ANALYSIS:  My Definition of Literature



Response choices:  Your job in this introduction will be to come up with your own definition of literature by doing one of the writing tasks below.  Note:  This response is optional, worth 40 extra credits if it is at least C work and turned in on-time.  (It is worth 20 credits if one week late, 10 credits if more than one week late.)


How to Submit your work:  Go to Oncourse:InTouch:Discussion Forums:My Definition and post your work as a "reply" to the teacher's message. 

For one of the following topics, explore what is and is not included as proper subjects for a literature class according to various definitions, given below:  Your response should be about 300 words.  For specific Posting directions, click here.


Due:  by 11:59pm on Friday, August 30, 2002


1.  (WORLD) "Literature is what is taught in literature classes."  Look at four (or more) different anthologies for introduction to literature classes or four (or more) syllabi for introductory literature classes.  Is there any kind of agreement about works or authors included as literature?  If so, these books and authors form the canon of literature--that is, the authors and works that are accepted (at least for now!) or "certified" as literature.  Write up your findings so that someone understands what detective work you did and what your conclusions are (including the addresses or URLs of websites).  Be sure to give some specific titles and authors to illustrate your findings.  (200 words)


Here are some places to start:


I've listed several sites, but notice that one publisher may have different KINDS of introductory anthology, so you may want to look around the sites to see how DIFFERENT the anthologies are.



2.  (WORLD)  Literature is what the culture considers to be literature.  Go to a big bookstore and see if there is a section called "literature."  If not, what are the categories that books are divided into?  If there is a "literature" section, look at the books there in light of the other section names.  Do the categories seem to be mutually exclusive or is there representation of some authors in more than one category?  For example, Margaret Atwood is often included in "literature" sections, but one of her most famous books is The Handmaid's Tale, a work of science fiction.  Where is that shelved?  Are books by African-American authors--such as Ellison's Invisible Man or Wright's Native Son --listed as literature or in a special section by black authors, or are copies in both sections?  Go by your sense of what is and is not literature to explore the commercial labels and divisions imposed by the bookstore and write up what you discover.  (200 words)


3.  (TEXT)  Barnet and Cain define literature as "certain verbal works . . . of a distinct sort--whether because the author shapes them, or because a reader perceives them in a certain way"(p. 74).  Notice that they don't limit themselves by talking about text in the usual sense of "something written (on paper or a screen) in alphanumeric characters."  So it's possible to talk about the movie The Wizard of Oz or a filmed version of Shakespeare's Hamlet.  But how can we talk about a live performance of Hamlet when there are so many different productions?  Look at the four clips from different film versions of Hamlet by going to and when you are asked for a userid and password, enter: shakespeare (be sure to use all lower-case letters and spell it right!).  Then choose to look at Hamlet, then choose to look at Staging, then choose to look at the four clips in 1=Spies Espied? 

In about 200 words, explain the differences you see in the clips (Olivier, Jacobi, Gibson and Branagh) and reflect on the problems there can be in interpreting literature when such differences exist.   


4.  (READER)  The poet Ezra Pound gave a definition that makes the reader's involvement central to deciding what counts as literature:  it is "news that stays news" (quoted in Barnet and Cain, p. 74).  That is, readers continue to care about what is said and the way it is said.  Barnet and Cain paraphrase Pound by saying, "Literature shows what happens, rather than what happened."  Write about a work that you continue to care about because it shows you something about the way the world works--or should work.  In about 200 words,


5.  (AUTHOR)  Authors sometimes explain their views about literature.  Choose one of the speeches given by a winner of the Nobel Prize by going to one of the links below.  Respond to the speech by doing three things:

1) Explain your understanding of  what the author thinks is central to literature and then apply it as a definition by 2) explaining one work you WOULD WANT TO INCLUDE AS LITERATURE, according to this author, and 3) one work you would NOT want to include as literature.  Don't just name what's in and what's out but explain it to your reader who may not have read the work you are talking about.  (200 words)  NOTE:  This is the toughest of the topics!


Nobel Prize acceptance speeches: 

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950, American William Faulkner talked about the subject matter and values a writer should have and the effects of literature on humankind:


In 1993, African-American writer Toni Morrison told a fable of how author and audiences work together to use language.  It's not easy reading, but keep on to the end!


In 1971, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda talked of the relationship between common people, political purpose and the desire of the poet, starting with a story of daring and dangerous escape:


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Posting Directions


  1. Create your response in a word-processing program and save it to a disk or on your home hard drive.  (This gives you a backup copy.)  Suggested filename:  litdef   Before you put away your file, copy the whole response.

2.      Go to “In Touch” in our Oncourse website and then look for the brown bar which has “Discussion Forums.” Underneath this bar, click on "Definitions of Literature."

3.      A split screen will appear. Ignore the area to the right and go to the left where you will see a folder icon with the forum title on its right and a small box with a plus sign in it on its left.. 

4.      Click on the small “plus sign” box, and an envelope with the instructor userid (hschwart) will appear beside it. 

5.      Click on this envelope and a message will appear on the right hand side of the split screen—to which you will now want to turn your attention.

  1. Directly below this message will appear a large box into which you paste your response.  Then, click the “send” button directly below it, and voila! you have replied.  (PLEASE do not send your paper as an attachment because it takes longer to open.  Also, I cannot open attachments created in Word Perfect.)


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