Lecture: Introduction to
Discussion: What is Literature?
How to write a QHQ
What is Literature
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word “Literature has three
1. Written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic
merit: a great work of literature.
Many scholars consider this novel a modern classic in US literatures.
2. Books and writings published on a particular subject: the literature on
It is certainly true that the published literature on the subject is well surveyed.
3. Leaflets and other printed matter used to advertise products or give
They will be visiting problem areas to hand out literature and advice to people on
how best to secure their vehicles, and offering support to victims.
One Guide to Literary Terms defines
it this way:
Literature: writings in which expression and form, in
connection with ideas and concerns of universal and apparently
permanent interest, are essential features. While applied to any
kind of printed material, such as circulars, leaflets, and
handbills, there are some who feel it is more correctly reserved
for prose and verse of acknowledged excellence, such as
George Eliot’s works. The term connotes superior qualities.
What does Terry Eagleton Say?
Eagleton's "Introduction: What is
Literature?" addresses this
question, which is prompted by the
study of literary theory systems
used in critically thinking about and
+ Your First
Get into your groups of
three or four.
Once your groups is
one person to be the
keeper of the points.
Write down members’
Turn in your sheet at
the end of the class
Who is Terry Eagleton
Terry Eagleton is an influential cultural
theorist who is widely regarded as the one
of the foremost contemporary Marxist
literary critics. With the publication of
Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976) and
Literary Theory (1983), Eagleton earned
recognition for producing smart, accessible
works of literary criticism that explore the
relationship between literature, history, and
society. He urges critics to promote a more
equitable society, that is to use
intellectualism and critical inquiry to serve a
broader good than just the academy.
Eagleton’s Introduction to Literature
Eagleton examines several different ways of defining literature
and points out the difficulties with each of them.
First he says “You can define it, for example, as
'imaginative' writing in the sense of fiction -writing which
is not literally true,” but then he explains that this definition is
fragile because “our own opposition between 'historical' and
'artistic' truth does not apply at all to the early Icelandic sagas.”
He also tells us that “in the English late sixteenth and early
seventeenth centuries, the word 'novel' seems to have been
used about both true and fictional events, and even news
reports were hardly to be considered factual.” He points out
that “our sharp discriminations between these categories
simply did not apply.”
Then he suggests that literature might be identified
“because it uses language in peculiar ways.” He refers to
the Russian formalists when he offers this definition:
“Literature transforms and intensifies ordinary
language, deviates systematically from everyday
speech.” As an example, he says “If you approach me
at bus stop and murmur 'Thou still unravished bride of
quietness' then I am instantly aware that I am in the
presence of the literary. I know this because the texture,
rhythm and resonance of your words are in excess of
their abstract able meaning -or as the linguists might
more technically put it, there is disproportion between the
signifies and the signifies.”
He explains that Russian formalists reduce a work of literature to
the formal parts of the text, disregarding both the author and
message. They asserted that Criticism should “concern itself
with how literary texts actually worked.” that is how they
operated within “specific laws, structures and devices, which
were to be studied in themselves rather than reduced to
Eagleton makes his point about the fragility of the formalist
definition when he tells us that Formalist Osip Brick once said, in
defense of disregarding the author when analyzing literature, that
Eugene Onegin [own-yay-ghin] (a novel in verse which features a
thinly veiled version of the author as protagonist) “would have
been written even if Pushkin had not lived” because it was a
textual expression of a present material reality.
Eagleton goes on to explain that literature is often what is
determined to be good. He says, “value-judgments would
certainly seem to have a lot to do with what is judged
literature and what isn't -not necessarily in the sense that
writing has to be 'fine' to be literary, but that it has to be of
the kind that is judged fine.” Then he points out that this
determination is shaped by inescapable social ideologies.
Our value judgments “refer in the end not simply to private
taste, but to the assumptions by which certain social
groups exercise and maintain power over others.”
What do you think?
What is literature? How does
Eagleton’s explanation reinforce or
destabilize your ideas about
+ How do I know what I think until I see what I say?
Each text we study will provide material for response writing
called a QHQ (Question-Hypothesis-Question). The QHQ
requires students to have second thoughts, that is, to think
again about questions that arise during their reading and to
write about questions that are meaningful to them.
Begin your QHQ by formulating some question you have about
some aspect of the reading. The first question in the QHQ may
be one sentence or longer, but its function is to frame your QHQ
writing. A student might start with a question like, “Why is the
house in this story haunted? Or, “Why do I suspect the
murdered child has come back to life?” A student might even
write, “Why am I having so much trouble understanding this
After you pose your initial question, focus on a close reading of the
text in search of a hypothesis. This hypothesis section comprises the
body of your text. The student who asked about the haunted house
might refer to multiple passages about haunting in the text,
comparing and contrasting them to other instances of haunting with
which he or she is familiar. The student who asked about the dead
child might connect passages associated with the death to sections
about a new child who abruptly appears in the text. The student who
struggled to understand the text might explore those passages
whose meanings were obscure or difficult to understand, connecting
them to other novels and/or cultural texts.
After carefully exploring your initial question (200-300 words), put
forward another question, one that has sprung from your hypothesis.
This will be the final sentence of your QHQ and will provide a base
for further reflection into the text.
The QHQ is designed to help you formulate your response to the texts
we study into clearly defined questions and hypotheses that can be
used as a basis for both class discussion and longer papers. The QHQ
can be relatively informal but should demonstrate a thoughtful
approach to the material. While the papers need to be organized and
coherent, because you will sharing them in class, the ideas they
present may be preliminary and exploratory.
Remember, a QHQ is not a summary or a report—it is an original,
thoughtful response to what you have read. All QHQs should be posted
on the website the evening before the class for which they are due.
This will give both me and other students time to ponder your ideas and
think about appropriate responses. Moreover, this sharing of material
should provide plenty of fodder for essays. Even though you have
posted your QHQ, you should bring a copy of it to class in order to
share your thoughts and insights and to stimulate class discussion.
Read: “Literary Theory”: Internet
Encyclopedia of Philosophy (This is linked to the
website under “Course Readings” and then
Post #2: Choose one
What is the difference between literary theory and
traditional modes of literary criticism? What might
literary theory serve to reveal about a literary text
that traditional criticism cannot? Which major
school of literary theory interests you and why?
QHQ on “Literary Theory.”