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Literature broadly refers to any collection of written or oral work, but it more commonly and narrowly refers to writings specifically considered to be an art form, especially prose fiction, drama, and poetry, in contrast to academic writing and newspapers. [1] In recent centuries, the definition has expanded to now include oral literature, much of which has been transcribed. [2]


Literature, as an art form, can also include works in various non-fiction genres, such as autobiography, diaries, memoir, letters, and the essay, as well as in the disciplines of history and philosophy. [3]

Its Latin root literatura/litteratura (from littera: letter of the alphabet or handwriting) was used to refer to all written accounts. Developments in print technology have allowed an ever-growing distribution and proliferation of written works, which now includes electronic literature.

Literature is classified according to whether it is poetry, prose or drama, and such works are categorized according to historical periods, or their adherence to certain aesthetic features, or genre.


Definitions of literature have varied over time: it is a "culturally relative definition". [4] In Western Europe prior to the 18th century, literature denoted all books and writing. [4] A more restricted sense of the term emerged during the Romantic period, in which it began to demarcate "imaginative" writing. [5] [6] Contemporary debates over what constitutes literature can be seen as returning to older, more inclusive notions; cultural studies, for instance, takes as its subject of analysis both popular and minority genres, in addition to canonical works.

The value judgment definition of literature considers it to cover exclusively those writings that possess high quality or distinction, forming part of the so-called belles-lettres ('fine writing') tradition. [7] This sort of definition is that used in the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition (1910–11) when it classifies literature as "the best expression of the best thought reduced to writing." [8] Problematic in this view is that there is no objective definition of what constitutes "literature": anything can be literature, and anything which is universally regarded as literature has the potential to be excluded, since value judgments can change over time. [6]

The formalist definition is that "literature" foregrounds poetic effects; it is the "literariness" or "poetic" of literature that distinguishes it from ordinary speech or other kinds of writing (e.g., journalism). [9] [10] Jim Meyer considers this a useful characteristic in explaining the use of the term to mean published material in a particular field (e.g., "scientific literature"), as such writing must use language according to particular standards. [11] The problem with the formalist definition is that in order to say that literature deviates from ordinary uses of language, those uses must first be identified; this is difficult because "ordinary language" is an unstable category, differing according to social categories and across history. [12]

Etymologically, the term derives from Latin literatura/litteratura "learning, a writing, grammar," originally "writing formed with letters," from litera/littera "letter". [13] In spite of this, the term has also been applied to spoken or sung texts. [11] [14]

History of literature

Egyptian hieroglyphs with cartouches for the name "Ramesses II", from the Luxor Temple, New Kingdom LuxorTemple03.jpg
Egyptian hieroglyphs with cartouches for the name "Ramesses II", from the Luxor Temple, New Kingdom

Ancient Egyptian literature, [15] along with Sumerian literature, are considered the world's oldest literatures. [16] The primary genres of the literature of ancient Egyptdidactic texts, hymns and prayers, and tales—were written almost entirely in verse; [17] By the Old Kingdom (26th century BC to 22nd century BC), literary works included funerary texts, epistles and letters, hymns and poems, and commemorative autobiographical texts recounting the careers of prominent administrative officials. It was not until the early Middle Kingdom (21st century BC to 17th century BC) that a narrative Egyptian literature was created.

Many works of earlier periods, even in narrative form, had a covert moral or didactic purpose, such as the Sanskrit Panchatantra or the Metamorphoses of Ovid. Drama and satire also developed as urban culture provided a larger public audience, and later readership, for literary production. Lyric poetry (as opposed to epic poetry) was often the speciality of courts and aristocratic circles, particularly in East Asia where songs were collected by the Chinese aristocracy as poems, the most notable being the Shijing or Book of Songs . Over a long period, the poetry of popular pre-literate balladry and song interpenetrated and eventually influenced poetry in the literary medium.

In ancient China, early literature was primarily focused on philosophy, historiography, military science, agriculture, and poetry. China, the origin of modern paper making and woodblock printing, produced the world's first print cultures. [18] Much of Chinese literature originates with the Hundred Schools of Thought period that occurred during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (769‒269 BCE). The most important of these include the Classics of Confucianism, of Daoism, of Mohism, of Legalism, as well as works of military science (e.g. Sun Tzu's The Art of War ) and Chinese history (e.g. Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian ). Ancient Chinese literature had a heavy emphasis on historiography, with often very detailed court records. An exemplary piece of narrative history of ancient China was the Zuo Zhuan , which was compiled no later than 389 BCE, and attributed to the blind 5th-century BCE historian Zuo Qiuming.

