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Literature Basics


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Short introduction to literature as a concept for students at college composition level.

Short introduction to literature as a concept for students at college composition level.

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  • 1. Literature
    What is it, and why should we care?
  • 2. What is literature?
    • Literature is one of those terms that is difficult to define.
    • 3. Is everything that’s fiction, literature?
    • 4. Is everything that’s not fiction, not literature?
    • 5. Is it only literature if it’s old?
    • 6. Is it only literature if it’s studied in school?
    • 7. Is there bad literature out there?
  • Myths about literature
    • If it’s fun to read, it’s not literature.
    • 8. All literature must be making some obscure point that “ordinary people” can’t understand.
    • 9. Literature must be at least 50 years old.
    • 10. Literature has no relevance to today’s world.
    • 11. Most literature, like Shakespeare, is written in “Old English.”
    • 12. Only stuck-up nerds read or write literature, and they do so to feel superior to others.
  • Debunking the myths
    • Lots of literature is very fun to read, e.g. Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Edgar Allan Poe—he wrote horror stories! Even Shakespeare, although admittedly it’s better to watch a play than read it.
    • 13. A lot of literature puts the point right out front for all to see, e.g. My Sister’s Keeper. Some literature, such as much Postmodern literature, makes no point at all.
  • Debunking continued
    • More literature is being produced today than ever. Contemporary authors of literature include Salman Rushdie (b. 1947) and HanifKureishi (b. 1954).
    • 14. Contemporary literature is often about contemporary topics.
    • 15. Older literature has endured because it has some relevance to every age. If it doesn’t endure, people won’t read it beyond the time in which it was written.
  • More debunking
    • Shakespeare is written in modern English. It’s different from the way we speak but language changes over time. Do your parents understand all the slang you use?
    • 16. Old English is a completely different language. It’s kind of like the relationship of Latin to Italian. (To hear what it sounds like, go to
  • Final debunking
    • People who like literature do not do so to feel superior anymore than people who can talk about cars do that to feel superior to the rest of us.
    • 17. “Cool” people who like literature:
    • 18. Stephen King
    • 19. Oprah
    • 20. Nick Cannon
  • So, uh, what is literature?
    • Literature is writing that is a kind of art. Unlike nonfiction, such as newspaper articles, there is no need to convey a certain number of facts and isn’t limited to a certain length. So authors of literature can play with their writing.
    • 21. It takes 3 common forms
    • 22. Prose (fiction & personal essays)
    • 23. Poetry
    • 24. Drama
  • What else?
    • Literature does usually have a point of some kind, even if that point is “art for art’s sake.”
    • 25. Literature makes use of literary devices to make reading easier, more fun, and to add layers of meaning.
    • 26. Literature is not some sort of secret text to which only certain people have “the meaning.”
    • 27. There can be more than one interpretation of a piece of literature, provided it can be supported by the text.
  • A few common literary devices
    • Symbolism: When something stands for something else. E.g. the US flag is a symbol of America and freedom.
    • 28. Irony: the opposite of what’s expected. There are 3 kinds
    • 29. Verbal irony: sarcasm. Clearly the person means the opposite of what is said.
    • 30. Situational: what happens is the opposite of what’s expected.
    • 31. Dramatic irony: when the audience knows something a character (or several) do not. That one person is really pretending to be someone else, for example.
  • A couple more devices
    • Comparisons
    • 32. Simile: uses “like” or “as”: as big as a house
    • 33. Metaphor: is a direct comparison: She’s a brick house.
    • 34. Metaphor is not the same as symbolism! If there aren’t 2 things being compared, it’s not a metaphor.
    • 35. Mood or Tone: the attitude/emotion taken toward the subject of the story.
    • 36. For more on literary devices, go to
  • Why are you telling me this?
    • When writing about literature, it’s good to use some of the jargon of the field.
    • 37. This class isn’t about memorizing literary devices or even interpreting literature really, but it is about writing about literature. You may need to talk about literary devices to do so.
  • Now what?
    • Take a look around this LibGuide to get more information about different types of literature.
    • 38. Happy reading!