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Literature - How to Define Literature?

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Literature

The ones who study literature for a longer time will find it more difficult to answer this question: How to define literature? Literature is such a difficult word to define, for its connotations and definitions are evolving and changing with the passage of time. Asking an English Literature students nowadays to define literature, their responses are very likely to be like: “written works with artistic values” and “mainly divided into poetry, drama, and prose”. However, this has not always been the case. According to The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, the definition of literature is a “culturally relative definition”.

If we trace back to the origin of the word, it came into English language in the sense of “book-learning” during fourteenth century. Literature is the descendant of the Latin word litteratura, which means “knowledge of books” and “use of letters”. During that period, literature is corresponded mainly to the modern meanings of literacy, it meant an ability to read. A man of literature was regarded as a man of wide reading. Since there was only a small minority of the population that could be regarded as literate by then, the ability to read was a prized possession of the select few.

Literacy remained for centuries a very restricted ability closely associated with the exercise of power. In fact, while the ambition of universal literacy in Europe was a fundamental reform born from the Enlightenment, it took centuries for it to happen.

It was not until the eighteenth century that certain signs of a general shift in meaning starting to emerge. The connotation of literature started to diverge from the sense of literate. Firstly, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of printing press in Europe during fifteenth century caused an epochal revolution on the meaning of literature. Texts could be cheaply and rapidly produced and put into the marketplace. More and more audiences became capable to access books and writing materials, attributed to the expanded literary production. The sudden widespread dissemination of printed works - books, tracts, posters and papers – initiated the transition of Europe from patronage to the bookselling market. Gradually, literacy had spread beyond the clergy, little by little reached the emerging middle classes. On the other hand, John Wycliffe’s English translation of Bible also played a crucial part in the spread of literacy. As scholars at universities spoke Latin, while the king and nobility spoke Norman French, the skills of reading and writing remained for centuries a very restricted ability. People who only spoke English were seen as beyond reach of the Gospel. Therefore, the development of English bible was a powerful tool for learning to read and write, which empowered lower classes people with new skills. The universalization of literacy results in the elevation in the meaning of literature from simply a condition of being well-read to the profession of writing. That was the time when literature was connected with the heightened self-consciousness of the profession of authorship.

After the technology of printing skill was matured, the book market was established and the writer was regarded as a profession, a new category of “popular literature” was instituted. The well-educated felt a need to make a distinction between sophisticated literature that possess artistic value and ordinary writings devoid of aesthetic interest. From then on, the word

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