definition of literatureDid you know the word “literature” can mean many things to many people? Some scholars define literature as the collection of written works of fiction, while others add to that unpublished works and non-fiction.

Which definition is correct? Or, maybe, all of them are good enough? Does fiction meet science in the definition of literature? Let’s check it.

Definitions of literature

What is literature? Here are the most popular definitions of literature:

  • Creative writing as the product of authors’ imagination, with recognized artistic value (for instance, Ulysses by James Joyce is a literary work, because critics recognized its value; your posts on Facebook are not, because respected critics do not consider them to have artistic value.) In this sense, literature is also known as fiction.
  • Written works, belonging to certain countries and/or historical periods (such as literature of ancient Greece, for example.)
  • The occupation of professional writers (for example, Joyce was a writer and literature was his occupation.)
  • The collection of materials in a particular field (for example, business literature.) This last definition includes not only books, but also articles, conference proceedings, dissertations and any other writing published in a particular field. It's this definition that you will need to conduct a literature review.

Definition of literature genres

The first definition can be further developed into a discussion of various literary genres, defined as peculiarities of literary manner, tone and techniques. The main literary genres are lyric, drama and epic.

  1. Lyric. It can be poetry or prose, focusing on the inner emotions of the main characters. For example: “And this maiden she lived with no other thought/ Than to love and be loved by me” (Annabelle Lee by Edgar Poe.) As you see, Edgar Poe shares the thoughts and emotions of his characters so that readers do not need to guess them.
  2. Drama. It is further subdivided into comedies and tragedies. In these works, the author shows the characters’ feelings through their actions and words instead of revealing all the secrets as they are revealed by the lyric genre (Othello by Shakespeare, is an example of drama.)
  3. Epic. It is a literary genre that usually describes certain heroic events or stories about gods (for example, Iliad by Homer is an epic poem, because it describes heroic events.)

Definition of literature periods

Literary movements depend upon the historical periods and dominant philosophical doctrines of the times when they developed:

Periods Characteristics Examples
Classical (1200 BCE – 455 CE) The remaining works are rather chaotic. The main themes are gods, princes, warriors and travelers. The Iliad by Homer
Medieval (455 CE – 1485 CE) “Dark Ages” - Rome fell and barbarians came to Europe. Divine Comedy by Dante
Renaissance and reformation (1485 - 1660) Intellectuals, linguists and religious people influenced the literature of this period. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Las Casas
Enlightenment (1660 - 1790) More emphasis is put on logic and the need to educate people. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke
Romantic (1790 - 1830) The main themes are the inner world and nature. Annabelle Lee by Edgar Poe
Victorian (1832 - 1901) Sentimental movements. Song of Myself by Walt Whitman
Modernism (1914 - 1945) Experimentation and the disillusionment with the World Wars. Farewell to Arms by Hemingway
Postmodernism (since 1945) Experimentation with fragmented poetry and prose; stream of consciousness technique. Ulysses by James Joyce

As you see, definitions of literature can mean different things to different people. Feel free to use these perfect answers to clearly understand the meaning of the term “literature” and answer the trickiest questions of your teachers.