What is Literature?

It is typical of any serious discussion of literature (or anything at all, for that matter) to start by asking what it is, or how it has been variously defined. However, this time let’s look at how the question itself is put across or phrased; in this case, why is the singular term “literature” used rather than the plural “literatures”? “Why Literature with the big letter “L”? And why is the word enclosed in double quotation marks?

The question is phrased this way—with the word “Literature” in the singular, with the big L, and enclosed in quotation marks—to call attention to three common assumptions that lie unnoticed or unchallenged whenever attempts are made to discuss the nature of literature. By “assumptions” we refer to deeply seated ideas that we have unconsciously accepted as timeless or universal truths, but actually carry unexamined values. In fact—as in the case of drawing from western-inspired assumptions for understanding non-Western texts, or draw-ing from patriarchy-inspired assumptions for understanding literatures written by women—we do ourselves and our own literatures a disservice when we leave these overarching assumptions unidentified and unexamined.

Let’s begin by looking at the assumptions behind the common use of the singular term “literature” over the plural “literatures.” (By all means, we can use the singular term for convenience’s sake, let’s just be aware of the baggage that comes with the habit.) It gives the impression that there is only one kind of literature governed by so-called timeless standards that are universally applicable, that is, despite very high degrees of contextual differences in cultures and timeframes. “World literature” is conventionally understood this way, as a collection of the best writings from all over the world—and doesn’t this sound as commonsensical as it gets? Yet when we try to go beyond what appears to be commonsensical and ask probing questions like “What exactly are the criteria for selecting the ‘best writings’?” “Who set the criteria, and who gets to judge?” “How are differences in style, themes, and conditions for writing accounted for?” “How come certain texts and authors are deemed representative of a people, country, or region, while others are not?” “Has the criteria ever adjusted, and why?” and so on, we will soon understand that more often than not, what we have come to absorb as “universal” definitions of good literature are not universal at all, but cherished ideals held by select (usually dominant) group/s of people with context-specific views. 


The same logic applies to the formation of “national literature,” which goes hand-in-hand with articulations of national identity. While national self-definition can be empowering, it is also important to examine the body of works that constitute the national canon: what sort of works were included and excluded? 

When we speak of context, we don’t just mean the social or cultural context in the setting of a story, or the biographical details of the author. Context also includes the genre, mode, or form in which the work was written (we will take up the genres later in this lesson), or the set of conventions an artist grapples with in producing a work of art. As will be made clear later, genres are like frameworks that carry particular views about reality and the world. Context also includes the historical, cultural, social, economic, political, affective, and other material conditions that have bearings on the writing, publishing, and reading of literary texts. When a dominant view about literature develops the aura of universal applicability, such multifaceted contextual conditions can be naively forgotten (or worse, deliberately ignored).

On a more political note, decontextualized views and values are usually not propagated innocently, but are used to serve the interests of a dominant group or to keep them in positions of power or influence. As in the often-cited example of colonial mentality among dominated natives, a colonial power through the public education system may instill in young minds a notion of literature that celebrates the world’s (actually, the colonizer’s) literary masterpieces as more “evolved” and sophisticated compared to native traditional forms and writings, which are not included in the curriculum for students to read appreciatively. This view accustoms the natives not only to look up to the colonial power as the epitome of greatness but more devastatingly, to look down upon oneself and one’s own people as inferior. The effects of this view, unfortunately, lasts well beyond the colonial years: not only does it help sustain the power differential between colonizer and native, it also devalues the natives’ vast cultural wealth of centuries’ worth of traditional and literary forms. Part of the work of postcolonial criticism is the undoing of the effects of this destructive view and the study, recovery, and reappreciation of cultural treasures.

Similarly, contexts surrounding the writing, reading, and rereading of a particular piece of literature tends to get effaced when an assumed “universal” evaluative standard is uncritically set upon it. This happens, for example, when we apply modern literary concepts in approaching traditional oral forms like myths and epics in the mistaken assumption that newer and more “advanced” ideas are necessarily better. Modern literature and traditional forms should be approached on their own terms, not least because oral culture (which sustained traditional forms) has its own set of conditions that are vastly different from print culture (from which modern literature emerges). The same critical care should be observed when looking at newer forms of artistic expression coming out of online culture. It also has to be said that oral culture was not obliterated by print culture (brought about by the technology of the printing press, journalism and the growth of the public sphere, realism as a literary mode in contrast to the predominantly mythical or romantic modes of earlier forms, capitalism as an economic mode and its political spin-offs in modern imperialism and postmodern globalization). Oral culture persisted and co-existed with print culture, dynamically producing new forms with new features that incorporate new cultural elements. At present, oral, print, and online cultures co-exist and influence one other in the production and reception of literary and other artistic works. 

Let’s do it!

Compare and contrast oral, print, and online culture. Can you come up with examples of traditional and literary forms produced by each of these cultures?