In ancient India, literature originated from stories that were originally orally transmitted. Early genres included drama, fables, sutras and epic poetry. Sanskrit literature begins with the Vedas, dating back to 1500–1000 BCE, and continues with the Sanskrit Epics of Iron Age India. The Vedas are among the oldest sacred texts. The Samhitas (vedic collections) date to roughly 1500–1000 BCE, and the "circum-Vedic" texts, as well as the redaction of the Samhitas, date to c. 1000‒500 BCE, resulting in a Vedic period, spanning the mid-2nd to mid 1st millennium BCE, or the Late Bronze Age and the Iron Age. [19] The period between approximately the 6th to 1st centuries BCE saw the composition and redaction of the two most influential Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana , with subsequent redaction progressing down to the 4th century AD. Other major literary works are Ramcharitmanas & Krishnacharitmanas.

Homer's, epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey , are central works of ancient Greek literature. It is generally accepted that the poems were composed at some point around the late eighth or early seventh century BC. [20] Modern scholars consider these accounts legendary. [21] [22] [23] Most researchers believe that the poems were originally transmitted orally. [24] From antiquity until the present day, the influence of Homeric epic on Western civilization has been great, inspiring many of its most famous works of literature, music, art and film. [25] The Homeric epics were the greatest influence on ancient Greek culture and education; to Plato, Homer was simply the one who "has taught Greece" – ten Hellada pepaideuken. [26] [27] Hesiod's Works and Days and Theogony, are some of the earliest, and most influential, of ancient Greek literature. Classical Greek genres included philosophy, poetry, historiography, comedies and dramas. Plato and Aristotle authored philosophical texts that are the foundation of Western philosophy, Sappho and Pindar were influential lyric poets, and Herodotus and Thucydides were early Greek historians. Although drama was popular in ancient Greece, of the hundreds of tragedies written and performed during the classical age, only a limited number of plays by three authors still exist: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The plays of Aristophanes provide the only real examples of a genre of comic drama known as Old Comedy, the earliest form of Greek Comedy, and are in fact used to define the genre. [28]

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the most prolific German writers Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein - Goethe in the Roman Campagna - Google Art Project.jpg
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the most prolific German writers

Roman histories and biographies anticipated the extensive mediaeval literature of lives of saints and miraculous chronicles, but the most characteristic form of the Middle Ages was the romance, an adventurous and sometimes magical narrative with strong popular appeal. Controversial, religious, political and instructional literature proliferated during the Renaissance as a result of the invention of printing, while the mediaeval romance developed into a more character-based and psychological form of narrative, the novel, of which anearly and important example is the 16th century Chinese Journey to the West (Monkey).

Psychology and literature

Theorists suggest that literature allows readers to access intimate emotional aspects of a person's character that would not be obvious otherwise. [29] [ clarification needed ] That literature aids the psychological development and understanding of the reader, allowing someone to access emotional states from which they had distanced themselves.[ clarification needed ] Some researchers focus on the significance of literature in an individual's psychological development. For example, language learning uses literature because it articulates or contains culture, which is an element considered crucial in learning a language. [30] This is demonstrated in the case of a study that revealed how the presence of cultural values and culturally familiar passages in literary texts played an important impact on the performance of minority students in English reading. [31] Psychologists have also been using literature as a tool or therapeutic vehicle for people, to help them understand challenges and issues - for example in the integration of subliminal messages in literary texts or in the rewriting of traditional narratives to help readers address their problems or mold them into contemporary social messages. [32] [33]

Hogan also explains that the time and emotion which a person devotes to understanding a character's situation makes literature "ecological[ly] valid in the study of emotion". [34] [ clarification needed ] Thus literature can unite a large community by provoking universal emotions, as well as allowing readers to access cultural aspects that they have not been exposed to, and that produce new emotional experiences. [35] Theorists[ which? ] argue that authors choose literary devices according to what psychological emotion they are attempting to describe. [36]

Some psychologists regard literature as a valid research tool, because it allows them to discover new psychological ideas. [37]

Psychologist Maslow's "Third Force Psychology Theory" helps literary analysts to critically understand how characters reflect the culture and the history to which they belong. It also allows them to understand an author's intention and psychology. [38] The theory suggests that human beings possess within them their true "self" and that the fulfillment of this is the reason for living. It also suggests that neurological development hinders actualizing this and that a person becomes estranged from his or her true self. [39] Maslow argues that literature explores this struggle for self-fulfillment. [36] Paris in his "Third Force Psychology and the Study of Literature" argues that "D.H. Lawrence's 'pristine unconscious' is a metaphor for the real self". [40] Literature, it is here suggested[ by whom? ], is therefore a tool that allows readers to develop and apply critical reasoning to the nature of emotions.

