“What is literature?” This is one question that has been raised so many times by so many different scholars and each time there has been a different opinion. This question is open to discussion as it is not really possible to define ‘literature’ as such. Terry Eagleton who is one of the most important contributor in literary theory also makes such attempt to define literature in his introduction to Literary Theory: An Introduction titled “What is Literature?”
There is no objective definition for literature as for different people it has a different meaning. Eagleton in the beginning points out the difference between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ which is the first definition according to him. Any text can be seen as factual or fictional and imaginative. Eagleton gives the example of Genesis. While some people will look it as proper factual information provided while others will look it as a work of fiction. But who is to decide whether a particular piece of work is a fiction or imaginative writing? He considers that claim as a flawed one. The idea as mentioned differs according to people’s perspective. The author of Genesis probably thought he is writing historical thought but people today might disagree with it.
Not everything can be considered literature. Eagleton gives an example of Superman comic book. Yes, it belongs to the category of fiction but it is definitely not literature. Hence he considers that idea as a flawed one as not all written piece irrespective of the fact that it is an imaginative writing or a factual one, have to be considered as literature.
Now you may ask as to why can’t the comic book be considered a piece of literature? Haven’t we studied in schools and colleges that anything written is considered to be literature? Eagleton has the answer for this. He now talks about language.
Few days back in our literary theory class, our sir displayed some sentences and asked us which of those lines have the ‘literariness’ feel. We being literature students answered correctly but someone who is not interested in literature or does not really know the basics, wouldn’t have able to do that.
It is the ornamental language which helps us differentiate between a sentence which represents literature and a simple sentence.
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date”.
“The curves of your lips rewrite history.”
“Never stop doing your best just because someone doesn’t give you credit.”
In these three examples above we can see that the first two is an example of literature. The first one is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 and the second one is Oscar Wilde’s – The Picture of Dorian Gray while the last sentence is just a quote I found online. The sonnet follows a rhyme scheme, comparison, etc. Anyone can say that it is a piece of literature by looking at it. The language is just so different. The second sentence is the same. Yes, it sounds so cheesy but isn’t that the work of a literature? It takes you on a magical journey. It consumes the reader and as people say now-a-days, it gives all the ‘feels.’ It makes you feel that you are also experiencing the same thing as the characters in a particular text. Whereas the last sentence is just a sentence, it is just a motivational quote. There is no rhyme scheme or metaphor or simile or anaphora.
“It uses language in peculiar ways”. “Literature transforms and intensifies ordinary language, deviates systematically from everyday speech.” Literature is seen as aberration from everyday language. Roman Jakobson, a Russian-American literary theorist describes literature as an “organized violence committed on ordinary speech.” Eagleton then talks about the formalist view of literature. The Formalists focused on the form and not on the content. According to him , formalism was the application of linguistics to the study of literature and content was not the primary factor.
Eagleton criticizes this by claiming that when one considers literature to have a special kind of language, one assumes the actuality of a normal or ordinary language. According to Eagleton, the fact that there is an idea of a ‘normal language’ shared equally among the members of the society is nothing but an illusion.
There is a sense of value-judgment associated with literature. Values differ with people belonging to different society. Therefore, Eagleton believes that there is no objective definition for literature. It is an ‘unstable affair.’
Eagleton then compares literature to breathing. How we are not really aware of us breathing but is present and it is important for our survival but with any sudden change in the air, and we become so much aware of it. Similarly, a note sent to our friend does not create that awe of literature in us but if the note was written in a way how Shakespeare writes his sonnet, I think we all know how we would respond to it. It sometimes becomes necessary to understand the background, the idea, the motivation of the writer behind writing a piece of literature. Literature is more than just appreciating the beauty of it.
The essay by Terry Eagleton is an eye-opener. It is written in a very simplistic manner which is easy to understand even for someone who is not that keen on studying literature. Literature can never be really defined. It will always be an ambiguous idea but it will always be an important aspect of our lives.