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Literature (from Latin litterae (plural); letter) is the art of written works, and is not bound to published sources (although, under circumstances unpublished sources can be exempt). Literally translated, the word literature means "acquaintance with letters" (as in the "arts and letters"). The two major classification of literature are verse and prose.
"Literature" is sometimes differentiated from popular and ephemeral classes of writing. Terms such as "literary fiction" and "[literary merit" are used to distinguish individual works as art-literature rather than vernacular writing, and some critics exclude works from being "literary", for example, on grounds of weak or faulty style, use of slang, poor characterization and shallow or contrived construction. Others exclude all genres such as romance, crime and mystery, science fiction, horror and fantasy. Pop lyrics, which are not technically a written medium at all, have also been drawn into this controversy.
History[edit | edit source]
- Main article: History of literature
The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest known literary works. This Babylonian epic poem arises from stories in Sumerian. Although the Sumerian stories are older (probably dating to at least 2100 B.C.), it was probably composed around 1900 BC. The epic deals with themes of heroism, friendship, loss, and the quest for eternal life.
Different historical periods are reflected in their literature. National and tribal sagas, accounts of the origin of the world and of customs, and myths which sometimes carry moral or spiritual messages predominate in the pre-urban eras. The epics of Homer, dating from the early to middle Iron age, and the great Indian epics of a slightly later period, have more evidence of deliberate literary authorship, surviving like the older myths through oral tradition for long periods before being written down.
As a more urban culture developed academies provided a means of transmission for speculative and philosophical literature, while the expanding empires of Greece and Rome fostered the earliest biographies. Many works of earlier periods, even in narrative form, had an covert moral or didactic purpose, such as 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 the East, but over a long period the poetry of popular pre-literate balladry and song interpenetrated and eventually influenced poetry in the literary medium.
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 early and important examples are the Chinese Monkey and the German Faust books.
In the Age of Reason philosophical tracts and speculations on history and human nature integrated literature with social and political developments. The inevitable reaction was the explosion of Romanticism in the later 18th century which reclaimed the imaginative and fantastical bias of old romances and folk-literature and asserted the primacy of individual experience and emotion. But as the 19th-century went on, European fiction evolved towards realism and naturalism, the meticulous documentation of real life and social trends. Much of the output of naturalism was implicitly polemical, and influenced social and political change, but 20th century fiction and drama moved back towards the subjective, emphasising unconscious motivations and social and environmental pressures on the individual. Writers such as Eliot, Joyce, Kafka and Pirandello exemplify the trend of documenting internal rather than external realities.
Genre fiction, conventionally equated with escapism and static formulas, also threw reality into question in its distinctive 20th-Century developments, through the enquiries of the ever-sceptical detective and the alternative realities of science fiction. The separation of "mainstream" and "genre" forms (including journalism) continued to blur during the period up to our own times.
Poetry[edit | edit source]
- Main article: Poetry
|Poetry • Outline • Explication|
Imagery • Figures of speech
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A poem is a composition usually written in verse (although verse has also been for epic and dramatic fiction). Poems rely heavily on imagery, precise word choice, and metaphor; they may take the form of measures consisting of patterns of stresses (metric feet) or of patterns of different-length syllables (as in classical prosody); and they may or may not utilize rhyme. One cannot readily characterize poetry precisely. Typically though, poetry as a form of literature makes some significant use of the formal properties of the words it usesTemplate:Dash the properties of the written or spoken form of the words, independent of their meaning. Meter depends on syllables and on rhythms of speech; rhyme and alliteration depend on the sounds of words.
Arguably, poetry pre-dates other forms of literature. Early examples include the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (dated from around 2700 B.C.), parts of the Bible, the surviving works of Homer (the Iliad and the Odyssey), and the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. In cultures based primarily on oral traditions the formal characteristics of poetry often have a mnemonic function, and important texts: legal, genealogical or moral, for example, may appear first in verse form.
Some poetry uses specific forms. Examples include the haiku and the limerick. Traditional haiku written in Japanese relate to nature, contain seventeen onji (syllables), written in one line in groups of five, seven, and five, and should also have a kigo, a specific word indicating a season. A limerick has five lines, with a rhyme scheme of a-a-b-b-a, and line lengths of 3,3,2,2,3 feet. It traditionally has a less reverent attitude towards nature. Poetry that uses line but does not adhere to a poetic form is called "free verse"
Language and tradition dictate some poetic norms: Persian poetry always rhymes, Greek poetry rarely rhymes, Italian or French poetry often does, English and German poetry can go either way. Perhaps the most paradigmatic style of English poetry, blank verse, as exemplified in works by Shakespeare and Milton, consists of unrhymed iambic pentameter. Some languages prefer longer lines; some shorter ones. Some of these conventions result from the ease of fitting a specific language's vocabulary and grammar into certain structures, rather than into others; for example, some languages contain more rhyming words than others, or typically have longer words. Other structural conventions come about as the result of historical accidents, where many speakers of a language associate good poetry with a verse form preferred by a particular skilled or popular poet.
In recent years, digital poetry has arisen that takes advantage of the artistic, publishing, and synthetic qualities of digital media.
Essays[edit | edit source]
- Main article: Essay
'Essay' in English derives from 'attempt.' Thus, one can find open-ended, provocative and/or inconclusive essays. The term "essays" first applied to the self-reflective musings of Michel de Montaigne--even today he has a reputation as the father of this literary form.
Genres related to the essay may include:
- the memoir, telling the story of an author's life from the author's personal point of view
- the epistle: usually a formal, didactic, or elegant letter.