Symbols [41] and imagery [42] can contribute to shaping psychological and aesthetic responses to texts.


A calligram by Guillaume Apollinaire. These are a type of poem in which the written words are arranged in such a way to produce a visual image. Calligramme.jpg
A calligram by Guillaume Apollinaire. These are a type of poem in which the written words are arranged in such a way to produce a visual image.

Poetry is a form of literary art which uses the aesthetic qualities of language (including music and rhythm) to evoke meanings beyond a prose paraphrase. [43] Poetry has traditionally been distinguished from prose by its being set in verse; prose is cast in sentences, poetry in lines; the syntax of prose is dictated by meaning, whereas that of poetry is held across meter or the visual aspects of the poem. [44] [45] This distinction is complicated by various hybrid forms such as the prose poem [46] and prosimetrum, [47] and more generally by the fact that prose possesses rhythm. [48] Abram Lipsky refers to it as an "open secret" that "prose is not distinguished from poetry by lack of rhythm". [49]

Prior to the 19th century, poetry was commonly understood to be something set in metrical lines; accordingly, in 1658 a definition of poetry is "any kind of subject consisting of Rhythm or Verses". [43] Possibly as a result of Aristotle's influence (his Poetics ), "poetry" before the 19th century was usually less a technical designation for verse than a normative category of fictive or rhetorical art. [50] As a form it may pre-date literacy, with the earliest works being composed within and sustained by an oral tradition; [51] [52] hence it constitutes the earliest example of literature.


Prose is a form of language that possesses ordinary syntax and natural speech, rather than a regular metre; in which regard, along with its presentation in sentences rather than lines, it differs from most poetry. [44] [45] [53] However, developments in modern literature, including free verse and prose poetry have tended to blur any differences, and American poet T.S. Eliot suggested that while: "the distinction between verse and prose is clear, the distinction between poetry and prose is obscure". [54]

On the historical development of prose, Richard Graff notes that "[In the case of ancient Greece] recent scholarship has emphasized the fact that formal prose was a comparatively late development, an "invention" properly associated with the classical period". [55]

The majors forms of literature in prose are novels, novellas and short stories, which earned the name "fiction" to distinguish them from non-fiction writings also expressed in prose.

Literary fiction

Literary fiction is a term used to describe fiction that explores any facet of the human condition, and may involve social commentary. It is often regarded as having more artistic merit than genre fiction, especially the most commercially-oriented types, but this has been contested in recent years, with the serious study of genre fiction within universities. [56]

The following, by the award-winning British author William Boyd on the short story, might be applied to all prose fiction:

[short stories] seem to answer something very deep in our nature as if, for the duration of its telling, something special has been created, some essence of our experience extrapolated, some temporary sense has been made of our common, turbulent journey towards the grave and oblivion. [57]


Sculpture in Berlin depicting a stack of books on which are inscribed the names of great German writers. Printing3 Walk of Ideas Berlin.JPG
Sculpture in Berlin depicting a stack of books on which are inscribed the names of great German writers.

A novel is a long fictional prose narrative. In English, the term emerged from the Romance languages in the late 15th century, with the meaning of "news"; it came to indicate something new, without a distinction between fact or fiction. [58] The romance is a closely related long prose narrative. Walter Scott defined it as "a fictitious narrative in prose or verse; the interest of which turns upon marvellous and uncommon incidents", whereas in the novel "the events are accommodated to the ordinary train of human events and the modern state of society". [59] Other European languages do not distinguish between romance and novel: "a novel is le roman, der Roman, il romanzo", [60] indicates the proximity of the forms. [61]

Although there are many historical prototypes, so-called "novels before the novel", [62] the modern novel form emerges late in cultural history—roughly during the eighteenth century. [63] Initially subject to much criticism, the novel has acquired a dominant position amongst literary forms, both popularly and critically. [61] [64] [65]


In purely quantitative terms, the novella exists between the novel and short story; the publisher Melville House classifies it as "too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story". [66] Publishers and literary award societies typically consider a novella's word count to be between 17,000 and 40,000 words. [67] [68]

Short story

A dilemma in defining the "short story" as a literary form is how to, or whether one should, distinguish it from any short narrative and its contested origin, [69] that include the Bible, and Edgar Allan Poe). [70]


Drama is literature intended for performance. [71] The form is combined with music and dance in opera and musical theatre. A play is a subset of this form, referring to the written dramatic work of a playwright that is intended for performance in a theater; it comprises chiefly dialogue between characters, and usually aims at dramatic or theatrical performance rather than at reading. A closet drama, by contrast, refers to a play written to be read rather than to be performed; hence, it is intended that the meaning of such a work can be realized fully on the page. [72] Nearly all drama took verse form until comparatively recently.

