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Literature is the art of written works. Literally translated, the word means "acquaintance with letters" (from Latin littera letter), and therefore the academic study of literature is known as Letters (as in the phrase "Arts and Letters"). In Western culture the most basic written literary types include fiction and nonfiction.
People may perceive a difference between "literature" and some popular forms of written work. The terms "literary fiction" and "literary merit" often serve to distinguish between individual works. Critics may exclude works from the classification "literature," for example, on the grounds of a poor standard of grammar and syntax, of an unbelievable or disjointed story-line, or of inconsistent or unconvincing characters. Genre fiction (for example: romance, crime, or science fiction) may also become excluded from consideration as "literature."
A poem is a composition written in verse (although verse has been equally used for epic and dramatic fiction). Poems rely heavily on imagery, precise word choice, and metaphor; they may take the form of measures consisting of patterns of stresses (metric feet) or of patterns of different-length syllables (as in classical prosody); and they may or may not utilize rhyme. One cannot readily characterize poetry precisely. Typically though, poetry as a form of literature makes some significant use of the formal properties of the words it usesTemplate:Dash the properties of the written or spoken form of the words, independent of their meaning. Meter depends on syllables and on rhythms of speech; rhyme and alliteration depend on the sounds of words.
Some poetry uses specific forms: the haiku, the limerick, or the sonnet, for example. A traditional haiku written in Japanese must have something to do with nature, contain seventeen onji (syllables), distributed over three lines in groups of five, seven, and five, and should also have a kigo, a specific word indicating a season. A limerick has five lines, with a rhyme scheme of AABBA, and line lengths of 3,3,2,2,3 stressed syllables. It traditionally has a less reverent attitude towards nature. Poetry not adhering to a formal poetic structure is called "free verse"
Language and tradition dictate some poetic norms: Persian poetry always rhymes, Greek poetry rarely rhymes, Italian or French poetry often does, English and German poetry can go either way. Perhaps the most paradigmatic style of English poetry, blank verse, as exemplified in works by Shakespeare and Milton, consists of unrhymed iambic pentameters. Some languages prefer longer lines; some shorter ones. Some of these conventions result from the ease of fitting a specific language's vocabulary and grammar into certain structures, rather than into others; for example, some languages contain more rhyming words than others, or typically have longer words. Other structural conventions come about as the result of historical accidents, where many speakers of a language associate good poetry with a verse form preferred by a particular skilled or popular poet.
Works for theatre (see below) traditionally took verse form. This has now become rare outside opera and musicals, although many would argue that the language of drama remains intrinsically poetic.
In recent years, digital poetry has arisen that takes advantage of the artistic, publishing, and synthetic qualities of digital media.
Prose consists of writing that does not adhere to any particular formal structures (other than simple grammar); "non-poetic" writing, perhaps. The term sometimes appears pejoratively, but prosaic writing simply says something without necessarily trying to say it in a beautiful way, or using beautiful words. Prose writing can of course take beautiful form; but less by virtue of the formal features of words (rhymes, alliteration, metre) but rather by style, placement, or inclusion of graphics. But one need not mark the distinction precisely, and perhaps cannot do so. One area of overlap is "prose poetry", which attempts to convey using only prose, the aesthetic richness typical of poetry.
An essay consists of a discussion of a topic from an author's personal point of view, exemplified by works by Michel de Montaigne or by Charles Lamb.
'Essay' in English derives from the French 'essai', meaning 'attempt'. Thus one can find open-ended, provocative and/or inconclusive essays. The term "essays" first applied to the self-reflective musings of Michel de Montaigne, and even today he has a reputation as the father of this literary form.
Genres related to the essay may include:
- the memoir, telling the story of an author's life from the author's personal point of view
- the epistle: usually a formal, didactic, or elegant letter.
Narrative fiction (narrative prose) generally favours prose for the writing of novels, short stories, graphic novels, and the like. Singular examples of these exist throughout history, but they did not develop into systematic and discrete literary forms until relatively recent centuries. Length often serves to categorize works of prose fiction. Although limits remain somewhat arbitrary, modern publishing conventions dictate the following:
- A mini saga is a short story of about 50 words or less.
- Flash fiction is generally defined as a piece of prose under a thousand words.
- A short story is prose of between 1000 and 20,000 words (but typically more than 5000 words), which may or may not have a narrative arc.
