Shakespeare. Austen. Tolstoy. Morrison. Rowling. Updike.
There are names in this mix from all sorts of backgrounds and all sorts of histories, but the one thing that they all have in common, the one thing they are all known for, is that they all wrote words down with some type of format in mind, with some type of story to tell.
Today, we call what they wrote down literature.
But what is literature, anyway? Where did it come from? When did it start? Who really is in charge of getting to say how literature achieves its lofty title, and just what criteria are they actually using?
As someone who loves to discuss all things lit and book related, these are the questions I ask myself on the daily. These are the really deep questions, folks.
They are also the questions which one such as myself, a lowly college English student running on nothing but excitable interest, her fourth cup of Joe, and a set of rapidly approaching deadlines, can hardly begin to answer.
But I love books, I love writing, and dang do I love talking about this stuff, so we shall forge ahead with energy! Tally Ho!
English literature by itself is multi-faceted and confusing, with hundreds of opinions discussing it and hundreds of people adding material to its name every hour of the day. But English literature, high-brow and hoity-toity as it likes to claim itself to be, is only the tip of the lit iceberg.
Every language in the world with a writing system also has its own literature, its own style, and its own stories. Honestly, the concept of literature is so big that it can be slightly difficult to squeeze down all those ideas to manageable chunks, so let’s take a step back for a moment.
If we harken back to the ye olden days, literature was a bit different, at least in English, which is the only language of literature I can conceivably discuss without feeling like I’m already out of my depth.
In the medieval and dark ages, the ability to write and read literature was only bequeathed to the select few, which limited its scope and consistency. Language and writing were also less developed. So, broadly speaking, literature before the 1500s was in lyrical poetry like the Canterbury Tales, in long epics of courtly love, and in scripture and religious texts written by monks holed up in monasteries.
In the 1500s and 1600s, the age of the Renaissance, literature began to expand into the empire of story-telling, social commentary and self-expression it is today. This is also when literature became more interesting, even if only the wealthy and privileged could enjoy it. Refresher: This time period boasts the great names of Shakespeare, of Marlowe, of Milton, and of Wyatt.
As time progressed, literature continued to progress as well. Viewing literature through the passage of time most truly shows the ways it has changed throughout history, both in content and public opinion.
The English novel, now mostly well-respected, was at by turns throughout history considered fluffy, dangerous, or even (gasp) trashy reading.
Throughout all the many twists and turns literature bravely forged its way through, it has retained, in essence, a lot of the same ideas it has today. Literature is about storytelling. It’s about human expression. It’s about social commentary, self-critique, and the pure ability to create something new.
One might venture to say that literature holds all the big questions because the grand questions of life are the ones which literature itself as a discipline attempts to play with, reimagine, and find the answers to.
Historically, individuals sit down to write a novel, a poem, or a homeric epic simply because they’ve got something to say. I’ve personally found in life that if you’re the kind of person who has really, truly got something to say, then generally people are going to listen, read, and share your words.
Who really gets to decide what makes something into literature?
At one point it was whoever was in charge of the country. After that, all things literary were generally categorized and determined by those who had enough pomp, power, and personality to set the trends society followed.
The 1900s were a time that a lot of current day English lit majors love to dig their fingers into, (myself included) and was a time with a lot of different upheavals in style. Why was it that some of Scott Fitzgerald’s work was immediately lauded, and other writers who struggled during the Roaring Twenties are only now appreciated for their masterpieces? Why does every high school English teacher nowadays dictate students to discuss “The Great Gatsby,” but conveniently leave out the work of Zelda Fitzgerald, Stevie Smith, and Katherine Mansfield?
Because of the many historical turnovers that took place in the 1900s, the time period is rife with different groups and subgroups all clamoring to lay a specific claim to what exactly makes certain pages, poems, and stories the cream of the literary crop. In a way, this is similar to the many different opinions of people conflicting with each other over what truly designates something as true literature today.
The 1900s are not quite as up-to-date and eager to introduce new methods as we are these days, however, and throughout most of the early 20th century, early established academic institutions with enough long-standing prestige and vested self-interest in the works under review generally called the official shots, despite up-start groups of free-thinkers daring to push the boundaries.
Today, we must thank both the free-thinkers and the stuffy old professors for the range of literature we have to choose from.
Perhaps today there are still wizened, crotchety academic types sitting around tables evaluating the boundaries and criteria of literature. However, I would dare to say that what the academic side of literature declares is not necessarily followed by the rest of society, nowadays (not that I don’t love and respect it’s pretentiousness, to a point).
In this day and age, with the most people to date alive who possess the ability to read, write, and freely state their opinions and ideas, we have a new judgement team.
Who’s a member of that team? I am. You are. Our friends, our parents, pretty much everyone and anyone who reads, thinks, and wants to have a say.
This is awesome because it means the definition of literature has suddenly and rapidly ballooned out to include things that are creative and literature-inspired and deserve more recognition. Things like slam and spoken-word poetry, electronic literature, queer and LGBTQ themed books, young adult novels, and even (maybe one day) fanfiction.
There just isn’t much out there to police us anymore. Society has progressed well beyond needing to be told what does and doesn’t make the lit cut. We are relishing our freedom.
This freedom is exhilarating, and the free-thinking, tech-savvy millennials of our generation have taken the idea and run with it. However, this new judgement team has its faults.
It’s a little less awesome, because it means that literature is getting extremely complicated to understand, to quantify and qualify in terms of skill, and the questions surrounding it are harder to answer than ever.
What will happen next? In the years and generations to come, will Shakespeare manage to keep his street cred? Will new types of literature emerge?
I’m not sure what the future holds, but it sure will be exciting to watch. If as a reader, you’ve got an idea of which road it will take next, I want to hear what you think!
Literature as a study is continually developing, expanding, and gaining new nuances and genres of expression. In its ability to be somehow both reassuringly timeless and constantly changeable, subject to our own evolving tastes and perspectives, literature has fascinated, invigorated, and inspired the human race for centuries.
Hopefully, it always will.