What is this thing called literature?

The following scheme of work asks students to critically consider what literature is or, put otherwise, what constitutes literature. Since the course of study is called Language and Literature, there is at least a suggestion that literature is something with distinctive characteristics. The following activities set in opposition, broadly expressed, two theoretical positions: (i) an ‘inherency approach’, suggesting that artistic merit is intrinsic in literary texts, and (ii) a sociocultural approach which challenges the first position, suggesting that literary merit is ideologically derived by powerful groups in societies in particular historical periods. The first position is often associated with ‘Formalists’, such as Roman Jakobson, and the second position, here, relates to the critical position of (Marxist) thinkers, such as Terry Eagleton.

Teachers reading this may already be getting a little nervous! Isn’t this rather advanced? Potentially, it is. However, there is no real need to introduce literary theory and its history per se. Teachers may want to introduce notions such as the canon and canonicity, but equally they do not have to. Rather, through the following activities, students should begin to consider why literature is regarded as a special form of language art. This critical engagement and reflection is worth pursuing.

What Makes English into Art?

In this initial activity, students are asked to consider which texts from a list of ten different texts are best regarded as ‘everyday language’, ‘language art’ and/or ‘literature’. A resulting class discussion should trigger preliminary debate and reveal students’ preconceptions.

 What Makes English into Art?

What Makes English into Art?

Look at the list below. Which might you describe as creative ‘language art’? In what ways are they creative? Which would you identify as literature? What criteria are you using?

  1. Shakespeare’s Hamlet
  2. A poem written in dialect
  3. Fan fiction, derived from the TV show Glee
  4. A list of immigration laws
  5. The song, ‘Imagine’ by The John Lennon
  6. An anonymous traditional ballad
  7. A label on a bottle of wine
  8. Wole Soyinka’s Ake (20th century Nigerian dramatist’s autobiography)
  9. An improvised 21st century theatre piece
  10. A conversation with your teacher about football

Discuss your choices and explain them.

Is there a difference between ‘everyday language’, ‘language art’, and ‘literature’? Discuss what you think these differences are.

The Inherency Approach: Organized Violence Committed on Everyday Speech 

This activity follows from the first. Students are introduced to the ‘inherency approach’. They consider two poems, ‘The Tyger’ by William Blake, and ‘love is more thicker than forget’ by e e cummings. Poems, of course, are a particular kind of literary text where, through the formal organization of words on the page, language draws attention to itself to move or stimulate the reader. As a teacher, try to draw students to appreciate the parallelism in ‘The Tyger’; that is, the repetition of pattern, and the deviation in ‘love is more thicker than forget’; that is the ways in which the conventions of language are frequently broken.

 Organized Violence Committed on Everyday Speech

Organized Violence Committed on Everyday Speech

What makes a text literary? Why are some texts – say the kind you read on your IB Language and Literature course – regarded as high-quality literature, and other texts dismissed as having little lasting merit?

There are no easy answers to these questions. However, according to one view, a text becomes literary when the language of the text ‘draws attention to itself’. In this view, language is foregrounded for its own sake. Thus, a literary text will use language in innovative and imaginative ways through, for example, the manipulation of words, phrases, sounds, and structure. This creative use of language leads, apparently, to ‘defamiliarization’; that is, heightening a reader’s awareness of the world through a process of making the familiar strange. One commentator, Roman Jakobson, adopting this thinking, said that literature is ‘organized violence committed on everyday speech’.

Look at the following two poems. Comment on how the language of each poem draws attention to itself through either ‘parallelism’; that is, patterns of repetition, or ‘deviation’; that is the breaking of conventional linguistic rules. Does the creative use of language, in each instance, stimulate you to consider certain ideas in new ways?

‘The Tyger’ by William Blake

Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 

In the forests of the night; 

What immortal hand or eye, 

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies. 

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain, 

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? what dread grasp, 

Dare its deadly terrors clasp! 

