LITERATURE: Definition?

Mary Ellen, taking a course called Electric Literature (ain’t that cool?) at Trinity College in Hartford, CT recently brought up the question of defining literature beyond the restriction of the written word.

I’ve just started reading Richard A. Posner’s The Little Book of Plagiarism and found this:

“But “plagiarism” turns out to be difficult to define. A typical dictionary definition is ‘literary theft.’ The definition is incomplete because there can be plagiarism of music, pictures, or ideas, as well as of verbal matter, though most of the time I’ll assume that the plagiarist is a writer.”  (p. 11)

Now Posner is not a literature professor; he is a judge on the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School (and I took that pretty much straight off the book jacket). It appears that to him that literature is separate from music, pictures or ideas and verbal matter. Obviously ideas can be expressed in literary form as well as any other.

So, in this day of new media, when novels are written in hypertext and read online, how will the definition of literature be affected?

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5 Responses to LITERATURE: Definition?

  1. Mary Ellen says:

    Another nice tidbit you’ve given me, whicb I’m passing right along :- You really should teach. It would be quicker and more efficient.

  2. Neha says:

    Interesting idea…is that literature with a capital L that gets canonized somehow?

  3. susan says:

    ME, I learn so much by reading that had I spent the years I spent in college classrooms reading literature instead, I might be qualified.

    Neha, I think you and I would agree on what we consider literature, regardless of what Literature means to the critics.

  4. Mary Ellen says:

    And we came up with some classic definitions in class: theme, personalization, impactfulness, meaning, timelessness, quality, endurance. We looked at Hamlet, The Turn of the Screw, Recitatif by Toni Morrison, and I Shot an Elephant (or something like that) by George Orwell. Real meaty works, filled with levels of comprehension and lots of questions to mull over. Then we went online, and although there is a lot of gimmickry and flash, there is very little substance. I have yet to read something that quickens my pulse like the image of the bible-holding mentally ill mother in Recitatif. (And that’s fairly new. Think of all the Great Stories out there, and then think of how many of them originated in a digital format.) I think, to be considered as Literature, one should be able to remove whatever digital framework is used as a structure and still be left with a damned good tale.

  5. susan says:

    The works you mention are proven by time–if what you’re referring to is literature and not a peg above as being classic, great, etc. If you take any one of these pieces and measure it against its contemporaries at the time it was published then I think you’d have a more accurate idea of its being called ‘literature’ against the mountain of what else was published at the time. Since digital literature is fairly contemporary, you won’t see that same ratio of one in a thousand–maybe the ‘great literary accomplishment’ you’re seeking hasn’t been written yet.

    It’s the content, not necessarily the manner in which it is presented, that constitutes literature. Even Blake felt illustrations were enhancement to his work.

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