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  The root meaning of literature (Latin, ‘written material’) causes problems. Novels and short stories are clearly literature in this sense, because they exist primarily as written texts. What of plays, however, and other forms of ‘literature’ whose primary existence is in speech, not writing? What of the ‘literature’ of societies that existed before writing, or without the need of writing, but whose verbal artefacts survive in such forms as myths, folk tales and traditional poetry? There is a second problem of definition. Does ‘literature’ consist simply, or mainly, of works of what might be called imaginative fiction, or does it also encompass factual writing? Essays and oratory have always been regarded as part of the canon—as indeed, nowadays, are biography, travel writing, history and even books on such subjects as cookery and gardening. But where (if at all) does one draw the line? Is a scientific treatise or a car manual ‘literature’?

Acknowledging and dealing with these varied and problematical categories has led to a wider definition of what ‘literature’ is, and means. It is described as a collection of artefacts that use words creatively, much as music uses sounds. The artefacts can be spoken or written, fiction or nonfiction, and they can be the work of identifiable authors or anonymous. There is also a qualitative implication in the use of the word. ‘Literature’ is often taken to mean the kind of work which ‘literate’ (that is, ‘educated’) people might be assumed to know or to appreciate: a form of high art, a determinant not so much of culture as of social or intellectual status. This was a prevalent view in Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, conveniently dismissing from notice all forms of literature of which the ‘literate’ were ignorant or disapproved. It is an attitude still attributed today to the glitterati.

In the sense of a body of work, ‘literature’ has also been used as a definer of group character and identity, sometimes historical (Renaissance literature; modern literature), sometimes national or cultural (Mexican literature; Hindu literature). This meaning takes in the entire verbal art of a period or region, lumping together works of the collective imagination (such as mythcycles) and works of individual creators. Superficially, at least, it seems a more useful form of packaging than some of the others described above, but it can mean crudely grouping Shakespeare, for instance, alongside ‘Goosy Goosy Gander’ and the legends of Camelot.

If definitions of literature have the quality that each raises more questions and seems more pretentious than the one before, there are fewer problems with ‘literary’ works themselves. The basic impulse may have been to use heightened language (that is, language not in everyday usage) to speak to or about supernatural forces. Prayers, chants and other ritual utterances are one fountainhead of literature; another is accounts of miraculous or impressive events, including the origins of things around us. From the start, the distinction was blurred between fact and fantasy. There was no criterion of authorship, individual and accretive creativity being equally valid (and often on the same material). One distinction that does seem to have been made from the beginning is that between prose and verse. Originally, verse was the favoured medium for ‘heightened’ utterance of all kinds, from prayers to plays. Prose was for everyday use, including such minor heightenings of ordinary speech as anecdotes or maxims. This distinction (which is still followed in most cultures where ‘oral literature’ is the norm) applied in ‘art’ literature until prose became a major medium for imaginative writing some 500 years ago. Its use and appreciation was further improved by the anomaly that sacred books were often, and uniquely, written in prose, as if the deity had no need to use the same kind of heightened utterance as human worshippers. KMcL



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