WHAT IS LITERATURE?
Literature, as a subject, is unarguably the most important subject, after English, for art students because passing it at O-LEVEL is a prerequisite for gaining admission to study courses such as language, law and mass communication, to name a few, at tertiary level.
However, the fact that literature is crucial to students does not make it less complicated. As a matter of fact, the first problem students and others may face when dealing with literature is the difficulty in ascribing a particular definition to literature. Of course, literature does not have a specific definition. This lack of specificness may be as a result of the vastness of literature. Vastness in this scenario points out that literature is so broad that it cuts across several disciplines. Another reason for the lack of specificness towards a definition arises due to the generally accepted notion by critics that no definition of literature is completely flawless. For example, the definition which classifies literature as something that is written is often debunked because literature can also be oral. Oral literature will be defined in subsequent pages.
Nevertheless, for the sake of classroom learning, several definitions will be provided and these definitions will be critically examined for their merits and demerits.
DEFINITIONS OF LITERATURE
- Hancock’s (2006) defines literature as the body of every written work.
- Bwalya .L (2006) explains the term literature as a Latin word ‘litera’ which means “writing”.
- Stephen Chike Nnaemeka (2015) defines literature as the subject which studies life.
- Chiedozie Ude (2020) describes literature as an art form that seeks to present an accurate or idealized picture of life through creative writings, performance or the word of mouth.
CRITICAL REVIEW OF THE DEFINITIONS
The definitions given above have their merits and demerits. Hancock’s, for instance, suggests that anything that is written is literature. His definition is reinforced Bwalya, who confirms that literature has to do with writing. However, an argument against these definitions is that they do not specify which form of writing constitutes literature; rather, they postulate that everything that has been written is literature. They by extension, give people the go-ahead to brand things like mathematical figures and Roman numerals as literature.
Also, literature can exist in the oral form. To succinctly put it, oral literature is a form of literature whereby stories are told verbally. This act, otherwise known as orature, is an integral part of the term, literature. In fact, it is a well agreed notion that the oral tradition is far older than the written tradition. Hence, one can easily vilify the definitions given by Hancock and Bwalya because they restricted literature to the written tradition. In other to plaster the loopholes in the above definitions, Chiedozie depicts literature as an art that can be written, spoken or performed.
Chike’s definition points out to a different perspective. He declares that literature is a subject that studies life. This definition is universally accepted and one will not be erroneous to point out the uncanny similarity it shares with the now-cliche definition that brands literature as a mirror of life. By this, we can affirm that the ultimate aim of literature is to draw a vivid picture of life or the society and this is what Chiedozie meant when he said literature seeks to present an accurate or idealised picture of life.
Also, the relationship between literature and life is what Aristotle was trying to show in his Poetics when he explained the theory of mimesis — a theory which identifies literature as a discipline that imitates life. This also explains why many teachers are quick to define literature as the mirror of life.
WHY WE STUDY LITERATURE
Literature is studied due to a plethora of reasons. Some of these reasons are:
- Entertainment Purpose: Literature can provide entertainment for people. Comedy, for instance, often provokes laughter from the audience or reader.
- Cultural Purpose: The study of literature helps the reader to know a lot about different cultures. For example, reading books that talk about Africa will surely expose the student to the African way of life. Likewise, reading books about other places will help one to understand the manner in which the people in that location operate.
- Didactic Purpose: Didacticism is a tradition that aims to teach moral or religious lessons. While many critics are of the opinion that great literature is one which concentrates on creating beauty (aesthetics), we cannot downplay the role of literature in teaching morals to people. Therefore, we can describe any work of literature that teaches morals to be didactic in nature. Stories that can be said to be didactic include parables and fables.
KEY THINGS TO NOTE
- Literati: The term, “literati”, refers to a group of people who love literature. They are usually smart and well-read.
- Literatus: This is the singular form of literati. A literatus refers to a person who loves and enjoy reading works of literature.
- English Literature: This refers to works of literature written in Great Britain and her colonies. For examples, we have: the works of Shakespeare such as Othello, Hamlet and The Tempest; the works of Charles Dicken such as David Copperfield and Oliver Twist.
- Literature in English: This refers to works of literature from all over the world, written in languages other than English.
- Litterateur: This is a person who writes literature. You can refer to a litterateur as an author.