Terry Eagleton sees literature as any piece of writing which is ‘imaginative’ in nature and is not “literary true”. It is not sufficient to ground the definition of literature to whether or not it is a fact or fiction…
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It is not sufficient to ground the definition of literature to whether or not it is a fact or fiction. By using Eagleton’s definition, I would like to suggest that the task of defining literature is a contentious issue. However, more controversy has been witnessed in the issue of what really makes a work qualify as literary. My work seeks to look at what makes any kind of literature literary. To do this, I will first give an overview of two approaches that have successfully been used to draw the line between literary and non-literary literature. The two approaches are the criteria approach and the prototypical approach. However, I shall dwell more on the prototypical approach. My main source of information will be a work done by Jim Meyer, on the definition of literature based on prototype. In addition, I shall use other sources to give more weight to the points advanced by Meyer. According to Meyer, most people who have attempted to define literature have relied more on the criteria approach. This approach proposes a number of characteristics that any literary work must have to be considered literary (1). These characteristics are very clear and mostly depend on the internal properties of individual members. Hernadi’s work “What is Literature?” (1978) contains a number of essays that use this approach to give more insight to what can be considered literary. According to Wellek (qtd. in Hernadi 16), in the past, literature was believed to include all pieces of writing “with any pretense to permanence.” For Hirsch, any work that can only be taught to literature students, and not students from other departments, automatically qualify to be literature (qtd. in Hernadi 25). It is important to note that some definitions which can be generally viewed as mostly concerning the dynamic nature of literature also tend to employ this approach. Such a definition is the following by McFadden: I should say, then, that literature is a canon which consists of those works in language by which a community defines itself through the course of its history. It works primarily artistic and also those whose aesthetic qualities are only secondary. The self-defining activity of the community is conducted in light of the works, as its members have come to read them”(qtd. in Meyer 2). As evident in the two definitions, we may say that the criteria approach may derive its facts from either the community or an individual text. The criteria approach seems to be losing relevance, if the latest definitions are anything to go by. Most scholars are now relying on the prototypical approach. The approach is based on the premises that the definition provided must get a general acceptance from people, as having most of the characteristics available in the given set of examples. The English speaking people have to determine this consensus on characteristics. They, therefore, tend to readily accept works with most of the characteristics they believe make a work literary (Meyer 3). This approach proposes that literary works are written. They are also characterized by a special selection of language, that is, the use of metaphors, unique phrases, well managed syntax, alliteration and so on. This use of a special form of language makes the work concrete, rather than abstract, so that mind can easily access the happenings in the literary work. Moreover, the works fall under at least one of the literary genres such as drama, poetry, and prose fiction. Literary works are not only read aesthetically but they also satisfy the author’s intention that they be read aesthetically. Last but not least, they give room for free interpretation, a factor mostly referred to as “
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