We explain what literature is and what its main characteristics are. Also, literary genres and what is a literary canon.

What is literature?

Literature is the ordered set of stories, myths, dissertations and poetic elaborations produced by humanity, whose common element is the use of the word and verbal language in a different, extraordinary way, far from the common.

Literature is one of the Fine Arts , and it is understood as the evocation of certain sensations, impressions or reflections in the reader , from narrative, descriptive or reflective works whose nature can and usually is fictional, that is, they are not necessarily drawn from real life.

The term literature is also often used in a much broader sense, to refer to the whole of the bibliographic production available in an area or with respect to a topic: medical literature, business literature, etc.

Characteristics of the literature :

  1. Origin of the term

Literature " comes from the Latin Litterae (Letters, literature) and Litterator (school teacher), terms that are born from littera (letter) and therefore are linked to it at the semantic level as well.

In the first case because they designate the set of written texts of aesthetic and historical value , and in the second because it dealt with alphabetizing.

  1. Antiquity


The earliest literary text in history is the Epic of Gilgamesh , an epic poem of Sumerian origin , inscribed on clay tablets in cuneiform script. However, as in most texts prior to the invention of writing, it is likely that it was transmitted orally. It is estimated that this imaginary dates back to the year 2800 BC.

Something similar occurs with the Iliad and the Odyssey , foundational Hellenic epics attributed to a bard named Homer, who is often accused of having been a blind slave from the 8th century BC. The truth is that these two epics are considered, along with the various tragedies that later inspired the great Greek playwrights (Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus), as the foundation stone of Western literature.

There are also ancient traditions in ancient cultures such as China, whose poetic tradition begins with Qu Yuan and his poem Lisao (Pain from afar) during the Shang dynasty (1765 to 1122 BC).

  1. Literary genres

Literary genre

Currently, four possible literary forms are contemplated, called literary genres: poetry, narrative, drama and essay. Within each one there may be different proposals, elaborations and trends.

  • Narrative . Narrative texts are those that tell an anecdote. Whether short (short story , short story) or long ( novel ), or even non-fiction ( chronicle ).
  • poetry . Poems , of whatever kind, are understood asreflective or descriptive texts that, instead of recounting an event or clearly exposing some type of idea, rather try to transmit it through metaphor and linguistic play.
  • Dramaturgy. We call dramaturgy the writing of texts intended to be performed theatrically, so they have a totally different convention from narrative ones (they lack a narrator).
  • Essay . Essay texts discourse poetically on a topic of interest, that is, they expose a series of ideas with clarity, grace and their own expository style.

  1. The literary canon

In order to decide what is considered literature and what is not, and therefore what will be read in the future and what will be forgotten, there is an imaginary figure called the canon. Canon comes from the Greek word ( kanon ) for "norm" or "measuring stick", hence it is taken as a guide to what has been accepted so far , more of a retroactive than exhaustive criterion, despite the fact that it is also some way.

The canon operates on the basis of what has already been written: everything that to date is considered part of literature . Thus, there will be readings that are more canonical than others, just as there will be works that aspire to break or expand the canon, and others that fit more comfortably into what was canonical at the time.

Since the literary canon varies over time , often works that were considered literature are displaced to other regions of knowledge, and vice versa.

  1. The Poetic Word

the poetic word

Contrary to what is thought, there is no language "more literary" or "more poetic" than another, nor words more prone to poetry than others. The difference between poetic language and that of everyday use lies more in its use than in its choice: it is not that literary works are written in a bombastic or elaborate language, in fact many of them are in a simple language that often mimics orality.

The difference is, according to scholars of the subject such as Roman Jakobson, that common language behaves as a translucent, transparent medium through which to allude to and represent reality; and poetic language finds its reason for existence in its opacity , making us notice the singular way in which it is written.

There is a lot of play in the poetic act, of intentional variation and change of meanings.

  1. Verisimilitude

The plausible is a key category for literary works, especially narratives . Every reader, when starting a reading, signs a pact of temporary suspension of disbelief (or metafictional pact), which allows him to read things that are not real as if they were, but that when closing the book they will have returned to the realm of the real. imaginary.

In this way, the pact forces the reader to take as true everything said during the reading , as long as it does not make it impossible. That is where verisimilitude, that is, resemblance to the truth, comes into play.

A literary text must be plausible in the sense that it must convince the reader that the world it offers is possible , even if it is a fantastic universe. And that is achieved by respecting their own rules of the game , that is, by looking like themselves above all things.

Otherwise, we will be in the presence of an unlikely text, which breaks the fictional pact and therefore expels the reader from the artistic spell.

  1. Gratuity


Like all the arts , literature lacks a defined goal and is of no use . Although it can be used as a vehicle for ideological, pedagogical or emotional training, the truth is that literature is not composed for any specific purpose other than being literature.

  1. Literary theory

This is the name given to the branch of science devoted to the study of the phenomena of construction of literary discourse . The first treatises on the subject date back to Plato and Aristotle , passing through the great thinkers of the West , all of whom used literature to illustrate their theories.

Together with literary criticism and linguistics, they constitute the trio of literary sciences.

  1. Literary criticism

Literary criticism

It is known by this name to the exercise of assessment and ordering of the literary production of a country during a specific time. It fulfills an informative role, through reviews and reading articles, as well as a legitimizing one, by separating transcendental works from unnecessary ones, considering inheritances, affiliations and ordering the literary corpus of a nation.

Together with literary theory and linguistics, they constitute the trio of literary sciences.

The above content published at Collaborative Research Group is for informational and educational purposes only and has been developed by referring to reliable sources and recommendations from experts. We do not have any contact with official entities nor do we intend to replace the information that they emit.


MA student of the TransAtlantic Masters program at UNC-Chapel Hill. Political Science with a focus on European Studies. Expressed ideas are open to revision. He not only covers Technical articles but also has skills in the fields of SEO, graphics, web development and coding. .

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