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What is literature?


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June 21, 2015 9:27PM

"Introduction : What is Literature?" Terry Eagleton

If there is such a thing as literary theory, then it would seem obvious that there is something called literature which it is the theory of. We can begin, then, by raising the question: what is literature? There have been various attempts to define literature. You can define it, for example, as 'imaginative' writing in the sense of fiction -writing which is not literally true. But even the briefest reflection on what people commonly include under the heading of literature suggests that this will not do. Seventeenth- century English literature includes Shakespeare, Webster , Marvell and Milton; but it also stretches to the essays of Francis Bacon, the sermons of John Donne, Bunyan's spiritual autobiography and whatever it was that Sir Thomas Browne wrote. It might even at a pinch be taken to encompass Hobbes's Leviathan or Clarendon's History of the Rebellion. French seventeenth-century literature contains, along with Comeille and Racine, La Rochefoucauld's maxims, Bossuet's funeral speeches, Boileau's treatise on poetry, Madame de Sevigne's letters to her daughter and the philosophy of Descartes and Pascal. Nineteenth-century English literature usually includes Lamb (though not Bentham), Macaulay (but not Marx), Mill (but not Darwin or Herbert Spencer).

A distinction between 'fact' and 'fiction'; then, seems unlikely to get us very far, not least because the distinction itself is often a questionable one. It has been argued, for instance, that our own opposition between 'historical' and 'artistic' truth does not apply at all to the early Icelandic sagas. l In the English late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the word 'novel' seems to have been used about both true and fictional events, and even news reports were hardly to be considered factual. Novels and news reports were neither clearly factual nor clearly fictional: our o~ sharp discriminations between these categories simply did not apply. Gibbon no doubt thought that he was writing historical truth, and so perhaps did the authors of Genesis, but they are now read as' fact' by some and 'fiction' by others; Newman; certainly thought his theological meditations were true, but they are now for many readers 'literature' .Moreover, if 'literature includes much 'factual' writing, it also excludes quite a lot of fiction. Superman comic and Mills and Boon novels are fiction but not generally regarded as literature, and certainly not Literature. If literature is 'creative' or 'imaginative' writing does this imply that history, philosophy and natural science a uncreative and unimaginative?