2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: General Literature

Old book bindings at the Merton College library.
Old book bindings at the Merton College library.

Literature is literally "acquaintance with letters" as in the first sense given in the Oxford English Dictionary (from the Latin littera meaning "an individual written character ( letter)"). The term has generally come to identify a collection of texts or work of art, which in Western culture are mainly prose, both fiction and non-fiction, drama and poetry. In much, if not all of the world, texts can be oral as well, and include such genres as epic, legend, myth, ballad, other forms of oral poetry, and the folktale.


Major forms
Epic • Romance • Novel
Performance • Book
Prose • Poetry
History & lists
History • Modern History • Books • Authors • Awards • Basic Topics
Criticism • Theory • Magazines

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, the Indian Mahabharata, Ramayana and Thirukural, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Beowulf, and the Constitution of the United States, 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 particular topic. In this case, the stories, poems and plays may or may not have nationalistic implications. The Western Canon forms one such literature.

Classifying a specific item as part of a literature (whether as American literature, advertising literature, gay and lesbian literature or Roman literature) can involve severe difficulties. 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 include examples of text composed of letters, or other narrowly defined examples of symbolic written language ( Egyptian hieroglyphs, for example). Even more conservative interpreters of the concept would demand that the text have 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 " literary fiction" and " literary merit" often serve to distinguish between individual works. For example, almost all literate people perceive the works of Charles Dickens as "literature", whereas some tend to look down on the works of Jeffrey Archer as unworthy of inclusion 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 one time or another pushed the boundaries of "literature".

Different historical periods have emphasized various characteristics of literature. Early works often had an overt or covert religious or didactic purpose. Moralizing 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 and philosophical 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 and naturalism, investigations into what is real. The 20th century brought demands for symbolism or 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 utilize rhyme. One cannot readily characterize poetry precisely. Typically though, poetry as a form of literature makes some significant use of the formal properties of the words it uses — the properties 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 from around 2700 B.C.), parts of the Bible, the surviving works of Homer (the Iliad and the Odyssey), and the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. In cultures based primarily on oral traditions the formal characteristics of poetry often have a mnemonic function, and important texts: legal, genealogical or moral, for example, may appear first in verse form.

Much poetry uses specific forms: the haiku, the limerick, or the sonnet, for example. A haiku must have seventeen syllables, distributed over three lines in groups of five, seven, and five, and should have an image of a season and something 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. It traditionally has a less reverent attitude towards nature.

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

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


A play or drama offers another classical literary form that has continued to evolve over the years. It generally comprises chiefly dialogue between characters, and usually aims at 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 form until comparatively recently.

Greek drama exemplifies the earliest form of drama of which we have substantial 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 generally presented very serious Theme.

With the advent of newer technologies, scripts written for non-stage media have been added to this form. War of the Worlds (radio) in 1938 saw the advent of literature written for radio broadcast, and many works of Drama have been adapted for film or television. Conversly, television, film, and radio literature have been adapted to printed or electronic media.


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 one can find open-ended, provocative and/or inconclusive essays. The term "essays" first applied to the self-reflective musings of Michel de Montaigne, and even today he has a reputation as the father of 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 point of view
  • the epistle: usually a formal, didactic, or elegant letter.
  • the blog, an informal short rant about a particular topic or topics, usually opinion

Prose fiction

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

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

Narrative fiction ( narrative prose) generally favours prose for the writing of novels, short stories, graphic novels, and the like. Singular examples of these exist throughout history, but they did not develop into systematic and discrete literary forms until relatively recent centuries. Length often serves to categorize works of prose fiction. Although limits remain somewhat arbitrary, modern publishing conventions dictate the following:

  • A Flash fiction is generally defined as a piece of prose under a thousand words.
  • A short story comprises prose writing of less than 10,000 to 20,000 words, 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 the form developed comparatively recently. Icelandic prose sagas dating from about the 11th century bridge the gap between traditional national verse epics and the modern psychological novel. In mainland 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 The Canterbury Tales, have comparable forms and would classify as novels if written today. Earlier works written in Asia resemble even more strongly the novel as we now think of it — for example, works such as the Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Japanese Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki. Compare too The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.

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

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

Related Narrative Forms

  • Graphic novels and comic books present stories told in a combination of sequential artwork, dialogue and text.
  • Films, videos and broadcast soap operas have carved out a niche which often parallels the functionality of prose fiction.
  • Interactive fiction, a term for a prose-based genre of computer games, occupies a small literary niche.
  • Electronic literature is a developing literary genre meant to be read on a computer screen, often making use of hypertext.

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