- A story containing between 20,000 and 50,000 words falls into the novella category. Although this definition is very fluid, with works up to 70,000 words or more being included as novelle.
- A work of fiction containing more than 50,000 words generally falls into the realm of the novel.
A novel consists simply of a long story written in prose, yet the form developed comparatively recently. Icelandic prose sagas dating from about the 11th century bridge the gap between traditional national verse epics and the modern psychological novel. In mainland Europe, the Spaniard Cervantes wrote perhaps the first influential novel: Don Quixote, the first part of which was published in 1605 and the second in 1615. Earlier collections of tales, such as the One Thousand and One Nights, Giovanni Bocaccio's Decameron and Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, have comparable forms and would classify as novels if written today. Other works written in classical Asian and Arabic literature resemble even more strongly the novel as we now think of it—for example, works such as the Japanese Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki, the Arabic Hayy ibn Yaqdhan by Ibn Tufail, the Arabic Theologus Autodidactus by Ibn al-Nafis, and the Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong.
Early novels in Europe did not, at the time, count as significant literature, perhaps because "mere" prose writing seemed easy and unimportant. It has become clear, however, that prose writing can provide aesthetic pleasure without adhering to poetic forms. Additionally, the freedom authors gain in not having to concern themselves with verse structure translates often into a more complex plot or into one richer in precise detail than one typically finds even in narrative poetry. This freedom also allows an author to experiment with many different literary and presentation styles—including poetry—in the scope of a single novel.
Other prose literature
Philosophy, history, journalism, and legal and scientific writings traditionally ranked as literature. They offer some of the oldest prose writings in existence; novels and prose stories earned the names "fiction" to distinguish them from factual writing or nonfiction, which writers historically have crafted in prose.
The "literary" nature of science writing has become less pronounced over the last two centuries, as advances and specialization have made new scientific research inaccessible to most audiences; science now appears mostly in journals. Scientific works of Euclid, Aristotle, Copernicus, and Newton still possess great value; but since the science in them has largely become outdated, they no longer serve for scientific instruction, yet they remain too technical to sit well in most programmes of literary study. Outside of "history of science" programmes students rarely read such works. Many books "popularizing" science might still deserve the title "literature"; history will tell.
Philosophy, too, has become an increasingly academic discipline. More of its practitioners lament this situation than occurs with the sciences; nonetheless most new philosophical work appears in academic journals. Major philosophers through history—Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Nietzsche—have become as canonical as any writers. Some recent philosophy works are argued to merit the title "literature", such as some of the works by Simon Blackburn; but much of it does not, and some areas, such as logic, have become extremely technical to a degree similar to that of mathematics.
A great deal of historical writing can still rank as literature, particularly the genre known as creative nonfiction. So can a great deal of journalism, such as literary journalism. However these areas have become extremely large, and often have a primarily utilitarian purpose: to record data or convey immediate information. As a result the writing in these fields often lacks a literary quality, although it often and in its better moments has that quality. Major "literary" historians include Herodotus, Thucydides and Procopius, all of whom count as canonical literary figures.
Law offers a less clear case. Some writings of Plato and Aristotle, or even the early parts of the Bible, might count as legal literature. The law tables of Hammurabi of Babylon might count. Roman civil law as codified in the Corpus Juris Civilis during the reign of Justinian I of the Byzantine Empire has a reputation as significant literature. The founding documents of many countries, including the United States Constitution, can count as literature; however legal writing now rarely exhibits literary merit.
Game design scripts are never seen by the player of a game and only by the developers and/or publishers to help them understand, visualize and maintain consistency while collaborating in creating a game, the audience for these pieces is usually very small. Still, many game scripts contain immersive stories and detailed worlds making them a hidden literary genre.
Most of these fields, then, through specialization or proliferation, no longer generally constitute "literature" in the sense under discussion. They may sometimes count as "literary literature"; more often they produce what one might call "technical literature" or "professional literature".
A play or drama offers another classical literary form that has continued to evolve over the years. It generally comprises chiefly dialogue between characters, and usually aims at dramatic / theatrical performance (see theatre) rather than at reading. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, opera developed as a combination of poetry, drama, and music. Nearly all drama took verse form until comparatively recently. Shakespeare could be considered drama. Romeo and Juliet, for example, is a classic romantic drama generally accepted as literature.
