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Literature is literally "an acquaintance with letters" as in the first sense given in the Oxford English Dictionary; the term has, however, generally come to identify a collection of texts.

The word "literature" spelled with a lower-case "l" can refer to any form of writing, such as essays; while "Literature" spelled with an upper-case "L" may refer to a whole body of literary work, world-wide or relating to a specific culture.

Etymologically, the word literature comes from the Latin word "litera" meaning "a individual written character (letter)".

Table of contents
1 Introduction
2 Forms of literature
3 Somewhat related narrative forms
4 Genres of literature
5 Literary techniques
6 Literary figures
7 Literature by country or language
8 Literary analysis
9 Story elements
10 Themes in literature
11 Literary periods for English literature
12 Other
13 See also
14 External links


Nations can have literatures, as can corporations, philosophical schools or historical periods. Popular belief commonly holds that the literature of a nation, for example, comprises the collection of texts which make it a whole nation. The Hebrew Bible, Persian Shahnama, Beowulf, the Iliad and the Odyssey and the Constitution of the United States, all fall within this definition of a kind of literature.

More generally, one can equate a literature with a collection of stories, poems and plays that revolve around a particular topic. In this case, the stories, poems and plays may or may not have nationalisticic implications. The Western Canon forms one such literature.

Classifying a specific item as part of a literature (whether as American literature, advertising literature, gay and lesbian literature or Roman literature) can involve severe difficulties. To some people, the term "literature" can apply broadly to any symbolic record which can include images and sculptures, as well as letters. To others, a literature must only include examples of text composed of letters, or other narrowly defined examples of symbolic written language (hieroglyphs, for example). Even more conservative interpreters of the concept would demand that the text have a physical form, usually on paper or some other portable form, to the exclusion of inscriptions or digital media.

Furthermore, people may perceive a difference between "literature" and some popular forms of written work. The terms "literary fiction" and "literary merit" often serve to distinguish between individual works. For example, almost all literate people perceive the works of Charles Dickens as "literature", whereas many tend to look down on the works of Jeffrey Archer as unworthy of inclusion under the general heading of "English literature". Critics may exclude works from the classification "literature", for example, on the grounds of a poor standard of grammar and syntax, of an unbelievable or disjointed story-line, or of inconsistent or unconvincing characterss. Genre fiction (for example: romance, crime, or science fiction) may also become excluded from consideration as "literature".

Frequently, the texts that make up literature crossed over these boundaries. Illustrated stories, hypertexts, cave paintings and inscribed monuments have all at one time or another pushed the boundaries of what is and is not literature.

Different historical periods have emphasised various characteristics of literature. Early works often had an overt or covert religious or didactic purpose. Moralising or prescriptive literature stems from such sources. The exotic nature of romance flourished from the Middle ages onwards, whereas the Age of Reason manufactured nationalistic epics and philosophical tracts. Romanticism emphasized the popular folk literature and emotive involvement, but gave way in the 19th-century West to a phase of so-called realism. The 20th century brought demands for psychological insight in the delineation and development of character.

Forms of literature


A poem is a composition usually written in verse. 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 utilise rhyme. One cannot readily characterise poetry precisely. Typically though, poetry as a form of literature makes some significant use of the formal properties of the words it uses — the properties attached to the written or spoken form of the words, rather than to their meaning. Metre depends on syllables and on rhythms of speech; rhyme and alliteration depend on words that have similar pronunciation. Some recent poets, such as e. e. cummings, made extensive use of words' visual form.

Poetry perhaps pre-dates other forms of literature: early known examples include the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (dated from around 3000 B.C), parts of the Bible, and the surviving works of Homer (the Iliad and the Odyssey).

Much poetry uses specific forms: the haiku, the limerick, or the sonnet, for example. A haiku must have seventeen syllables, distributed over three lines in groups of five, seven, and five, and should have an image of a season and something to do with nature. A limerick has five lines, with a rhyme scheme of AABBA, and line lengths of 3,3,2,2,3 stressed syllables. It traditionally has a less reverent attitude towards nature.

Language and tradition dictate some poetic norms: Greek poetry rarely rhymes, Italian or French poetry often does, English and German can go either way (although modern non-rhyming poetry often, perhaps unfairly, has a more "serious" aura). Perhaps the most paradigmatic style of English poetry, blank verse, as exemplified in works by Shakespeare and by Milton, consists of unrhymed iambic pentameters. 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.

Works for theatre (see below) traditionally took verse form. This has now become rare outside opera and musicalss, although many would argue that the language of drama remains intrinsically poetic.


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 eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, opera developed as a combination of poetry, drama, and music. Nearly all drama took verse form until comparatively recently.

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 themess and treated important conflicts in human nature, but not necessarily "tragic" ones as currently understood — meaning sad and without a happy ending. Greek comedy, as a dramatic genre, developed later than tragedy; Greek festivals eventually came to include three tragedies counterbalanced by a comedy or satyr play.

Modern theatre does not in general adhere to any of these restrictions of form or theme. "Plays" cover anything written for performance by actors (screenplays, for example); and even some things not intended for performance: many contemporary writers have taken advantage of the dialogue-centred character of plays as a way of presenting literary work intended simply for readikng rather than performance.


