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What is Literature?

When reading self-help books, I feel as though there is always the question as to whether or not I am reading a piece of literature. While it can technically be argued that they are still published in the form of a book and can therefore be given the same label, there is no denying that it does not follow the same conventional style of other literary greats, such as Charles Darwin and Jane Austen. This could simply be down to the fact that they all belong in different genres, with a split between fact and fiction. However, this then raises the whole question towards what allows a piece of writing to be classed as literature?

After conducting further research, a statement that caught my attention came from Arthur Krystal in 2014, where he states ‘Although writers may be good or bad, literature itself is always good… Bad literature is in effect, a contradiction. But one can’t have dumb or mediocre literature[1].  When looking at the quote, I believe that Krystal is simply stating that a form of writing that is classed as literature is able to get people thinking, while immersing them into a world of intrigue. Therefore, in the eyes of Krystal, it is impossible to have a piece of literature that is labelled  as bad, or not literature, as it still has the ability to change the world for those who read it. Upon examining this quote, it became clear that, if this is what literature is based off, then Women Don’t Owe You Pretty also falls into the same category. Given’s intrinsic writing is able to gain intrigue from readers, encouraging them to question their own ideas and prompting them to think more openly. The topics discussed by Given, such as self-esteem and confidence, also exist in society. However, she is able to provide a more in-depth approach that allows readers to change their perspective, along with questioning their own values. This means, if literature was to be based off Krystal’s statement, then it can be argued that Women Don’t Owe You Pretty is classed as literature, as it provokes thought and encouraged growth towards new knowledge and wider understanding.

However, there is a more critical approach supplied by Geoffrey Faber (1934) who states ‘Literature is now in the hands of the mob… hence an every-growing temptation to write for the herd, to publish for the herd, to buy and sell to the herd[2] suggesting that, as the years go on, literature is becoming more focused on publicity, instead of telling stories and building imagination. It can be argued that Faber’s approach is outdated, however in a more contradictory approach, I believe that the point he makes is still valid within contemporary society. Although it is possible to argue that Faber holds an outdated view, I believe that his statement is still just as relevant within contemporary literature. The art of writing appears to have become more diminished over the years. For example, there are many self-help books that have been released over the years, which appear to focus on similar topics, such as the law of attraction, relationship advice and self-confidence, using The Secret[3], written by Rhonda Byrne as an example. Due to the popularity behind these books, it can be said that they are simple to write as the authors are simply referring back to their own opinions and experiences, thus making it less of a skill as any individual could follow the same approach . Therefore, in the eyes of Faber, literature is becoming less unique, allowing more books to be classed as literature due to the vagueness behind them. 

As a result, Given’s book is simply a construct of mainstream society ideologies, that should not technically be classed as literature. However, as contemporary society progresses, it can be included in the same specifications and given the same label as other writing that falls into the category of modern-day  literature.  Therefore, after examining statements made over the years regarding literature, it is evident that ideologies surrounding what is literature is dependent upon certain beliefs as individuals share different opinions.

[1] Krystal, Arthur. 2014. “[Criticism] | What Is Literature, By Arthur Krystal | Harper’s Magazine”. Harper’s Magazine. https://harpers.org/archive/2014/03/what-is-literature/.

[2] Schröder, Laura. 2015. “Early Twentieth-Century Marketing Of Literature: Reclam, A Trendsetter?”. Book 2.0 5 (1): 3. doi:10.1386/btwo.5.1-2.19_1.

[3] Byrne, Rhonda. 2006. The Secret. Atria Books.