What is literature, English

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What is Literature?

What is literature? It's a question that few people would have asked 20 years ago. Literature was what you read in English class--in other words, the stuff you would probably not choose to read on your own. But recent philosophical and political movements have challenged us to question terms that most people had taken for granted.

The question of literature's definition is closely related to the so-called "canon wars" that have raged over the last few decades. The "canon," or "literary canon," is the traditional list of works one would read in English or Great Books classes. The list was quite extensive and depended, of course, upon one's grade level--but in a typical high school literature class, you could expect to read authors like Shakespeare, Homer, Twain, Dickens, Hardy, Thoreau, etc.

Then, scholars, writers, activists, and students began pointing out that these canonical authors had several things in common:

  • They were white.
  • They were men.
  • They were dead.
  • No one read them outside of English class.

If these were the qualifications for admission into the canon, they seemed at best arbitrary, and at worst bigoted. And so a powerful movement to dismantle the traditional canon was born. Few English students today remain unaffected by the changes. In English classes, you can now expect to study--along with, or perhaps instead of, those traditional authors--rap lyrics, Harlequin Romances, Native American storytelling, the works of Stephen King, Blade Runner, and just about anything else you could think of.

Notice that these works are not just books, not just printed words on paper. They are songs, oral narratives, movies--all different kinds of expressions. Students and teachers of literature often use the word "text" to mean any form of expression, not just writing.

As you may have guessed, my own personal bias is in favor of these new types of classes. I think the openness of these reading lists, the intellectual challenges they present, and the cultures they teach us about are all very exciting. (I've always been one to include elements of the traditional canon in the reading list, along with the non-traditional works.) However, it's important to realize that many people disagree with me. And it's important not simply to dismiss their arguments as "racist," "sexist," "classist," and so on.

If we learn anything from literature, it's to appreciate the complexity of words and not use them as blunt instruments.

With that in mind, let's look at some of the arguments made by those who support the traditional canon:

The canonical works were not chosen for political reasons, but for reasons of artistic quality. Many non-traditional works lack that quality.

Critical thinking exercise (1): Do you agree? Disagree? Why?

The canon represents what is still the dominant American culture; students need to understand that culture, no matter what their own background is.

Critical thinking exercise (2): Do you agree? Disagree? Why?

The values expressed in the canon are positive and worthwhile, no matter who they come from. These authors represent what is best about Western culture.

Critical thinking exercise (3): Do you agree? Disagree? Why?

Of course, there's much more to say on both sides. I encourage you to consider these issues on your own, and to keep them in mind as you read.

So, have we answered the question "What is literature?" It doesn't seem so, does it? But maybe the question is more interesting than the answer...


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