Thursday, September 1, 2011

Literature's Connotations

if (life is insane) {blog post is school assignment}
Prompt: What is Literature?

At the most basic, literature is the written word, whether in prose or verse. Though this definition provides a rough outline of the denotation, the connotations of the term are more complex—hence debates about whether a book qualifies as literature, mirroring arguments about whether a particular work qualifies as (true) art. One can find nebulous explanations of the content—e.g. Merriam Webster states that literature “express[es] ideas of permanent or universal interest,” hardly an objective metric. Literature is literature because of how the author chooses to communicate: Literature shows, rather than tells.

Impressionism acts as a natural extreme of showing rather than telling. Though ‘impressionism’ brings to mind painters such as Monet or Van Gogh, the heart of the movement—communicating feeling before fact—can extend to any medium of art. An author of an impressionistic work focuses on the feel of a character’s experience and the character’s thoughts, even to the extent of making the narrator so emotional or prejudiced as to be unreliable. And though often a careful reader can find what is genuinely happening, the author also pulls the reader into the work’s emotional environment. Whatever happens, the reader cannot merely watch as everything goes by. Literature in general, and especially impressionistic literature, requires thought and allowance for how characters’ emotions and biases affect their reactions—including how the narrator tells the tale.

Though impressionism is the natural extreme of showing rather than telling, that neither makes the genre the only literature nor necessarily the best. Parables, such as Aesop’s Fables, are created specifically to clearly demonstrate virtues, and so often show black-and-white views on a subject. In “The Tortoise and the Hare”, one is not meant to wonder whether perhaps the hare actually won, and the tortoise’s cousin is telling the story to make the tortoise look good; we assume that what we are told is true. Yet the stories still exemplify literature. The parables demonstrate a subject, rather than only stating that a fact is so. Aesop reiterates the lesson the tale is meant to teach at the end, but still uses the story as a medium to show why having the virtue improves one’s self and/or lot in life.

Literature shows; however, demonstrative details exist in books that do not fit as literature. Literature primarily shows. A sixth-grade chemistry textbook may use a story to explain a concept, but because the story aspect is secondary, the book is not literature. Similarly, literature can state things outright. An honest, omniscient narrator does not disqualify a book from being literature, as long as the story primarily shows. Additionally, demonstrating need not leave facts vague—showing emotional content works as well. ‘The clear sunlight turned Alice’s smile luminous,’ shows exactly what, ‘It was a sunny day. Alice smiled,’ tells, but evokes a character’s emotions—either Alice’s or some character who is enamored with Alice.

Literature demands interpretation. Literature speaks subtly. Literature is not restricted to making every bit of information clear, meaning that a good mystery novel can give the reader the same ‘Eureka!’ moment figuring out a mystery in real life can. This subtlety does not prevent literature from explaining a concept: literature may communicate subtly, but literature still communicates. The medium is designed to convey concepts, thoughts, and emotions that the author wishes to share or the reader wishes to experience. Literature is in how the author conveys those ideas.

Works Cited
Merriam-Webster. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2004. 25/8/2011. Web.


  1. I like your recent edits, especially "the author also pulls the reader into the work’s emotional environment. Whatever happens, the reader cannot merely watch as everything goes by."

  2. Yay! I'm glad you liked it, and doubly glad you told me what.


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