This essay attempts to define literature and bring out the inadequacies attached to these various definitions. It will also be established that the word literature is a very difficulty concept to define from one perspective. This is because the current understanding of literature has departed from the etymological understanding of the term literature. In order to achieve this purpose, this essay will give several definitions of literature and argue for both its strengths and weaknesses thereby showing how one definition is not enough to describe the scope of literature.
To begin with, according to Bwalya .L (2006) the term literature is a latin word ‘litera’ which means Writing . From this background, it is believed that literature is anything that is written. The people that subscribe to this notion believe that any written material qualifies to be called literature, hence mathematical figures are also literature. However, this definition has recently faced a lot of criticism because some scholars believe that a piece of art does not need to be written for it to be called literature. Such people extend their argument by saying that this definition is very narrow because it leaves out orature or oral literature. This is to say that literature exists in many forms, therefore saying that literature is any written material is being narrow minded because literature as it is known today exists in many forms which are both in oral and written form.
In addition, literature is literally “an aquaitance with letters” as in the first sense given in the oxford English Dictionary (from the latin litera meaning ‘an individual character (letter). The term has generally come to identify a collection of texts. The word ‘literature’ as a common noun can refer to any form of writing, such as essays or poetry. ‘Literature as a proper noun refers to a whole body of literally work, world wide or relating to a specific culture (Wikipedia, 2008).
The above definition is in line with Hancock (2006) who believe that literature is a body of written works : the body of written works of a culture, language, people or a period of time. This definition means that literature is something that is written and excludes possibilities of oral literature. One’s analysis of this definition further shows that historical facts that exists in written form qualify to be called literature. To this end, one can assume that a history text book about the history of Europe is literature. While this may be accepted as true following the original meaning of the word litera, it is important to note that this definition has an number of flaws. As earlier eluded, it excludes orature which is a weakness on its part. Secondly, it is common knowledge today that literature follows certain basic elements. For example, the language used in literature is poetic, hightened and very tense. In this view, a mathematical text book can not be described as being literature. On can argue that 2x + 4y does not express any language worth calling as literature.
In addition, scylar (1998: 83) defines literature as “ any writing on a subject: the body of published work concerned with a particular subject.” A similar definition to this scholar was coined by Pollanen (1997) which says that ‘literature refers to published writings in a particular style on a particular subject. The term is also used to show if the item has been published in a book, catolog raisonne, museum exhibition or news letter. This definition is quite interesting yet narrow in scope. It holds that literature is any form of writing, of course agreeing with the ones discussed above and the etymological meaning of the word literature. While this view is worth noting, it should be noted that the argument that literature should be a published work is very narrow. It ignores oral literature because orature can not be published. Orature is a type of literature that is handed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth. This means that this definition does not encompass or does not recognise oral literature which is today a very important for of literature. In addition, to take literature as being any form of writing, then is to say that something becomes literature the time is written whether such a piece of work is published or not. Its important to distinguish between a book and literature. Literature is any written piece of work. The definition also argues that literature is concerned with a particular subject, the question that follows is: what subject? This question is valid because there are alot of literally texts or simply what people call literature yet the publication or the written piece is on several subjects. This definition can not stand as a working definition for literature because it is very narrow and lacks detail and sound justification.
Another definition that is widely held upon is according to Encarta (2009) which says that Literature is the use of well-chosen words to tell a story through narrative, involving characters in conflict, or to express an emotion or idea through artfully arranged images.

The purpose of literature is to entertain and instruct (or to delight and enlighten) the reader through the use of the imagination. Literature can also shock, amaze, or provide readers with an escape from reality for a while. This definition is broad although it does not encompass everything. The first point to note is that this definition is slightly divergent from the tradition notion which holds that literature is anything that is written. It holds that for a piece of work to be called literature, it should not just use words anyhow. This is so because according to the proponents of this view point, literature has its own writing style and words are carefully selected and used in order to fulfill its purpose.

The above definition also means that literature serves many purposes some of which are to entertain and to instruct. In addition, this view holds that people or characters or writers use literature in order to express emotions. While this is true, it does not apply to every piece of literature. This is because there are several texts that are written purely for education or to inform. The other point is that, there is no piece of writing where words are used anyhow, every piece of writing selects words carefully but does not mean that any piece of writing in which the author uses words carefully qualifies to be called literature.

In addition to the above, the definition also says that literature has characters. This contradicts with the original meaning of the word literature. For the sake of emphasis, the word literature refers to writtng. Originally, this means that any written piece whether it has characters or not, it will still be called literature and there are several pieces of writing that do not have characters.

Hancock (2006) also defines literature as being written works of fiction and non fiction in which compositional excellence and advancement in the art of writing are higher priorities than are considerations of profit or commercial appeal. Similar to this definition is the one by Davids (1983) whilch says that literature is a creative writing of artistic value. These two definitions seem to suggest that literature does not follow the ordinary conventions of writing. Therefore, literature is that which follows a creative writing and has the element of compositional excellence. This leads to the the notions of bad and good literature. It appears that good literature is one that uses or has all or many of the creative aspects while bad literature is one that lacks or has few creative aspects.

Kafimbwa (2005) argues that the difficulty in defining literature lies in the fact that literature exists in many forms. Therefore, scholars have failed to come up with one definition that will embrace all the types of literature in their varying forms and degrees. Wikipedia (2009) provide evidence this argument by mentioning the various forms of literature. Some types of literature are poetry, short stories, songs, novels, folktales and essays. Within each of these types or forms there are different genres. In poetry these genres include epics (Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body), lyrics (Robert Frost’s “Birches”), and dramatic monologues (T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”). Fiction genres include the psychological (Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse), naturalistic (Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie), and proletarian (John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle). Some essay genres are the personal and the informative; famous essayists include Ralph Waldo Emerson, who penned “Self-Reliance,” and E. M. Forster, who wrote Two Cheers for Democracy.

The existence of the different types of literature have made it difficult for scholars to come up with one working definitions for literature. Each of the definitions that exist now all have deficiencies. This is so because the body of literature is wide, has many forms. Literature exists both in written and oral form. Any definition that may be deemed wholistic is one that will embrace all the genres, forms in their varying degrees.


Bwalya L (2005) Oral Literature: Study Material. UNZA.

Encarta (2009).

Davids M (1983) Undersdtanding Literature. Michigan: Michigan press.

Hanconck P (2006) What is Literature. Sydney: Australia.

http://www.Wikipedia.free online encyclopedia.



About Sitwe

Sitwe Benson is a citizen of the world based in Zambia. He publishes academically oriented articles.
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