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DEFINING LITERATURE

(Essay)
By: Antonio Soria de Veyra
Region 8- Eastern Visayas

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 all texts considered literature are fictional ( he points to Francis Bacon’s essay and John
Donne’s sermons as proof) nor all fiction pieces considered literature ( citing Superman comic
book 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 of 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 definitions seems apt. But then Eagleton asks, what
is “ ordinary language’? How do we know what particular speech is a deviation and not just a
community’s different way of expressing an idea or emotion? And how we come figurative
language is just as common in “ordinary language” as it is in so-called literary text?

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 non-pragmatic 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 should call literature, then, may seem a product of our subjective valuation of
certain texts. But this evaluation according to Eagleton, “have their roots in deeper structures
of belief which are apparently unshakeable.

Perhaps it wise to ponder , as a Literature student , what text do we call literature? And
why? should we, And should we, can we break away from how literature is currently defined?
How would that literature look like? What make literature “Literature” ?

Which question is exactly what Culler asks in his Literary Theory: A Very Short
Introduction. Not satisfied with the idea of literature as a “construct,” Culler interrogates “what
makes us (or some other society) treat something as literature?” He then focuses on what we
do when we treat something as literature.

First off, he says, we consider texts as literary when language is foregrounded. When the
language of the text catches our attention, it makes us think about how something is being said.
We begin to focus on the text’s form. Secondly, Culler continues, literature interrogates language
to form – what he refers to as “sound is echo to the sense.” This foregrounding and integration
of language makes the literary text “a linguistic event which projects a fictional world” whose
“relation to the [actual] world [becomes] a matter of interpretation.” This makes a literary work
an aesthetic object “because, with other communicative functions initially bracketed and
suspended, it engages readers to consider the interrelation between form and content .” It also
makes literary texts as “intersexual or self-reflexive constructs” whose meaning is found in its
relations to other texts – literary and otherwise.

Culler concludes by saying that “the question what is literature? Matters because [recent]
theory highlighted the literariness of texts of all sorts. To reflect on literariness is to keep before
us, as resources for analyzing these discourses, reading practices elicited by literature: the
suspension of the demand for immediate intelligibility, reflection on the implications of means
of expression, and attention to how meaning is made and pleasure produced.”