When the stars threw down their spears 

And water'd heaven with their tears: 

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright, 

In the forests of the night: 

What immortal hand or eye,

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

‘love is more thicker than forget’ by e e cummings

love is more thicker than forget

more thinner than recall

more seldom than a wave is set

more frequent than to fail

it is most mad and moonly

and less it shall unbe

than all the see which only

is deeper than the see

love is less always than to win

less never than alive

less bigger than the least begin

less littler than forgive

it is most sane and sunly

and more it cannot die

than all the sky which only

is higher than the sky

Challenging the Inherency Approach

The next activity represents the first ‘challenge’ to the ‘inherency approach’. Two canonical poems, ‘This is Just to Say’ and ‘Sonnet 18’, are juxtaposed with two poems written by the Scottish writer and poet, Tom Leonard. Leonard’s poems work as ‘responses’ to the poetry of William Carlos Williams and William Shakespeare. Leonard borrows from Williams and Shakespeare. Notice, however, the way in which Leonard’s language is ‘non-standard’, sometimes hesitant, and reminiscent of spoken language. Is it the case, then, that Leonard is challenging the status of (so-called) poetic language?

Should teachers wish to extend the discussion, they may ask students to compare the poetry of Hart Seely, and the spoken language of Donald Rumsfeld from which Seely’s poem, ‘The Unknown’ derives (sic!). There is also the opportunity to look at some examples of punning in both the drama of Shakespeare and spoken discourse taken from a language corpus (database). These readings can be used to probe the often privileged status of written language in contrast to spoken language.

 Comparing Poems: 1

Comparing Poems: 1

Read the following two poems, ‘This is Just to Say’ by William Carlos Williams and ‘Sonnet 18’ by William Shakespeare. It was said of Williams that ‘he is a magically observant’ poet [who] reproduces the details of what he sees with surprising freshness’. Shakespeare needs no introduction; he is frequently regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. In these poems, how do the poets foreground language and challenge readers to see things in a new light?

‘This is Just to Say’

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably


for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

‘Sonnet 18’

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometimes declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course


But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;

Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his


When in eternal lines to time thou growest;

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

 Comparing Poems: 2

Comparing Poems: 2

Read, now, the following two poems, ‘Jist ti Let Yi No’ and ‘A Summer’s Day’, written by the Scottish poet and writer, Tom Leonard. Leonard is from Glasgow, and his poems are intended to be read in the dialect of that city. For an ‘outsider’, this may make them challenging. As you read Leonard’s poetry, consider how they respond to the poems you read previously by William Carlos Williams and William Shakespeare. Do you think that Leonard’s poems make some kind of social and political statement? If so, how? Do you think that Leonard’s poems also have a ‘defamiliarizing’ effect?

‘Jist ti Let Yi No’

(from the American of Carlos Williams)

ahv drank

thi speshlz

that wurrin

the frij

n thit

‘yiwurr probli

hodn back

furthi pahrti


they wur great

thaht stroang

thaht cawld

‘A Summer’s Day’

yir eyes ur


a mean yir

pirrit this wey

ah a thingk yir

byewtifl like ehm


fact a thingk yir

ach a luvyi thahts


jist thi wey it iz like

that’s ehm

aw ther iz ti say

 The Unknown: 1

The Unknown: 1

Read the following poem, ‘The Unknown’, written by Hart Seely in 2003. How does this poem foreground language, and how does this challenge the reader to contemplate things from a new and fresh perspective?

‘The Unknown’

As we know,

There are known knowns.

There are things we know we


We also know

There are known unknowns.

That is to say

We know there are some things

We do not know.

But there are also unknown


The ones we don’t know

We don’t know.

 The Unknown: 2

The Unknown: 2

Now, read the following transcript of a news briefing from 2002 between a group of journalists and the then US Secretary of Defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld. The news briefing inspired Hart Seely to write the poem ‘The Unknown’ that you have just read. Does reading the transcript, below, change your view of the poem? Why, conventionally, do we regard Seely’s poem as ‘literature’, but would probably not regard the transcript in the same way?