Greek drama is the earliest form of drama of which we have substantial knowledge. Tragedy, as a dramatic genre, developed as a performance associated with religious and civic festivals, typically enacting or developing upon well-known historical or mythological themes. Tragedies generally presented very serious themes. With the advent of newer technologies, scripts written for non-stage media have been added to this form. War of the Worlds (radio) in 1938 saw the advent of literature written for radio broadcast, and many works of Drama have been adapted for film or television. Conversely, television, film, and radio literature have been adapted to printed or electronic media.

Other narrative forms

United Kingdom

Literary works have been protected by copyright law from unauthorized reproduction since at least 1710. [73] Literary works are defined by copyright law to mean any work, other than a dramatic or musical work, which is written, spoken or sung, and accordingly includes (a) a table or compilation (other than a database), (b) a computer program, (c) preparatory design material for a computer program, and (d) a database.

Literary works are not limited to works of literature, but include all works expressed in print or writing (other than dramatic or musical works). [74]


There are numerous awards recognizing achievement and contribution in literature. Given the diversity of the field, awards are typically limited in scope, usually on: form, genre, language, nationality and output (e.g. for first-time writers or debut novels). [75]

The Nobel Prize in Literature was one of the six Nobel Prizes established by the will of Alfred Nobel in 1895, [76] and is awarded to an author on the basis of their body of work, rather than to, or for, a particular work itself. [lower-alpha 1] Other literary prizes for which all nationalities are eligible include: the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Man Booker International Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Hugo Award, Guardian First Book Award and the Franz Kafka Prize.

See also


Related topics


  1. However, in some instances a work has been cited in the explanation of why the award was given.

Related Research Articles

Epic poetry Lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily detailing heroic deeds

An epic poem, epic, or epopee is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily involving a time beyond living memory in which occurred the extraordinary doings of the extraordinary men and women who, in dealings with the gods or other superhuman forces, gave shape to the mortal universe for their descendants, the poet and his audience, to understand themselves as a people or nation.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to literature:

Poetry Form of literature

Poetry is a form of literature that uses aesthetic and often rhythmic qualities of language—such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre—to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning.

A short story is a piece of prose fiction that typically can be read in one sitting and focuses on a self-contained incident or series of linked incidents, with the intent of evoking a single effect or mood.

Genre is any form or type of communication in any mode with socially-agreed-upon conventions developed over time. Genre is most popularly known as a category of literature, music, or other forms of art or entertainment, whether written or spoken, audio or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria, yet genres can be aesthetic, rhetorical, communicative, or functional. Genres form by conventions that change over time as cultures invent new genres and discontinue the use of old ones. Often, works fit into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions. Stand-alone texts, works, or pieces of communication may have individual styles, but genres are amalgams of these texts based on agreed-upon or socially inferred conventions. Some genres may have rigid, strictly adhered-to guidelines, while others may show great flexibility.

Prose form of language which applies ordinary grammatical structure and natural flow of speech

Prose is a form or technique of language that exhibits a natural flow of speech and grammatical structure. Novels, textbooks and newspaper articles are all examples of prose. The word prose is frequently used in opposition to traditional poetry, which is language with a regular structure and a common unit of verse based on metre or rhyme. However, as T. S. Eliot noted, whereas "the distinction between verse and prose is clear, the distinction between poetry and prose is obscure"; developments in modern literature, including free verse and prose poetry, have led to the two techniques indicating two ends on a spectrum of ways to compose language, as opposed to two discrete options.

Novella written, fictional, prose narrative normally longer than a short story but shorter than a novel

A novella or short novel is a work of narrative prose fiction, longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. Publishers and literary award societies typically consider a novella's word count to be between 15,000 and 40,000 words, although definitions vary.

History of literature Aspect of history

The history of literature is the historical development of writings in prose or poetry that attempt to provide entertainment, enlightenment, or instruction to the reader/listener/observer, as well as the development of the literary techniques used in the communication of these pieces. Not all writings constitute literature. Some recorded materials, such as compilations of data are not considered literature, and this article relates only to the evolution of the works defined above.

Sagas are prose stories and histories, composed in Iceland and to a lesser extent elsewhere in Scandinavia.

Literary genre Category of literary composition

A literary genre is a category of literary composition. Genres may be determined by literary technique, tone, content, or even length. The distinctions between genres and categories are flexible and loosely defined, often with subgroups.

