To define what literature is, Terry Eagleton uses other peoples definitions and evaluates them against one another. He points out reasons for each definition to be well-founded but also highlights their weaknesses. Firstly, however, he starts with the basic question if literature has to be fictional but instantly presents us with the fact that English literature at all times contains not only imaginative writing but also factual writing. Furthermore he explains the problem of texts being differently perceived in another era.
When an author writes his text he may regard it as factual and then almost 4000 years later people have varying opinions about that. Eagleton here takes the example of the authors of the Genesis and how they must have believed their story to be true. So if literature does not have to be fictional how can one define it then. Now Eagleton introduces us to the theory of the Russian formalists, a militant, polemic group of critics as he describes them, that saw literature as a way of using language not ordinarily but in extreme and peculiar ways.Order now
Everyday speech is transformed to something more organized, more selective. For the formalists literature was not written to convey ideas nor history but rather to simply use the devices and structures that it brings to language. So Formalism is a study of literature but furthermore a study of linguistics because not the literary content but the literary form and techniques were of vital importance. As a consequence literature has to break up our everyday language and renew our automatic usage.
Then, in a way, literature gives us new possibilities of using language. The problem Eagleton sees here is that there is not only one kind of ordinary language, because a professor from England does not talk in the same manner as a farmer in Texas. The English-speaking community is too big to have a universal everyday language, however it is not too big to have a universal language for writing a love letter, as an example. Written language is the same, but spoken language differs on many levels.
Admittedly the perception of written language also differs in the different societies of the English-speaking community. Another factor in this can be time. What we think to be poetry today might have been prosa 500 years ago. To really understand a piece of writing, we have to know the circumstances it was written in. Eagleton then comes to the conclusion that the formalists were not really set out to search the definition of literature but rather literariness. The essence of that was the making strange of language.
Formalism sees literature almost exclusively as poetry, but there is much more to it. And also literary devices are used in many other forms than only poetry. Even in forms that are normally not regarded as literature, such as advertisements, you will find literary devices, so the definition of literature cannot be purely based on the theory of the formalists. The next question Eagleton asks himself is whether literature has to have a self-referential language and a practical purpose.
It seems he comes to a similar conclusion as he did with the formalists which is pointing out that authors might not have intended their work to be analysed for its style rather than the content and that different societies see the work in different ways. Nervertheless, he then makes a new point by saying that texts can become literature simply because people treat it like that, so it really all depends on how people relate themselves to the writing. But then he draws comparisons to Formalism again because just as every piece of writing can be regarded as poetry, every piece of writing can also be regarded as non-pragmatical.
Maybe literature just has to be read and liked by somebody and then this somebody relates to it and values it highly and then it is literature. Literature can also have the criteria of having to be well written, but who is the judge of that. Why do we have a notion of what is good literature and what is bad And is not bad literature still literature Judged literature then. does not have to be well written but it has to be the kind of literature that is judged to be fine.
So as a consequence to that, the process of deciding what is literature is not an objective one, and therefore anything can be called literature. Important works of literature like Shakespeares can be judged as not being well written and then they would not be literature anymore. So the literary canon we have today is made by people, that in their time judged the pieces of writing, in terms of being well written and so they made them literature. But if other people would have been the judges, maybe we would not have some of the most famous works of literature today.
As an example, Shakespeare in his time was supported by Queen Elizabeth I and because she saw him as a good playwright her people came to see him as a good writer and so his work became literature. A big part of the literary canon is based on works from times long gone and still we see them as literature because we can still relate to them. Certain humanly emotions and perceptions might never change like the longing for love. But still every generation re-writes the work of Homer or Shakespeare to make it comparable to their own life.
How Homer was understood in the Middle Ages is probably different to how we interpret his work today. According to Eagleton that is the reason why the definition of literature is so unstable because if we relate to Shakespeare in another way than he intended the audience of his time to do what assures us that in future generations to come they will see it in yet another way and maybe they will not be able to relate to it at all. Eagleton thinks that the decision of a piece of writing being literature is made by value-judgements in the society.
In his opinion nothing can be value free because all people are influenced by other things and therefore are never the exact same persons and so there have to be values but also prejudices and so on. It is natural for a person to judge another one as much as it is natural for this person to value-judge the writing of Homer or Shakespeare. But at the same time the individual is influenced by the value-judgement of the whole society and hence there are not many individual values. How much we are influenced by the value-judgements of society shows an experiment by the Cambridge critic I.
A. Richards. He gave his students poems to evaluate without revealing the author or the title of the poems and some of the most celebrated poets were criticised while not so well-known poets were highly praised. This shows how much our perception changes when we know that we are going to read a poem by a famous poet, we will not criticise it as easily as we would criticise an unknown poet. But what is even more interesting to Eagleton is that Richards students all evaluated the poems in the same manner with the same prejudices and the same perceptions.
Of course that was because his students were of the same origins and had the same educations. They did not only respond to the poems in literary ways but also emotionally. Thus this is the final proof of how deciding what literature is, can only always be in a subjective manner. Eventually, Terry Eagleton draws the conclusion that the social groups that are in the leading positions will define the value-judgements of each generation and therefore nothing about literature is objective. It is dependent on the beliefs of society.