- works by Lady MurasakiTemplate:Fact, the Arabic Hayy ibn Yaqdhan by Ibn Tufail, the Arabic Theologus Autodidactus by Ibn al-Nafis, and the Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo GuanzhongTemplate:Fact.
Early novels in Europe did not count as significant litera perhaps because "mere" prose writing seemed easy and unimportant. It has become clear, however, that prose writing can provide aesthetic pleasure without adhering to poetic forms. Additionally, the freedom authors gain in not having to concern themselves with verse structure translates often into a more complex plot or into one richer in precise detail than one typically finds even in narrative poetry. This freedom also allows an author to experiment with many different literary and presentation styles—including poetry—in the scope of a single novel.
Other prose literature[edit | edit source]
Philosophical, historical, journalistic, legal and scientific writings are traditionally ranked as literature. They offer some of the oldest prose writings in existence; novels and prose stories earned the names "fiction" to distinguish them from factual writing or nonfiction, which writers historically have crafted in prose.
Natural science[edit | edit source]
As advances and specialization have made new scientific research inaccessible to most audiences, the "literary" nature of science writing has become less pronounced over the last two centuries. Now, science appears mostly in journals. Scientific works of Aristotle, Copernicus, and Newton still possess great value, but since the science in them has largely become outdated, they no longer serve for scientific instruction. Yet, they remain too technical to sit well in most programmes of literary study. Outside of "history of science" programmes, students rarely read such works.
Philosophy[edit | edit source]
Philosophy, too, has become an increasingly academic discipline. More of its practitioners lament this situation than occurs with the sciences; nonetheless most new philosophical work appears in academic journals. Major philosophers through history—Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche—have become as canonical as any writers. Some recent philosophy works are argued to merit the title "literature", such as some of the works by Simon Blackburn; but much of it does not, and some areas, such as logic, have become extremely technical to a degree similar to that of mathematics.
History[edit | edit source]
A great deal of historical writing ranks as literature, particularly the genre known as creative nonfiction. So can a great deal of journalism, such as literary journalism. However these areas have become extremely large, and often have a primarily utilitarian purpose: to record data or convey immediate information. As a result the writing in these fields often lacks a literary quality, although it often and in its better moments has that quality. Major "literary" historians include Herodotus, Thucydides and Procopius, all of whom count as canonical literary figures.
Law[edit | edit source]
Law offers a less clear case. Some writings of Plato and Aristotle, or even the early parts of the Bible, might count as legal literature. The law tables of Hammurabi of Babylon might count. Roman civil law as codified in the Corpus Juris Civilis during the reign of Justinian I of the Byzantine Empire has a reputation as significant literature. The founding documents of many countries, including Constitutions and Law Codes, can count as literature; however, most legal writings rarely exhibit much literary merit, as they tend to be rather garrulous.
Drama[edit | edit source]
A play or drama offers another classical literary form that has continued to evolve over the years. It generally comprises chiefly dialogue between characters, and usually aims at dramatic / theatrical performance (see theatre) rather than at reading. During the 18th and 19th centuries, opera developed as a combination of poetry, drama, and music. Nearly all drama took verse form until comparatively recently. Shakespeare could be considered drama. Romeo and Juliet, for example, is a classic romantic drama generally accepted as literature.
Greek drama exemplifies 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.
Oral literature[edit | edit source]
- Main article: Oral literature
Other narrative forms[edit | edit source]
- Electronic literature is a literary genre consisting of works which originate in digital environments.
- Films, videos and broadcast soap operas have carved out a niche which often parallels the functionality of prose fiction.
- Graphic novels and comic books present stories told in a combination of sequential artwork, dialogue and text.
Genres of literature[edit | edit source]
Literary techniques[edit | edit source]
- Main article: Literary technique
A literary technique or literary device can be used by works of literature in order to produce a specific effect on the reader. Literary technique is distinguished from literary genre as military tactics are from military strategy. Thus, though David Copperfield employs satire at certain moments, it belongs to the genre of comic novel, not that of satire. By contrast, Bleak House employs satire so consistently as to belong to the genre of satirical novel. In this way, use of a technique can lead to the development of a new genre, as was the case with one of the first modern novels, Pamela by Samuel Richardson, which by using the epistolary technique strengthened the tradition of the epistolary novel, a genre which had been practiced for some time already but without the same acclaim.
Literary criticism implies a critique and evaluation of a piece of literature and in some cases is used to improve a work in progress or classical piece. There are many types of literary criticism and each can be used to critique a piece in a different way or critique a different aspect of a piece.
Legal status[edit | edit source]
UK[edit | edit source]
Literary works have been protected by copyright law from unauthorised reproduction since at least 1710. 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.
It should be noted that literary works are not limited to works of literature, but include all works expressed in print or writing (other than dramatic or musical works).
See also[edit | edit source]
- Main article: Outline of literature
- List of authors
- List of books
- List of literary awards
- List of literary terms
- List of prizes, medals, and awards for literary prizes.
- List of women writers
- List of writers
- Related topics
- Asemic writing
- Children's literature
- Cultural movement for literary movements.
- English studies
- Ergodic literature
- Erotic literature
- Hinman Collator
- History of literature (antiquity–1800)
- History of modern literature (1800– )
- Literature basic topics
- Literary criticism
- Literature cycle
- Literary magazine
- Modern Language Association
- Postcolonial literature
- Rabbinic literature
- Rhetorical modes
- Scientific literature
- Vernacular literature
- World literature
- Associations devoted to the study of language and literature
Notes[edit | edit source]
- The Statute of Anne 1710 and the Literary Copyright Act 1842 used the term "book". However, since 1911 the statutes have referred to literary works.
- University of London Press v. University Tutorial Press 
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