Ancient Greek literature literature written in Ancient Greek language

Ancient Greek literature is literature written in the Ancient Greek language from the earliest texts until the time of the Byzantine Empire. The earliest surviving works of ancient Greek literature, dating back to the early Archaic period, are the two epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, set in an idealized archaic past today identified as having some relation to the Mycenaean era. These two epics, along with the Homeric Hymns and the two poems of Hesiod, Theogony and Works and Days, comprised the major foundations of the Greek literary tradition that would continue into the Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods.

This glossary of literary terms is a list of definitions of terms and concepts used in the discussion, classification, analysis, and criticism of all types of literature, such as poetry, novels, and picture books, as well as of grammar, syntax, and language techniques. For a more complete glossary of terms relating to poetry in particular, see Glossary of poetry terms.

Sudanese literature refers to both oral as well as written works of fiction and nonfiction that were created during the cultural history of today's Republic of the Sudan. This includes the territory of what was once Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, as well as this area's long and diverse history.

History of poetry aspect of history

Poetry as an art form predates written text. The earliest poetry is believed to have been recited or sung, employed as a way of remembering oral history, genealogy, and law. Poetry is often closely related to musical traditions, and the earliest poetry exists in the form of hymns, and other types of song such as chants. As such poetry is a verbal art. Many of the poems surviving from the ancient world are recorded prayers, or stories about religious subject matter, but they also include historical accounts, instructions for everyday activities, love songs, and fiction. Many scholars, particularly those researching the Homeric tradition and the oral epics of the Balkans, suggest that early writing shows clear traces of older oral traditions, including the use of repeated phrases as building blocks in larger poetic units. A rhythmic and repetitious form would make a long story easier to remember and retell, before writing was available as a reminder. Thus many ancient works, from the Vedas to the Odyssey, appear to have been composed in poetic form to aid memorization and oral transmission, in prehistoric and ancient societies. Poetry appears among the earliest records of most literate cultures, with poetic fragments found on early monoliths, runestones and stelae.

Swahili literature is, generally speaking, literature written in the Swahili language, particularly by Swahili people of the East African coast and the neighboring islands. It may also refer to literature written by people who write in the Swahili language. It is an offshoot of the Bantu culture.

Fiction Narrative with imaginary elements

Fiction generally is a narrative form, in any medium, consisting of stories, people, events, or places that are imaginary—in other words, not based strictly on history or fact. In its most narrow usage, fiction refers to written narratives in prose and often specifically novels, though also novellas and short stories. More broadly, fiction has come to encompass imaginary narratives expressed in any form, including not just writings but also live theatrical performances, films, television programs, radio dramas, comics, role-playing games, and video games.

Fantasy Genre of literature, film, drama, television and other artforms

Fantasy is a genre of speculative fiction set in a fictional universe, often inspired by real world myth and folklore. Its roots are in oral traditions, which then became fantasy literature and drama. From the twentieth century it has expanded further into various media, including film, television, graphic novels, manga, animated movies and video games.

A novel is a relatively long work of narrative fiction, normally written in prose form, and which is typically published as a book. The present English word for a long work of prose fiction derives from the Italian: novella for "new", "news", or "short story of something new", itself from the Latin: novella, a singular noun use of the neuter plural of novellus, diminutive of novus, meaning "new".

Mathematical fiction

Mathematical fiction is a genre of creative fictional work in which mathematics and mathematicians play important roles. The form and the medium of the works are not important. The genre may include poems, short stories, novels or plays; comic books; films, videos, or audios. One of the earliest, and much studied, work of this genre is Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, an 1884 satirical novella by the English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott. Mathematical fiction may have existed since ancient times, but it was recently rediscovered as a genre of literature; since then there has been a growing body of literature in this genre, and the genre has attracted a growing body of readers. For example, Abbot's Flatland spawned a sequel in the 21st century: a novel titled Flatterland, authored by Ian Stewart and published in 2001.



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  7. Eagleton 2008, p. 9.
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Further reading

Major forms

Bonheim, Helmut (1982). The Narrative Modes: Techniques of the Short Story. Cambridge: Brewer. An overview of several hundred short stories.
Gillespie, Gerald (January 1967). "Novella, nouvelle, novella, short novel? — A review of terms". Neophilologus. 51 (1): 117–127. doi:10.1007/BF01511303. S2CID   162102536.


Wheeler, L. Kip. "Periods of Literary History" (PDF). Carson-Newman University . Retrieved 18 March 2014. Brief summary of major periods in literary history of the Western tradition.