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Literature is literally "an acquaintance with letters" as in the first sense given in the Oxford English Dictionary ; the term has, however,generally come to identify a collection of texts .

The word "literature" spelled with a lower-case "l" can refer to any form of writing, such as essays; while "Literature"spelled with an upper-case "L" may refer to a whole body of literary work, world-wide or relating to a specific culture.

Etymologically, the word literature comes from the Latin word "litera" meaning "a individual written character (letter)".



Nations can have literatures, as can corporations , philosophical schools or historical periods . Popular belief commonly holds that the literature of a nation , for example, comprises the collection of texts which make it a whole nation.The Hebrew Bible , Persian Shahnama , Beowulf , the Iliad and the Odyssey andthe Constitution of the UnitedStates , all fall within this definition of a kind of literature.

More generally, one can equate a literature with a collection of stories, poems and plays that revolve around a particulartopic. In this case, the stories, poems and plays may or may not have nationalistic implications. The Western Canon forms onesuch literature.

Classifying a specific item as part of a literature (whether as American literature , advertising literature, gay and lesbianliterature or Roman literature ) can involve severedifficulties. To some people, the term "literature" can apply broadly to any symbolic record which can include images and sculptures , as well as letters. To others, a literature must only includeexamples of text composed of letters, or other narrowly defined examples of symbolic written language ( hieroglyphs , for example). Even more conservative interpreters of the concept would demand that the texthave a physical form, usually on paper or some other portable form, to the exclusion of inscriptions or digital media .

Furthermore, people may perceive a difference between "literature" and some popular forms of written work. The terms "literaryfiction" and "literary merit" often serve to distinguish between individual works. For example, almost all literate peopleperceive the works of Charles Dickens as "literature", whereas manytend to look down on the works of Jeffrey Archer as unworthy ofinclusion under the general heading of " English literature ".Critics may exclude works from the classification "literature", for example, on the grounds of a poor standard of grammar and syntax , of an unbelievable or disjointed story-line , or of inconsistent or unconvincing characters . Genre fiction (for example: romance,crime, or science fiction) may also become excluded from consideration as "literature".

Frequently, the texts that make up literature crossed over these boundaries. Illustrated stories, hypertexts , cave paintings and inscribed monuments have all at onetime or another pushed the boundaries of what is and is not literature.

Different historical periods have emphasised various characteristics of literature. Early works often had an overt or covertreligious or didactic purpose. Moralising or prescriptive literature stems from such sources. The exotic nature of romance flourished from the Middle ages onwards, whereas the Age of Reason manufactured nationalistic epics andphilosophical tracts . Romanticism emphasized the popular folk literature and emotive involvement, but gave way in the 19th-century West to a phase of so-called realism . The 20th century brought demands for psychological insight in the delineation and development of character.

Forms of literature


A poem is a composition usually written in verse . Poems rely heavily on imagery , precise word choice, and metaphor ; they may take the form of measures consisting of patterns of stresses ( metric feet ) or of patterns of different-length syllables (as in classical prosody ); and they may or may not utilise rhyme . One cannot readily characterise poetry precisely. Typically though,poetry as a form of literature makes some significant use of the formal properties of the words it uses — theproperties attached to the written or spoken form of the words, rather than to their meaning. Metre depends on syllables and on rhythms of speech; rhyme and alliteration depend on words that have similar pronunciation. Some recent poets,such as e. e. cummings , made extensive use of words' visual form.

Poetry perhaps pre-dates other forms of literature: early known examples include the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (dated fromaround 3000 B.C. ), parts of the Bible , and the surviving works of Homer (the Iliad and the Odyssey ).

Much poetry uses specific forms: the haiku , the limerick , or the sonnet , for example. A haiku must haveseventeen syllables, distributed over three lines in groups of five, seven, and five, and should have an image of a season andsomething to do with nature . A limerick has five lines, with a rhyme scheme of AABBA, and line lengths of 3,3,2,2,3 stressed syllables. Ittraditionally has a less reverent attitude towards nature.

Language and tradition dictate some poetic norms: Greek poetry rarely rhymes, Italian or French poetry often does, English andGerman can go either way (although modern non-rhyming poetry often, perhaps unfairly, has a more "serious" aura). Perhaps themost paradigmatic style of English poetry, blank verse, as exemplified in works by Shakespeare and by Milton , consists of unrhymed iambicpentameters . Some languages prefer longer lines; some shorter ones. Some of these conventions result from the ease of fittinga specific language's vocabulary and grammar into certain structures, rather than into others; for example, some languagescontain more rhyming words than others, or typically have longer words. Other structural conventions come about as the result ofhistorical accidents, where many speakers of a language associate good poetry with a verse form preferred by a particular skilledor popular poet.