Question: In regard to Iraq weapons of mass destruction and terrorists, is there any evidence to indicate that Iraq has attempted to or is willing to supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction? Because there are reports that there is no evidence of a link between Baghdad and some of these terrorist organizations.

Rumsfeld: Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we now, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; there are things we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

 Punning: An Example of Literary Language?

Punning: An Example of Literary Language?

Punning can be regarded as a form of linguistic word play. Whilst punning can take a range of forms, it normally occurs when two different sets of ideas are expressed through one series of words. Whilst punning is often a source of comedy, Samuel Johnson regarded it as ‘the lowest form of humour’. Shakespeare used punning in his plays – not always to achieve humorous effect – and some estimates suggest that you can find over 3000 puns in Shakespeare’s writing for theatre. Here are two puns, both taken from Romeo and Juliet; how does each pun work?

No, ‘tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door, but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve: ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find a grave man.

Give me a torch: I am not for this ambling; Being but heavy I will bear the light.

Now, let’s consider some puns which are found in CANCODE. CANCODE stands for Cambridge and Nottingham Corpus of Discourse in English and is a multi-million word corpus (that is, database) of spoken English:

Example 1: Members of a family in Cardiff, Wales, are preparing food for a party in 1993.

A: Now I think you’d better start the rice

B: Yeah… what you got there

[4 seconds]

A: Will it all fit in the one

B: No you’ll have to do two separate ones

C: Right… what next

[17 seconds]

C: Foreign body in there

B: It’s the raisins

C: Oh is it oh it’s rice with raisins is it

B:                                           no no no it’s not

    Supposed to be [laughs] erm

C: There must be raisin for it being in there?

Example 2: Members of a family are telling ghost stories over dinner in Canterbury, England, in 1993. This story refers back to an earlier newspaper story involving a man having a premonition of death on the ship ‘Hood’. Speaker A begins by describing how the members of the crew were all lined up prior to being selected for the ‘Hood’ and for an anticipated escape.

A: Oh yes, I mean they were all eager to get on it they were really looking forward to being the chosen ones [B: Mm] and he was one of the ones who was called up [B: yeah] and he was getting ready to go and the chief petty officer came back and said, oh no it’s a mistake

C: We’ve got one extra

A: Dymock, Dymock, er you’re not needed [B: Mm] and er he was a bit disappointed and he went back, carried on with what he was doing and the boat sailed out and was torpedoed and

C:                                                                                                                     by a German ship

D: Everyone, everyone died

C: Anyway, all hands lost but legs saved [All: laugh]

B: Well, sailors were always getting legless, weren’t they, anyway [All: laugh]

A: Finding their sea legs

B: Yeah

Conventionally, we would regard Shakespeare as a writer of literature. His punning is an example of language being used creatively, drawing attention to itself and, here, creating a humorous effect. The two examples from CANCODE of spoken discourse also foreground language to achieve a humorous impact. However, only Shakespeare is typically regarded as ‘literature’; we would not normally regard spoken conversation as ‘literature’. Why do you think this is?

So What is English Literature?

The final activity is a theoretical reading, written from the Marxist perspective of Terry Eagleton. The reading is very accessible, and in fact the polemical, colloquial style, which seems to cue for the oral mode, is perhaps worth discussing with students. Eagleton is, arguably, very persuasive. However, the ‘point’ of the activities in this scheme of work is to provoke thought and debate, not to incite cynicism in young people. Thus, for students who find Eagleton convincing, it can be worth asking them if it isn’t in fact the case that some writing is simply better than other writing. Moreover, before ‘firing the canon’, students may be asked to consider why some literature has been consistently highly valued. Eagleton doesn’t seem to explain this. Ultimately, to suggest that literature is somehow tantamount to ideology may be rather reductive. 

 So What is English Literature?

So what is English Literature?