An essay consists of a discussion of a topic from an author's personal point of view, exemplified by works by Francis Bacon or by Charles Lamb.

'Essay' in English derives from the French 'essai', meaning 'attempt'. Thus an essay may be open-ended, provocative, inconclusive; or all three. The first writings identified as "essays" were the self-reflective musings of Michel de Montaigne, and even today he has a reputation as the father of this literary form.

Genres related to the essay may include:

Prose fiction

Prose consists of writing that does not adhere to any particular formal structures (other than simple grammar); "non-poetic writing," writing, perhaps. The term sometimes appears pejoratively, but prosaic writing simply says something without necessarily trying to say it in a beautiful way, or using beautiful words. Prose writing can of course be beautiful; but less by virtue of the formal features of words (rhymes, alliteration, meter). But one need not mark the distinction precisely, and perhaps cannot do so. Note the classifications:

Narrative fiction generally favours prose for the writing of novels, short stories, and the like. Singular examples of these exist throughout history, but they did not develop into systematic and discrete literary forms until relatively recent centuries. Length often serves to categorize works of prose fiction. Although limits remain somewhat arbitrary, publishing conventions dictate the following: A novel consists simply of a long story written in prose; yet it developed comparatively recently. Icelandic prose sagas dating from about the 11th century bridge the gap between traditional national epics and the modern psychological novel. In mainland Europe, the Spaniard Cervantes wrote perhaps the first influential novel: Don Quixote, published in 1600. Earlier collections of tales, such as Boccaccio's Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, have comparable forms and would probably classify as novels if written today. Earlier works written in Asia resemble even more strongly the novel as we now think of it— for example, works such as the Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Japanese Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki. Compare too The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.

Early novels in Europe did not, at the time, count as significant literature, 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 styles — including poetry — in the scope of a single novel.

See Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel. [This definition needs expansion]

Other prose literature

Philosophy, history, journalism, and legal and scientific writings have 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.

The "literary" nature of of science writing has become less pronounced over the last two centuries, as advances and specialization have made new scientific research inaccessible to most audiences; science now appears mostly in journals. Scientific works of Euclid, 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. Many books "popularizing" science might still deserve the title "literature"; history will tell.

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, Nietzsche -- have become as canonical as any writers. Some recent philosophy undoubtedly merits the title "literature" — the work of Wittgenstein, for example, does; but much of it does not, and some areas, such as logic, have become extremely technical to the same degree as the sciences.

A great deal of historical writing can still rank 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 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 during the reign of Justinian I of Byzantium has a reputation as significant literature. The founding documents of many countries, including the Constitution of the United States, count as literature; however legal writing now rarely exhibits literary merit.

Most of these fields, then, through specialization or proliferation, no longer generally constitute "literature" in the sense under discussion. They may sometimes count as "literary literature"; more often they produce what one might call "technical literature" or "professional literature".

Somewhat related narrative forms

Genres of literature

Alternate history
Children's literature
Constrained writing
Diaries and Journals
Chick lit
Crime fiction, Detective fiction
Fairy tale
Family Saga
Historical fiction
Historiographical metafiction
Legal thriller
Roman Ó clef
Speculative fiction
Science fiction
The Slave narrative
Spy fiction/Political thriller
Oral Narrative (Oral History)

Literary techniques

Epistolary novel
First-person narrative
Omniscient narrator
Vision / Prophecy
Story within a story
Fictional guidebook
False document

Literary figures

Short story authors

Literature by country or language

American literature
Anglo-Welsh literature
Arabic literature
Australian literature
Babylonian literature and science
Bengali literature
Canadian literature
Catalan literature
Celtic literature
Chinese literature
Croatian literature
Czech literature (partly duplicated in Bohemian literature)
Danish literature
Dutch literature
English literature
Finnish literature
French literature
Frisian literature
German literature
Greek literature
Hungarian literature
Icelandic literature
Indian writing in English
Irish literature
Israeli literature
Italian literature
Japanese literature
Korean literature
Latin literature
Malayalam literature
New Zealand literature
Norwegian literature
Pakistani literature
Persian literature
Philippine literature
Polish literature
Portuguese literature
Provenšal literature
Romanian literature
Russian literature
Scottish literature
Serbian literature
Slovak literature
Slovene literature
South African literature
Spanish literature
Tamil literature
Turkish literature
Urdu/Hindi literature
Western literature, see Otto Maria Carpeaux
Yiddish literature

Literary analysis

Analyzing fiction
Analyzing literature
Analyzing plays
Analyzing poetry
Character analysis
Literary topos

Story elements

Elements of plot
Figurative language
Setting tone

Themes in literature

Adultery in literature
Chess in early literature
Family life in literature
Generation in literature
Heroines in literature
Losers in literature
Norse mythological influences on later literature
Post-colonialism in literature
Robots in literature
School and university in literature
Smuggling in literature
Technology and culture in literature
Tourism in literature


Scientific literature
Blindness literature
Literature cycle
Rabbinic literature

See also

External links