Literary Studies, what is that?

Literary Studies, what is that?

Many of my students in English department who are taking the subject of Introduction to Literature are confused on how to define the word ‘literature’. Basically, there is hundreds of definition of this word depending on the aspect of where the definition is viewed. “There have been various attempts to define literature. You can define it, for example, as ‘imaginative’ writing in the sense of fiction – writing which is not literally true” (Eagleton 1). It means that the meaning of the word literature is not as strict as people assume these days. However, as Eagleton points out, “perhaps literature is definable not according to whether it is fictional or ‘imaginative’, but because it uses language in peculiar ways” (2). In this point of view, literature is then viewed through the use of the language. If the language used in the text is closer to the ‘peculiar ways’ then probably the text can be categorized as literature. Indeed, “literature transforms and intensifies ordinary language, deviates systematically from everyday speech” (Eagleton 2). This has clearly emphasized that the way the language used is the basic aspect of what scholars use in deciding texts as literature.

“Literature is broadly defined as any written or spoken material, but the term most often refers to creative works. Literature includes poetry, drama, fiction, and many kinds of nonfiction writing, as well as oral, dramatic, and broadcast compositions not necessarily preserved in a written format, such as films and television programs” (Milne lv). Milnes has made the definition of literature becomes expanded. It is not only dealing with texts but also other types of texts as mentioned above.

Historically, literature has been studied and read since c-750 BC until 2007. This is the period where literature has grown and developed much over the years. As Milne describes, in c-750 BC, Homer was the author representative of classicism and his works were flourishes at this time, then, until 2007, there was Kurt Vonegut Jr., as the author representative of Postmodernism and Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature (xvii-xxxii). In literary studies, the students will learn how to recognize this development and critical advancement of literary works in the era of the works produced. There are thousands of authors who have produced their work in different era from c-750 BC until 2007. It shows that as a field of study, literary studies is a big and huge field of study to learn, especially for students who are not from English speaking country.

When the students learn literary studies, they will learn mainly five crucial things in their studies. They are literary works as the texts studied, literary theories, literary criticism, the author, and the readers.

Literary works as the texts studied

Klarer mentions that fiction, poetry, drama, and film are genres studied in textual studies, or literary studies (9). “The literary work was neither a vehicle for ideas, a reflection of social reality nor the incarnation of some transcendental truth; it was a material fact, whose functioning could be analyzed rather as one could examine a machine” (Eagleton 2-3). The notion of viewing literary works would best be described as the way the readers think of the ‘machine’ as Eagleton and Klarer said. However, this perspective seems to make literary works have their components in which each of the components can be analyzed further through systematical methodology within the literary studies.

Literary theories

There are five theoretical approaches to literatures. They are text-oriented approaches, author-oriented approaches, reader-oriented approaches, context-oriented approaches, and literary critique or evaluation (Klarer 73). In a simple point of view, text-oriented approaches are ways in analyzing the works by looking solely at the works. It means that external factors are not considered in analyzing literary works in this approach. Meanwhile, author-oriented means looking at how works are related to the authors. The author’s influences toward his or her works are also studied in this approach. In the reader-oriented approach, the focus is analyzing the connection between the works and the readers. How well or how influential the works with the readers are also studied in this approach. In the context-oriented approaches, the literary works are studied by focusing on certain fields, such as psychology, sociology, and culture. The relationship between the works and these fields is also studied. The last form is literary critique or evaluation. It means conducting scholarly analysis towards the literary works by functioning the acceptable methodology and system applied in the research on literature.

Literary criticism

The meaning of criticism, based on Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, is basically defined as “the formal study and discussions of works of literature, which involves judging and explaining their importance and meaning” (Walter). Meanwhile, the word ‘literary’, as an adjective, means “related to literature” (Walter). Therefore, the words ‘literary criticism’, in its epistemology can be defined as the action of judging and explaining the importance and meaning of the works that are considered as literature. This kind of activity is common in literary studies. There will be concept of literary theories that are applied to the process of understanding literary works in this kind of criticism. Certain methodology and current method are also applied in the action of literary criticism.

The Authors

Studying the author in literary studies mean studying the movement in literature. Several authors ‘move’ their works based on several movements. Below is some movements in literature (Milne xxxv). If you are interested on this topic, you may begin searching about this by clicking the following topics on literary movement.

Absurdism, Beat Movement, Bildungsroman, Classicism, Colonialism, Elizabethan Drama, Enlightenment, Existentialism, Expressionism, Gothic literature, Greek Drama, Harlem Renaissance, Humanism, Imagism, Magic Realism, Medieval Mystics, Modernism, Naturalism, Neoclassicism, Post-colonialism, Post-modernism, Realism, Renaissance literature, Romanticism, Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, Surrealism, Symbolism, Transcendentalism, Smaller Movements and Schools.

To my mind, based on what I have studied so far about literary authors, I divided authors into two categories. Those are in the past and those are at present. There will be authors for the future. Authors who had actively produced their works in the past are known as authors of the classics, such as Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austin, and many more. Meanwhile, authors who are categorized at present times are those whose works are still being read and the authors are still alive. The difference between these two categories of authors is merely on how they shape their works based on the situation that is happening in the society.

The Readers

In literary studies, the readers are not actually the things studied as like the students studied the literary works. The readers are studied by the students in relation to how the readers perceive certain kinds of literary works. Therefore, the purpose of analyzing the readers is not in the way to understand the readers but in the way the literary works give significant influences to the readers. This aspect is also categorized into the reader-oriented approaches in literary criticism.

Selected readings about Introduction to Literary Studies (Bennet 297):

  • Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary Theory and Cultural Studies. 2nd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.
  • Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1996.
  • Selden, Raman, Peter Widdowson and Peter Brooker, eds. A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. 4th ed. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall, 1997.

Selected readings in the form of references on literature (Bennet 297):

  • Coyle, Martin, Peter Garside, Malcolm Kelsall and John Peck, eds. Encyclopedia of Literature and Criticism. London and New York: Routdlege, 1990.
  • Cuddon, J.A, ed. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.
  • Gray, Martin. A Dictionary of Literary Terms. 2nd ed. Harlon, Essex and Beirut: Longman York Press, 1992.
  • Groden, Michael and Martin Kreiswirth, eds. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
  • Makaryk, Irena R, ed. Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.
  • Sim, Stuart. The A-Z Guide to Modern Literary and Cultural Theorists. Hemel Hepstead: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1995
  • Wolfreys, Julian, ed. The Edinburgh Encyclopedia of Modern Criticism and Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002.

The writer encourages the readers to read this book for another reading on literature:

Schmitz, Thomas A. Modern Literary Theory and Ancient Texts: An Introduction. Massachussets: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Works Cited

Bennet, Andrew and Nicholas Royle. An Introduction to Literature, Criticism, and Theory. 3rd ed. London: Pearson, Longman, 2004.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Anniversary Edition. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2008.

Klarer, Mario. An Introduction to Literary Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

Milne, Ira Mark, ed. Literary Movements for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Literary Movements. 2nd ed. New York: Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.

Walter. Cambridge Advance’d Learners Dictionary.

10 thoughts on “Literary Studies, what is that?

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