To appreciate how oral, print, and online cultures reshape textual content, try this multimedia activity with groupmates. Choose a short oral text from your local community—a riddle, tale, song, etc. Then, translate its orality into print by writing down your own version of it and setting yourselves as authors of this version of it and setting yourselves as authors of this version of the original oral text (you may creatively retell it). Finally, translate this authored print version into an online text with its distinct features like hypertext, image and sound, interactivity, etc. (you may creatively retell it to make use of online features).

As you engage in this activity, consider how “remediation” or “media translation” reshapes texts as they move from oral, to print, to online cultures.

Let’s do it!

What we are simply trying to say is that critical thinking about literature begins with looking at it in the plural, as “literatures” that are as incredibly various in textual forms, themes, and concerns as they are in their extratextual conditions of writing and reading.

This leads us to consider the second assumption, which is connected to the first: Literature with the big “L” brings up the concept of the literary canon, the idea that some works deserve to be included in a kind of literary hall of fame, hence the big “L,” while others are relegated to “literature” or “literatures.” While delimiting a reading list to a canon certainly has its conveniences (for example, it cuts down your reading to a preselected list of “great works”), it also pays to question, again, what sort of criteria were used to make the list. From the liberal humanist perspective, the criteria would be likely based on Matthew Arnold’s famous phrase from his book Culture and Anarchy, “the best that is known and thought in the world” (1869, viii). This phrase is usually understood to be quite inspirational, seeing literature as a “powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life—to the question: How to live.” Unlike Plato who wanted poets banished from the Republic because poetry for him was a product of fanciful or untruthful thinking, for Arnold and adherents to the liberal humanist vision, literature actually serves a civilizing function: to raise cultured individuals capable of deriving moral and spiritual guidance from reading literature. According to this view, you can turn to literature as a kind of substitute religion (or “philosophy” in Plato’s Republic) if you want to learn “how to live.” Incidentally, however—and here we will look at the political context of Arnold’s writing—Arnold voiced these out at a moment of “anarchy” in English history when there were riots and social unrest among the masses as a result of their not being allowed to vote. As may be gleaned from this context, beneath Arnold’s seemingly inspirational counsel is actually a warning against what were perceived to be acts of political fanaticism, or resorting to unreflective, impulsive, and destructive measures when clamoring for change, prejudicially im-plying the masses’ lack of culture and restraint as the root of the problem rather than their economic, social, and political dispossession. 


Plato certainly came from an earlier historical period. Compare and contrast Plato’s and Matthew Arnold’s views about the value of literature. Note that Arnold’s universality thesis is itself not universal at all.

While there can be no doubt that reading the canon of great works is a deeply enriching experience, it also pays to look at noncanonical works. Till recently, women writers, ethnic minorities, and the LGBTQ were minimally (if not at all) represented, with the Western canon be-ing severely charged of exclusivity to “dead white males.” Typically excluded as well from great “Literature” are works thought to have very little or no artistic value like those created for popular consumption, e.g., romance novels, suspense thrillers, comics, radio and television dramas, etc. These works are thought to provide its incredibly large fan base of ordinary readers and followers with nothing more than aliw and libangan, cheap thrills, and escapist entertainment. Illuminating studies of Philippine popular culture and literature, for instance, as carried out by scholars like Soledad Reyes among, many others, show that despite the commercial demands that tend to limit artistic freedom in such works, they just as well shed light on the local and folk traditions and sensibilities from which such works derive not only their inspiration but also their enduring popularity. 

Let’s now consider the third assumption, which has something to do with putting the word “literature” between quotation marks. Put-ting quotation marks around words foregrounds the constructedness of their meanings, such as when earlier in this essay we put quotation marks around the word “universal” to mean not what universal means in the dictionary, but to highlight the fact that what we tend to think of as universally applicable were actually not. Rather, they are context-bound constructions that appear to be context-free. The radical importance of looking at the contexts of texts cannot be stressed enough.

The same goes for definitions of literature—there is no one correct or essential or natural definition. “What we have at best are several pro-visional definitions that emphasize certain aspects while deemphasizing others. We have already examined notions of literature as a canon of great works and authors; other definitions you may have encountered include literature as artistic expression, literature as mirroring the real world, literature as a repository of moral lessons and other kinds of good teaching (in technical language: the expressive, mimetic, and didactic theories of literature respectively). As schematized in M.H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp (1953), the first emphasizes the relation between the text and the artist, the second emphasizes the relation between the text and the world, the third emphasizes the relation between the text and the audience.

We will move on from here to focus on the relation between the text and itself (the formalist theory of literature), which is a good place to start as it provides foundational knowledge of the textual form of literary works as set by conventions—the different (modern) genres (fiction, poetry, drama, essay) and their respective elements. Conventions associated with each of the genres make them recognizable as such and provide authors not only with building blocks for their art, but boundaries to flex, play with, reflect on, or transcend.