Greek drama exemplifies the earliest form of drama of which we have substantial knowledge. Tragedy, as a dramatic genre, developed as a performance associated with religious and civic festivals, typically enacting or developing upon well-known historical or mythological themes. Tragedies generally presented very serious themes. With the advent of newer technologies, scripts written for non-stage media have been added to this form. War of the Worlds (radio) in 1938 saw the advent of literature written for radio broadcast, and many works of Drama have been adapted for film or television. Conversely, television, film, and radio literature have been adapted to printed or electronic media.
The term oral literature refers not to written, but to oral traditions, which includes different types of epic, poetry and drama, folktales, ballads, legends, jokes, and other genres of folklore. It exists in every society, whether literate or not. It is generally studied by folklorists, or by scholars committed to cultural studies and ethnopoetics, including linguists, anthropologists, and even sociologists.
Other narrative forms
- Electronic literature is a literary genre consisting of works which originate in digital environments.
- Films, videos and broadcast soap operas have carved out a niche which often parallels the functionality of prose fiction.
- Graphic novels and comic books present stories told in a combination of sequential artwork, dialogue and text.
Genres of literature
A literary genre refers to the traditional divisions of literature of various kinds according to a particular criterion of writing. See the list of literary genres.
List of literary genres
- Autobiography, Memoir, Spiritual autobiography
- Diaries and Journals
- Electronic literature
- Erotic literature
- Slave narrative
- Thoughts, Proverbs
- Adventure novel
- Children's literature
- Comic novel
- Crime fiction
- Detective fiction
- Fable, Fairy tale, Folklore
- Fantasy (for more details see Fantasy subgenres; fantasy literature)
- Gothic fiction (initially synonymous with horror)
- Historical fiction
- Medical novel
- Mystery fiction
- Philosophical novel
- Political fiction
- Romance novel
- Historical romance
- Saga, Family Saga
- Science fiction (for more details see Science fiction genre)
- Conspiracy fiction
- Legal thriller
- Psychological thriller
- Spy fiction/Political thriller
- Main article: Literary technique
A literary technique or literary device can be used by works of literature in order to produce a specific effect on the reader. Literary technique is distinguished from literary genre as military tactics are from military strategy. Thus, though David Copperfield employs satire at certain moments, it belongs to the genre of comic novel, not that of satire. By contrast, Bleak House employs satire so consistently as to belong to the genre of satirical novel. In this way, use of a technique can lead to the development of a new genre, as was the case with one of the first modern novels, Pamela by Samuel Richardson, which by using the epistolary technique strengthened the tradition of the epistolary novel, a genre which had been practiced for some time already but without the same acclaim.
Literary criticism implies a critique and evaluation of a piece of literature and in some cases is used to improve a work in progress or classical piece. There are many types of literary criticism and each can be used to critique a piece in a different way or critique a different aspect of a piece.
Literary works have been protected by copyright law from unauthorised reproduction since at least 1710. Literary works are defined by copyright law to mean any work, other than a dramatic or musical work, which is written, spoken or sung, and accordingly includes (a) a table or compilation (other than a database), (b) a computer program, (c) preparatory design material for a computer program, and (d) a database.
It should be noted that literary works are not limited to works of literature, but include all works expressed in print or writing (other than dramatic or musical works).
- Asemic writing
- Children's literature
- Creative writing
- English studies
- Rhetorical modes
- Religious literature
- Scientific literature
- Writing skills
- Written communication
- The Statute of Anne 1710 and the Literary Copyright Act 1842 used the term "book". However, since 1911 the statutes have referred to literary works.
- University of London Press v. University Tutorial Press 
- Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Classicism in Literature
- Poeta.cz - Czech literature server
- The Universal Library, by Carnegie Mellon University
- English Literature Forum
- Project Gutenberg Online Library
- Lectio Divina or Divine Literature Eclectic excerpts' resource for religious literature
- The importance of the history of Literature
- Internet Book List similar to IMDb but for books
- The Art of Literature: Essay from Encyclopædia Britannica by Kenneth Rexroth.
- Most Honored Literature, books sorted by awards
- The Johns Hopkins Guide to literary Theory and Criticism
- The history of ideas in literature and the arts in aesthetic theory and literary criticism. In The Dictionary of the History of Ideas
- A Bibliography of Literary Theory, Criticism, and Philology (José Ángel García Landa, University of Zaragoza, Spain)
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