Works for theatre (see below) traditionally took verse form. This has now become rare outside opera and musicals , although many would argue that thelanguage of drama remains intrinsically poetic.

In recent years, digital poetry has arisen that takes advantage ofthe artistic, publishing, and synthetic qualities of digital media.


A play or drama offers another classicalliterary form that has continued to evolve over the years. It generally comprises chiefly dialogue between characters , and usually aimsat dramatic / theatrical performance (see theatre ) rather than at reading. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries , opera developed as a combination of poetry, drama, and music . Nearly all drama took verse formuntil comparatively recently.

Greek drama exemplifies the earliest form of drama of which we havesubstantial knowledge. Tragedy , as a dramatic genre , developed as a performance associated with religious and civic festivals , typically enacting or developing upon well-known historical or mythological themes. Tragedies generallypresented very serious themes and treated important conflictsin human nature, but not necessarily "tragic" ones as currently understood — meaning sad and without a happy ending . Greek comedy , as a dramaticgenre, developed later than tragedy; Greek festivals eventually came to include three tragedies counterbalanced by a comedy or satyr play .

Modern theatre does not in general adhere to any of these restrictions of form or theme. "Plays" cover anything written forperformance by actors ( screenplays , forexample); and even some things not intended for performance: many contemporary writers have taken advantage of thedialogue-centred character of plays as a way of presenting literary work intended simply for reading rather than performance.


An essay consists of a discussion of a topic from an author's personal point of view,exemplified by works by Francis Bacon or by Charles Lamb .

'Essay' in English derives from the French 'essai', meaning 'attempt'. Thus an essay may be open-ended, provocative,inconclusive; or all three. The first writings identified as "essays" were the self-reflective musings of Michel de Montaigne , and even today he has a reputation as the fatherof this literary form.

Genres related to the essay may include:

  • the memoir , telling the story of an author's life from the author's personal pointof view
  • the epistle : usually a formal, didactic, or elegant letter .

Prose fiction

Prose consists of writing that does not adhere to any particular formal structures (other than simplegrammar); "non-poetic writing," writing, perhaps. The term sometimes appears pejoratively, but prosaic writing simply sayssomething without necessarily trying to say it in a beautiful way, or using beautiful words. Prose writing can of course bebeautiful; but less by virtue of the formal features of words (rhymes, alliteration, meter). But one need not mark thedistinction precisely, and perhaps cannot do so. Note the classifications:

  • " prose poetry ", which attempts to convey the aesthetic richness typicalof poetry using only prose
  • " free verse ", or poetry not adhering to any of the strictures of one oranother formal poetic style

Narrative fiction generally favours prose for the writing of novels, shortstories, and the like. Singular examples of these exist throughout history, but they did not develop into systematic and discreteliterary forms until relatively recent centuries. Length often serves to categorize works of prose fiction. Although limitsremain somewhat arbitrary, publishing conventions dictate the following:

  • A short story comprises prose writing of less than 10,000 to 20,000words, but typically more than 500 words, which may or may not have a narrative arc.
  • A story containing between 20,000 and 50,000 words falls into the novella category.
  • A work of fiction containing more than 50,000 words falls squarely into the realm of the novel .

A novel consists simply of a long story written in prose; yet it developedcomparatively recently. Icelandic prose sagas dating from about the 11th century bridgethe gap between traditional national epics and the modern psychological novel . Inmainland Europe, the Spaniard Cervantes wrote perhaps the first influential novel: Don Quixote , published in 1600 . Earlier collections of tales , such as Boccaccio 's Decameron and Chaucer 's Canterbury Tales , havecomparable forms and would probably classify as novels if written today. Earlier works written in Asia resemble even morestrongly the novel as we now think of it— for example, works such as the Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Japanese Tale ofGenji by Lady Murasaki . Compare too The Book of One Thousand and OneNights .

Early novels in Europe did not, at the time, count as significant literature, perhaps because "mere" prose writing seemed easyand unimportant. It has become clear, however, that prose writing can provide aesthetic pleasure without adhering to poeticforms. Additionally, the freedom authors gain in not having to concern themselves with verse structure translates often into amore complex plot or into one richer in precise detail than one typically finds even innarrative poetry. This freedom also allows an author to experiment with many different literary styles — including poetry— in the scope of a single novel.