Before reading further, you may like to note down and then share your ideas on who the greatest writers in the English language are. Also, what are the best literary works in the English language? What is the basis for the claims you make?

Now, read on…

So far, it has been claimed that literature is a special case of language art. Literary language draws attention to itself, encouraging readers to consider their world afresh. However, you will have noticed that not all kinds of language art are regarded as literature. This may be curious, since if it is the imaginative nature of literary writing that makes it ‘different’, then why is not all imaginative writing literature?

In the following extract, the Marxist literary critic, Terry Eagleton, tries to address this question. As you read, notice, in his ‘sociocultural’ response, what is considered literature is always dependent on social and historical contexts. Read the text now.

One of the traditional rationales for studying literature was, to put it crudely, that it made you a finer sort of person. The case suffered a severe setback when it was discovered that Nazi concentration camp commandants used to while away their leisure hours reading Goethe. Another rationale was that the study of literature introduced you to the truest, most timeless values of humanity. Casting a quick eye through the annals of English literature, this case is perhaps a bit hard to swallow. Most of the agreed major writers of literature, for example, have been thoroughly imbued with the prejudices of their age, elitist, sexist, frequently reactionary in their outlook, illiberal in opinion. Of the agreed major authors of twentieth-century English literature, two (Pound and Yeats) fellow-travelled with fascism, while others (Eliot, Lawrence) displayed extreme right-wing, pseudo-fascistic sentiments. Wordsworth wrote in praise of capital punishment, Edmund Spenser advocated the oppression of the Irish people, Joseph Conrad detested popular democracy, George Eliot feared the radical working class, Alexander Pope sneered at women and Shakespeare is unlikely to have been over enthusiastic about Jews. One wonders whether this is really the kind of stuff any decent liberal should place in the hands of an impressionable Young Person. Perhaps all of this can be dismissed as superficial political comment, remote from the ‘transcendental’ nature of great literature; but politics, at the deepest level, means the values by which whole communities live, and if literature is as much a social product as washing powder and automobiles then such considerations can hardly be irrelevant to it. Throughout the history of the English people, a great many individuals other than Spenser, Pope and Conrad have produced an enormous amount of literature; but since they were peasants, women, Chartist activists or foreigners scribbling away in some British colony, their work was not regarded as ‘timeless’ or ‘disinterested’ enough to qualify for an entry ticket into the canon of Great Authors.

One of the permanent embarrassments of studying literature is that nobody has ever been able to come up with an adequate definition of what exactly it is. The dividing lines between ‘literary’ works and other forms of writing are notoriously blurred and unstable. Cardinal Newman is (perhaps) literature, but Charles Darwin is not; some execrable poetry in a ‘high’ mode belongs to the canon, but some superb contemporary science fiction in a more popular mode does not. East Enders is not literature, but quite a few turgid minor seventeenth-century dramas are. The poet, John Cooper-Clarke, who can pack a fair-sized hall any night of the week, is not really literature, whereas a more respectable poet who would be lucky to pack a broom cupboard will be graced with the title. There is, in fact, no such thing as literature: literature is just the kind of writing which the academic establishments decide is literary. And those decisions can vary a good deal from age to age and society to society.

So, indeed, can the issue of what form of writing is considered valuable. The custodians of English literature seem to believe that there are certain literary works which just are, unquestionably and for all time, of major distinction; but one glance at the mixed fortunes of such works throughout the history of literary judgement should be enough to dissuade us of any such delusion. Many an eighteenth-century critic thought Shakespeare rather vulgar, and many a writer we now value highly was denigrated or ignored in his or her day. The grounds on which we judge literary works to be good, bad, or indifferent may shift from time to time and place to place. If a future age can simply find nothing relevant to itself in Shakespeare – if his work has come to appear desperately alien to their own preoccupations – then Shakespeare will have ceased to be valuable. And there is no reason to assume, dogmatically, that this would inevitably be a bad thing.

