THE MEANING OF LITERATURE
The word “literature” is derived from the Latin word “littera meaning “a letter of the alphabet.” Literature in a wider sense, is the whole body of written or printed matter on any given subject, be it history, politics, business studies, engineering, science, or technology. This is why we often hear people talk about literature in academic disciplines or professions that are not literary in nature. Students should, therefore, not get confused to hear engineers or medical doctors talk about “engineering literature,” or “medical literature.
In a broad sense, “literature is anything written;” but the claim that literature must be written is too narrow and too restrictive, because oral literature in the forms of ballads, songs, stories, lullabies, dirges, legends, myths, and so on, will be excluded from this restrictive definition of literature. Probably, a more convenient definition would be that of Robert Lee Frost (1874 – 1963) which states that “literature is a performance in words, ” its characteristics must include an element of entertainment, or ability to afford pleasure through a sort of make-believe. It is for such seasons that pieces of literature are often called “fiction, ” “tale, “story, “play” or “drama.” What makes literature pleasurable lies in its ability to capture our attention and make other thoughts of ours recede or vanish from our minds.
Literature evokes different responses or feelings in different people, and that is why the following definitions, and many more, have been proffered for literature; they are:
- Literature is ‘feelings’ and ‘thoughts’ in black and white.
- Literature is the use of language to evoke a personal response in the reader or listener.
- Literature is a world of make-believe.
- Literature is a replica of the world we live in.
- Literature is a world of fantasy, horror, feelings, visions … put into words.
- Literature means … to meet a lot of people, to know other different points of view, ideas, thoughts, minds … to know ourselves better.
Other acclaimed writers have also defined literature in other ways, as follows:
- Literature could be said to be a sort of disciplined technique for arousing certain emotions. (Iris Murdoch, The Listener, 1978)
- Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree. (Ezra Pound, How to Read, Part II).
- Literature, fiction, poetry, whatever, makes justice in the world. That is why it is almost always on the side of the underdog. (Grace Paley, Ms. 1974).
- Literature is experience of permanent interest recorded in memorable from (Lascelles Abercrombie et al 1936).
Literature is all the above and even more. It is a very motivating, enjoyable, authentic work of art that has a general educative value about the language, culture, tradition, way of life, and mythology of people, the way they think and behave, the way they see themselves and the world, and the way others see them. Good understanding of literature improves students power of language acquisition as well as develops their interpretative abilities. Literature teaches by pleasing us.
THE NATURE/FEATURES/CHARACTERISTICS OF LITERATURE
Literature, whether escape or interpretive, is characterized by the following elements:
- The Medium of Literature is Language (Oral Or Written): Literature uses language in a special way. While the language of scientists and everyday speech is known for its denotative value, the language of literature is respected for its connotative colouration. Besides, the diction, the syntax, the sound qualities, the profuse image the emotional flavour and double meanings of key words in literature make its language unique.
- Literature is Aesthetic: The form, plot, and overall impression of literature gives an unparalleled pleasure, which is truly aesthetic. The writer imposes order on the materials – on language, characters, events, details to produce an aesthetically pleasing pattern drawn from the usually disorderly realm of real life.
- Literature is Fictional: Literature can be fictional in two ways: one, it lacks factuality; and two, it yields to artistic control as the author uses different literary devices to transmute historical facts for the purpose of aesthetic pleasure and distance.
- Literature Presents Artistic Truth: It describes facts of reality faithfully. It interprets the real world. It embodies the author’s world view. It presents the experience of reality, new or old, unique or shared by many people.
- Literature is Expressive: Literature is an expression of the fears, desires, emotions, beliefs, and personality of the writer. No matter how hard an author struggles to reduce his presence in his work, the work still bears the expressive stamp, idiom, vision, or style of the writer.
- Literature is Affective: Literature affects the reader so much so that it creates an emotional response in the reader. Even the aesthetic experience we get from literature results from its affective nature. It raises certain emotions in us and we tend to feel and see things from the author’s perspective.