An initial definition:

Coleridge gave succinct expression to the essence of literature when he said, “Prose is words in their best order; poetry is the best words in their best order.” I don’t think that this should mean that poetry is the ultimate literary art or the purity of expression to which prosaic writing aspires. Yet I think that some have certainly claimed as much for poetry. And perhaps Coleridge too insinuates that poetry is superior in his definition. This can be contested, but what is more certain is that literature involves words, style, and excellence. These are the basic elements that compose literature in an broad sense—the variables that remain can specify an indeterminate number of genres.


Words are the material component of literature. Though we may be used to thinking of literature in terms of writing, it does not matter if these words are written and read or memorized and spoken. Writing and memory serve the same purpose: conserving the integrity of the work and preserving its existence. Words are symbolic in nature because they are signs which represent other things. Written words symbolize sounds as well as concepts. Sometimes written words symbolize multiple and contradictory concepts and multiple sounds which only become definite when put into a particular context. In absolute isolation, a word is meaningless; it takes the context of a speaker/writer and a listener/reader to associate the word with a referent. So much more can be said about the nature of language at the level of the word, but to do the topic of literature justice, we need to move on to higher structures and tackle style—or what Coleridge called “best order.”

Style and form

The invention of literary style certainly occurred hundreds of years before the invention of writing. At first, it may have been completely up to each storyteller to imbue a tale with interesting artistic flourishes. They must have relied on formulaic phrasings and ready-made names for things to add artistic texture to an otherwise literal account of an event. As storytellers added more artistic techniques to their repertoire and as the same story was told over and over again, perhaps literary devices became ingrained in the tale itself. However, as memory was the mode of preserving the literary quality of each tale, early literature must have changed greatly over time. This is the disadvantage and the advantage of an oral tradition: each tale has the potential to evolve with each retelling. Perhaps meter came about as a way to aid the memory in reciting these formalized literary creations, stabilizing the tale through generations. Or perhaps it came about as a means to link the verbal telling of a story to the musical and kinesthetic telling of a story; chanted words, drum beats, and dance exchanged rhythms and synthesized into a new type of art. It is unclear how quickly the invention of language led to the invention of stylized language. It seems likely, however, that the invention of stylized language was nearly simultaneous with the invention of rudimentary literature in its two forms: poetry and literary prose.

It seems that literature has only these two forms: poetry and prose. Any literary work can be classified as belonging to one or both of these. All poetry is literary, though all verse is not necessarily literary. Aristotle, in the Poetics, contends that anything—even history—could be written in verse and one would not necessarily call it poetry. Prose, on the other hand, can either be literary or nonliterary because it does not carry the same “pure art” associations as poetry. Scientific abstracts, academic essays, correspondence, etc. are usually nonliterary. The essay is an interesting case because the first ones were written as art pieces which were attempts or trials to understand oneself, others, and the world. While this still is the essence of the essay, they are now written largely for the ends of education and disseminating information and are infrequently written to stand alone as pieces of literature.

Poetry and prose are further divided into fiction and nonfiction. Fiction is based on characters, places, or events which exist only in the imagination. Nonfiction is based on characters, places, and events which have precedent in the world. Nonfiction is also that which deals purely with ideas or information, such as the dictionary, the encyclopedia, the philosophical or political treatise, etc. Poetry is often fictional, especially when it contains narrative or dramatic elements. Nonfictional poetry is usually of the meditative, satirical, or elegiac genre. Fictional and nonfictional poetry and prose can be further divided into various genres. Genres have something to do with the content, structure, and style of the piece, but they may be so strictly or loosely defined and are of such number that they exhaust one’s ability to comprehensively categorize them. Since any given work may belong to many genres at once, the task of classification is a very difficult one indeed—though librarians somehow manage. Tragedy, comedy, and tragicomedy are often spoken of as the overarching genres for every dramatic ‘subgenre,’ but I am not sure if even this division is completely exhaustive.

A digression concerning genre:

Perhaps it is best to leave systematizing of this sort intentionally open-ended with respect to genre. I like what Yeats had to say about this topic in his book, The Celtic Twilight. He wrote, “What is literature but the expression of moods by the vehicle of symbol and incident? And are there not moods which need heaven, hell, purgatory and faeryland for their expression, no less than this dilapidated earth?” In this definition of literature, genre and setting arise out of the need to convey a certain mood. They are not placed into a work of literature because they are merely interesting; that is the mark of nonliterary “genre fiction.”


It is also best not to be too systematic in defining what constitutes literary merit. There are countless attempts to define the quality that sets literature apart from the artless writing produced every age in large amounts. One more attempt can’t hurt: language becomes literature when it meets or exceeds a culture’s expectations of excellence and is deemed worthy of remembrance by people well-aware of the cultural tradition. While this is not a very precise definition, we tend to think that the literary value of a work cannot be determined quantitatively or algorithmically; indeed, these judgments are ultimately based on the opinions of those who have well-developed tastes, can place the work in relation to the masterpieces that have come before, and can feel how the work resonates with the spirit of the age. Today, these judgments are largely made by literary critics. In the past, however, what was worth remembering may have been connected with ritual, cultural identity, and cosmological knowledge.

Presentation and aesthetic experience:

Having discussed the basic elements of literature, we can better understand how the work of literature is viewed. Literature is a unique form of art in that it can have from almost no emphasis on public performance to complete emphasis on public performance. Drama and the other stage arts are rarely performed for an audience of one. Poetry, on the other hand, may either be publicly recited before an audience or read in private (some poems absolutely defy a public reading). Because of its form, the novel is rarely read aloud to others, but there are some exceptions. I have heard that a comedian named Andy Kaufman would punish a heckling audience by reading aloud The Great Gatsby in its entirety, continuing even as the members of his audience left one by one.

Reading or listening to a work of literature is different from viewing a plastic work of art. Plastic art is immediately present. It is a trivial thing to see the entirety of a painting or a sculpture at a glance and then view, with more attention to detail, how each part relates to the whole. With forms of art that reveal themselves in a linear way (literature, music, film), one must either undertake multiple viewings of a piece or view the piece once—slowly—with extreme attention to the subtleties and details and with a period of reflective evaluation afterward. John Dewey delineates a distinction between the art product and the work of art. The work of art is the effect of the piece in one’s mind and in society as a whole while the art product is merely the tangible expression of the artwork. In the case of literature, the art product is the book, manuscript, recited story, etc. which holds an arrangement of words. Art is a co-creative process. An author creates the novel which is the art product and is partly responsible for creating the work of art, but the reader, bringing his experiences to the piece, is also responsible for creating the work of literature.