What We Talk About When We Talk About Literature

What is literature? And why should we study it?

The canon

What is Literature?

The term ‘literature’ can have a lot of different meanings. For example, one definition of the word is simply, ‘writing in prose or verse.’ But some definitions are more specific, identifying literature as works that are ‘considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.’


The second definition, though narrower, opens up a world of questions. What is art? What is considered superior or of merit? These subjective descriptions leave the door open for an ongoing conversation about what is and isn’t literature – and the definition can differ from person to person.

Today, even the idea that literature is written can come under question. Why can’t a film or song be literature? Most agree, however, that even though pieces like songs and movies have written elements, their quality comes from the works as a whole, not just the writing.

In general, when discussing literature as an art form, the term most often means writings – fiction or nonfiction – that are high quality and have withstood the test of time.

Why Does Literature Matter?

At some point, almost everyone has been required to read literature; across the world, students are assigned dramas, poems, and stories. Reading literature is an important part of most education systems for a reason: it helps you step outside your own life and experience new ideas and perspectives.

Through literature, you can experience history and philosophy in new and personal ways. It can teach morality or serve as a warning, and through satire and humor writers can shine light on contemporary issues.

In fact, research shows that reading literary fiction can strengthen empathy and improve how we relate to one another.


Reading literature can give us a foundation for connecting with others. From pop culture media like Doctor Who and The Simpsons to conversations with coworkers and friends, having an understanding of popular literature can help you navigate and participate in the world around you.

Types of Texts

Literature can come in many different forms. The main three types of literary texts are prose, drama, and poetry.

Prose is the largest of the three categories and includes any writing that follows a natural style of speech and grammar. Prose can be formal or informal and fiction or nonfiction. Examples of prose include novels, short stories, biographies, diaries, and essays. (Even the writing in this tile is prose!).

Because prose has been written throughout history, it doesn’t have to have a contemporary style of speech and grammar to fall under this definition. Although the term ‘prose’ wasn’t coined until the 14th century, any writing from history can be prose – If a work has paragraphs and sentences, it’s probably prose.

Introduction to Drama

The word ‘drama’ defines literature that is intended to be performed. In addition to plays, literary drama includes opera and musical theater librettos, as well as TV and movie scripts.


Generally a work of literary drama will include character dialogue as well as setting and stage direction. Most dramas are organized into acts, with the 3-act structure being the most popular. In this form there is an act for setup, confrontation, and resolution. Acts are then divided into scenes.

Plays come in many different types, but the most common are tragedy, comedy, history, and problem plays. Generally, you can tell the difference between the types because tragedies end in death, comedies end in marriage, history plays depict a moment in history, and problem plays deal with contemporary social issues.

Throughout history, drama was most often written in verse – this means it had a metrical rhythm and often a rhyme scheme, making each line sound like poetry. Today, however, most plays are written in natural language (or ‘prose’).

Introduction to Poetry

Poetry, which is also called ‘verse,’ is literature that uses the qualities of language to evoke meaning – it’s a vague definition because poetry has taken on so many different forms and styles throughout history. Basically, poetry utilizes language itself as its artistic medium. Where prose and drama usually focus on meaning, poetry integrates the sounds and weight of language into its design.


Poetry includes a wide range of style elements, but two common traits of poetry are meter and rhyme scheme. It’s a common misconception that a poem must have meter and rhyme to count as a poem, but it doesn’t.

Meter is a rhythmic structure that arranges words’ stressed and unstressed syllables into a pattern. For example, the phrase ‘As I was going to St. Ives’ sounds like ‘As **I** was **go**ing **to** St. **Ives**” when said out loud. This is an unstressed/stressed meter.

Rhyme schemes are formed when the poet ends each line with a rhyming word, often in a pattern.

For example, a poem might have an alternating rhyme scheme, meaning the end of each line rhymes with the line that came two lines before it. For example, in these (rather sad) lines from W.B. Yeats, ‘mind’ rhymes with ‘behind’, and ‘breath’ with ‘death’:

*I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.*

Introduction to the Novel


Although the novel is one of the most common types of literature you’ll encounter today, it’s also one of the newest forms. In fact, the word itself is derived from the Italian word ‘novella,’ meaning ‘new.’

