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What is Literature

Literature is  a sizeable body of works, both written and oral that has captivated collectives and communities across the world. It includes both written and oral texts, folk tales as well as epic tales, narratives that deal with experiences of living in this world, as an individual, probing into the depths of her psyche, exploring her interactions with people and the world, and as a social being living in human and non-human communities across the world.  

From the fairy tales that captivated children around the world to the deeply philosophical poems, from the two-line poems to the long novels, from the creative writings in the new media to the oldest epic tales… man has enjoyed reading, writing, narrating and listening to the carefully captured emotions and thoughts in different languages, in different forms. Literature can thus be loosely termed as anything that is creative, anything that is a product of the imaginative mind, anything that uses language in ways that are innovative and captivating. 

Literature is a term that has been defined in various ways: by writers and critics during the centuries that man has been listening to stories, and writing them for others to read and appreciate. A regular dictionary will explain it as “a body of written works.” A wikipedia page will also tell you it is a body of written works which has some artistic or intellectual value. What strikes us here is the plurality of these definitions, the diversity of these categories that fall under the broad term ‘literature’. As one progresses in an academic exercise of this kind, one understands that no fixed definitions are possible in this context. Literature will grow in stature, will widen its scope depending on the reader and her perceptions, vision and philosophy of life.

YuvanHarari in his well renowned work Sapiens categorically stated that humans evolved not just into beings who could communicate in complex ways using shared language, but into communities that could share fiction, create events and incidents from imagination. This aspect of human evolution, perhaps best vindicates the prime place of importance ascribed to literature by communities and peoples, both temporally and spatially. 

Literature is to be comprehended in multiple ways, using tools and methodologies that help the reader delve deep into the world of letters. The content and the form used in literary works are equally significant and the enlightened reader will condition her aesthetic sensibility in such a way that she is able to read the ‘gaps and silences’ along with the text and its explicit layers of meaning. Reading literature can be a pleasurable and fascinating experience. Reader is an active participant who explores the text with an inquisitive eye and therefore, literature can also be defined as anything written work that demands and elicits a creative response from the reader.

  Focusing on the content and form will help in a deeper understanding of the texts, as far as literature students are concerned. The formor the structure provides aesthetic pleasure and the content triggers emotions and passions in the reader or the listener. Flexible syntax that permits imageries and metaphors, vocabulary that is chosen carefully and passages that unfold canvases depicting life with absolute precision – all work together to create great literary works. Debates on literature and its appeal that work around the concepts of ‘the universality’ of art that was once considered a benchmark for ‘good’ literature, are an integral part of theoretical and critical discourses everywhere in the world. 

With the emerging importance of Cultural Studies, Literature began to be approached with a fresh perspective. It is now understood as a cultural text, a form of cultural practice, with social structures and power dynamics firmly embedded in the discourses that shape these narratives. So reading them, comprehending them, analysing them critically, unravels the dynamics of social relationships that shape the texts at any given point in time and space. It considers not just the literature approved and recognised as the best by critics to be worthy of critical study, but it also acknowledges literature in every form and also enables reading of every cultural practice as vital and significant. 

Delving into the world of literature will open up fresher perspectives and a student will learn to define literature depending on how she has been shaping her aesthetic sensibilities. Reading literature as a serious student of literature will help her evolve as a human being, fashion her notions of self, and build upon her social identity. This will in turn help her define and comprehend literature and its immense potential in contemporary world.


Published by swapna gopinath

Researcher and Academic. Fulbright fellow. Co-author of Historicizing Myths in Contemporary India.

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