The politics of defining literature
A very good introduction to the subject is Terry Eagleton’s “Introduction: What is Literature?” (the first chapter of Literary Theory: An Introduction). In it, he enumerates several ways by which we usually define literature. But then he also interrogates each definition to the point that whatever certainty we had about what literature is ultimately breaks apart.
The first definition he lists is: literature is “imaginative writing” — that is, fictional as opposed to factual writing. And perhaps most of us would agree with this, until Eagleton points out that not all texts considered literature are fictional (he points to Francis Bacon’s essays and John Donne’s sermons as proof) nor are all fiction pieces considered literature (citing Superman comic books as an example).
Eagleton then turns his attention to the definition of literature as, quoting Roman Jakobson, “a kind of writing which … represents an ‘organized violence committed on ordinary speech.'” This kind of writing “uses language in peculiar ways” not necessarily to communicate ideas or emotions but to focus attention on language itself (just like some abstract paintings use paint not to attempt any representation of actual objects but to foreground in our perception the materiality of the medium). And when we think of some literary pieces (James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake comes easily to mind), this definition seems apt. But then Eagleton asks, what is “ordinary language”? How do we know a particular speech is a deviation and not just a community’s different way of expressing an idea or emotion? And how come figurative language is just as common in “ordinary language” as it is in so-called literary texts?
And, Eagleton asks, what if we insist on reading as literary a text that wasn’t really meant to be literature — even if its language is apparently referential and its intent pragmatic? Eagleton uses the example of a drunken man reading more than is “intended” in a notice that reads: “Dogs must be carried on the escalator.” Should texts with self-referential and nonpragmatic language necessarily qualify it as literature?
Seems not. There are no inherent qualities that make a text literary. Eagleton says literature is a “construct” — it is what a particular group of people at a particular point in time says it is. Why they say so is a matter of value-judgment, of their subjective evaluation of texts. What a particular group says is reflective of their “ideology” — by which Eagleton defines “roughly, [as] the ways in which what we say and believe connects with the power-structure and power-relations of the society we live in” and, more particularly, as “those modes of feeling, valuing, perceiving and believing which have some kind of relation to the maintenance and reproduction of social power.”
What we would call literature, then, may seem a product of our subjective valuation of certain texts. But these valuations, according to Eagleton, “have their roots in deeper structures of belief which are apparently unshakeable.”
Perhaps it is wise to ponder, as a Creative Writing student, what texts do we call literature? And why? And should we, can we, break away from how literature is currently defined? How would that literature look like?2. Historicizing Literature, 2.1 Defining Literature comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.