There are two schools of thought concerning what counts as a novel in Western Literature: At its most basic a novel is a long, fictional narrative.

With this definition, some scholars include Ancient Greek and Roman texts, Medieval Romances, and even some histories such as *Le Morte d’Arthur* (which blurs the line between fact and fiction) under the definition of novel.

In contrast, it’s widely accepted that the modern novel begins with the works of Miguel de Cervantes (author of *Don Quixote*). This form rose in popularity in the 18th century and was distinctly different from earlier narratives because it was written in plain prose and focused on average people, not heroes.

The first novel in English is thought to have been Daniel Defoe’s *Robinson Crusoe*, published in 1719. This marked the beginning of a wave of interest in the novel as a form across Europe – one that continues to this day.

Essays, Diaries and Other Nonfiction


When someone says ‘literature,’ most people will think of plays, poetry, or fictional prose. However, non-fiction texts are an equally important aspect of literature.

Examples of literary nonfiction include essays, biographies and autobiographies, diaries, nature and travel writings, journalism, philosophical and theoretical texts, and even scientific or technical writings.

Any text can be literature if it’s ‘of particular merit.’ Although some nonfiction works are purely pragmatic like an instruction manual or brochure, and only exist to record and/or convey necessary information, some nonfiction writings do the same thing but in a way that uses language not just as a necessity but as an artistic element. This attention to aesthetic quality is what moves some nonfiction into the realm of literature.

Misconceptions about Literature

The basic idea of literature can be off-putting to a lot of people. As much as school can teach the importance of literature, it often leaves people with an unfortunate dislike for the topic.

One misconception about literature is that it’s stuffy, or too high-brow. Likewise, there’s an idea that older texts are formal because they use a version of language that isn’t used any more.

For example, many people think of Shakespeare’s writing not only as high-quality, but also fussy or pretentious – and unfortunately the way his works are performed often doesn’t help. But Shakespeare’s plays are full of dirty jokes, innuendo, and bawdy humor. Once you’re accustomed to the language, they’re laugh-out-loud funny!

Though sometimes written in a style or with archaic language that may take a little extra work, literature is rarely as stale or boring as many expect.

Western Literature and The Canon

Literature is created around the world, and history’s most influential texts are as likely to have Asian, Arabic or African roots as they are to be Greek or Roman. Global cultures have different styles, forms, genres, and quality metrics.

The term ‘Western Literature’ generally includes any works written in the Indo-European family of languages including English, Spanish, French, Italian, and Russian and any works that have a Greek or Roman literary heritage. The styles and forms of prose, drama, and poetry in Western Literature are not universal.

Within each region’s literature, there is also what may be thought of as their ‘literary canon’: a body of written texts considered to be the most important and influential. As you can imagine, there is often little agreement on what texts fit into this definition, even within individual regions.

Although this Pathway focuses on the Western canon, there is a world of artistically and historically important texts that come from other literary backgrounds.

Expanding the Western Canon


People sometimes think of Western literature as a ‘bunch of dead white men.’ While this description is reductive for a number of reasons, there is a core truth that the traditional Western canon heavily favors historical texts from writers who were male and European.

This imbalance is one of the important reasons that the idea of the canon is under scrutiny today. Some scholars, like literary theorist Harold Bloom, argue that knowledge of the Western canon is a critical component of a good education and that it helps learners understand universal truths and avoid cultural relativism.

Others disagree and say that the canon is exclusionary and a misrepresentation of the diversity of high-quality written works throughout history. While some theorists seek to do away with the canon altogether, many others call for an ‘expanded canon’ that includes more writers of marginalized genders as well as wider racial diversity. Feminist, post-colonial, and LGBTQ+ texts are gaining more attention and acclaim as the idea of the Western canon is reassessed.

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