On a traditional, critical view, literary works are the creative expression of the unique experience of certain highly gifted individuals, embodying the fundamental truths of humanity. For much contemporary critical theory, almost every phrase in this formulation is deeply suspect. There is, for example, a good deal of heated controversy these days over what we mean by an ‘author’ in the first place. Who is the author of Nightmare on Elm Street, and does it matter? ‘Many things’, wrote a famous French poet, go into the creation of a literary work’. Is it adequate to see literature as an ‘expression’ of the individual, and does it necessarily incarnate fundamental truths? Do all great works of literature ‘transcend’ their specific time and place, or are they not rather deeply rooted in the history which surrounds them?

                                                                           ‘English in Crisis’ by Terry Eagleton

Think, now, about what you have read:

Eagleton highlights two quite different conceptions of ‘literature’. On the one hand he outlines the ‘traditional’ view of literature. In this view, literature involves the creative expression of ‘transcendent’ ideas that express fundamental truths about the human condition. On the other hand – in Eagleton’s view – there is no such thing as literature. Literature, in this view, is simply a social product; it is writing that expresses the values of a particular place and time, and is highly valued by elite groups.

These are, admittedly challenging ideas. They are also ideas that might worry you. After all, if there is no such thing as literature, or nor unequivocally defined way of describing literature, why should you waste your time studying a course called ‘Language and Literature’?

So, what do you think?

Towards Assessment

In a sense, the above activities have a relevance to all parts of the course; not only the literature components. There is a particular relevance, however, to some of the six prescribed questions that inform Written Task type 2. 

Links to Theory of Knowledge (TOK)

Eagleton's Marxist perspective suggests that literature is closely related to ideology. Canonical works - works of so-called 'great literature' - work in the main to express the ideas and values of elite groups, contributing to what Antonio Gramsci called 'hegemony'. In TOK, students are interested in 'ways of knowing'; that is, the 'mechanisms through which we know'. It can be said that one way of knowing is 'knowledge by authority'. Thus, for Eagleton, literature represents a conduit for privileged groups to inculcate a particular set of self-serving values, beliefs, and attitudes. Is this what literature is? 

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Comments 3

Syed Abbas 29 November 2016 - 12:58


Do we have any well-known articles or papers on the idea of 'timelessness' of literary works? What constitutes timelessness?

Is the idea of timelessness, whatever it is, the same thing as literature that transcends time and stays relevant over time, place?

Thanks and regards,

David McIntyre 30 November 2016 - 06:05

Hi Faheem,

The essay by Eagleton on this page, at least implicitly, takes issue with the very notion of something (in literature) being timeless.

There are several objections I can think of to the notion of timelessness. In his essay, Eagleton seems to conflate the idea of timeless with 'highly valued', normally highly valued by an elite who benefit from the evaluation. Another objection, I suspect, emerges from the problem of induction; since we haven't reached the end of time, how do we know that 'love', say, will be of enduring interest?

But - the wise wo(man) may say - isn't it in fact the case that the notion of love is enduring, and that this is highly unlikely to change? Almost certainly the case. However, love exists as an 'etic' concept; it is, apparently a human universal. Whilst this is hard to argue, it is also the case that the notion of love is always understood in localised 'emic' contexts, subject to variation of time and place.

My point is not to diminish the notion of timelessness out of hand. On the contrary, it is very useful, but it needs to be considered critically, not with accepting naivety.

That's my view. I am, however, a harmless school teacher, not an acutely minded philosopher.



Syed Abbas 30 November 2016 - 07:39

Thanks David.

The first time I looked at things from etic & emic perspectives was when doing the IBDP (1983-85) in the context of Anthropology viz ethnography.

I can now see, after reading your message, that the concepts are bigger. I also see your insistence on not looking at timelessness in a naive or superficial way.

And at another level, I suppose one does not need to consult established Oracles or gatekeepers to establish thought through principles in deciding what's timeless and what's not. I suppose going through such a process with students in itself would be rewarding. I'll be guided by your thoughts.


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