See Ian Watt 's The Rise of the Novel. [This definition needsexpansion]

Other prose literature

Philosophy , history , journalism , and legal and scientific writings have traditionally ranked as literature.They offer some of the oldest prose writings in existence; novels and prose stories earned the names "fiction" to distinguishthem from factual writing or nonfiction , which writers historically havecrafted in prose.

The "literary" nature of science writing has become less pronounced over the last two centuries, as advances andspecialization have made new scientific research inaccessible to most audiences; science now appears mostly in journals . Scientific works of Euclid , Aristotle , Copernicus , and Newton still possess great value;but since the science in them has largely become outdated, they no longer serve for scientific instruction, yet they remain tootechnical to sit well in most programmes of literary study. Outside of " history of science " programmes students rarely read such works. Many books "popularizing" science mightstill deserve the title "literature"; history will tell.

Philosophy, too, has become an increasingly academic discipline. More of its practitioners lament this situation than occurswith the sciences; nonetheless most new philosophical work appears in academic journals . Major philosophers through history -- Plato , Aristotle , Augustine , Descartes , Nietzsche -- have become as canonical as any writers. Some recent philosophy undoubtedly merits the title "literature" — the work of Wittgenstein , for example, does; but much of it does not, andsome areas, such as logic, have become extremely technical to the same degree as the sciences.

A great deal of historical writing can still rank as literature, particularly the genre known as creative nonfiction . So can a great deal of journalism, such as literary journalism . However these areas have becomeextremely large, and often have a primarily utilitarian purpose: to record data or convey immediate information. As a result thewriting in these fields often lacks a literary quality, although it often and in its better moments has that quality. Major"literary" historians include Herodotus , Thucydides and Procopius , all of whom count as canonicalliterary figures.

Law offers a less clear case. Some writings of Plato and Aristotle , or even the early parts of the Bible , might count as legal literature. The law tables of Hammurabi of Babylon might count. Roman civil law as codified during the reign of Justinian I of Byzantium has a reputation as significant literature. The founding documentsof many countries, including the Constitution ofthe United States , count as literature; however legal writing now rarely exhibits literary merit.

Most of these fields, then, through specialization or proliferation, no longer generally constitute "literature" in the senseunder discussion. They may sometimes count as "literary literature"; more often they produce what one might call "technicalliterature" or "professional literature".

Somewhat related narrative forms

  • Comics (or graphic novels) present stories told in acombination of sequential artwork, dialogue and text.
  • Films , videos and broadcast soapoperas have carved out a niche which often parallels the functionality of prose fiction.

Genres of literature

A literary genre refers to the traditional divisions of literature of various kinds according to a particular criteria ofwriting. These include:

Alternate history
Children's literature
Constrained writing
Diaries and Journals
Chick lit
Crime fiction , Detective fiction
Fairy tale
Family Saga
Southern Gothic
Historical fiction
Historiographical metafiction
Legal thriller
Nouveau roman
Roman à clef
Speculative fiction
Science fiction
The Slave narrative
Spy fiction/Political thriller
Oral Narrative ( Oral History )

Literary techniques

Epistolary novel
First-person narrative
Omniscient narrator
Vision / Prophecy
Story within a story
Fictional guidebook
False document

Literary figures

Short story authors

Literature by country or language

American literature
Anglo-Welsh literature
Arabic literature
Babylonian literature andscience
Bengali literature
Canadian literature
Catalan literature
Chinese literature
Croatian literature
Czech literature (partly duplicated in Bohemian literature )
Dutch literature
English literature
French literature
German literature
Greek literature
Hungarian literature
Indian writing in English
Irish literature
Israeli literature
Japanese literature
Latin literature
Malayalam literature
New Zealand literature
Norwegian literature
Pakistani literature
Persian literature
Philippine literature
Polish literature
Portuguese literature
Provençal literature
Romanian literature
Russian literature
Scottish literature
Slovak literature
Slovene literature
South African literature
Spanish literature
Tamil literature
Turkish literature
Westernliterature , see Otto Maria Carpeaux

Literary analysis

Analyzing plays
Analyzing poetry
Literary topos

Story elements

Dramatic structure
Elements of plot
Figurative language
Setting tone

Themes in literature

Adultery in literature
Chess in early literature
Family life in literature
Generation in literature
Heroines in literature
Losers in literature
Norse mythological influences on later literature
Post-colonialism in literature
Robots in literature
School and university inliterature
Smuggling in literature
Technology and culture in literature
Tourism in literature


Scientific literature
Blindness literature
Literature cycle
Rabbinic literature

See also

External links


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