preferences and determine the literature made available for us to read. This becomes particularly significant when it comes to passing tests, gaining admission to college, and seeking approval from others, including ourselves. Our values may not even originate from our own choices.

Eagleton encourages us to ask different questions and delve deeper into understanding the implications of definitions, reading lists, and evaluations. He suggests examining our own set of values, the ideologies they connect with, and their alignment with political issues, power structures, and societal roles.

Ultimately, literature and our engagement with it are political issues, as they are entwined with power relations and structures. While texts are enjoyable to read, they should also be approached with seriousness, as they offer insights into ourselves and our society.

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