What is literature? Definitions have gone far and wide and have included common misconceptions, and for quite a while, there has been a new understanding of what is considered literature where the academic study of it is concerned.
The popular usage of the term refers to poetry, novels and like forms of creative writing, to the point where ‘literature’ is the accepted word for those, used without qualification.
But it is a misconception because technically, the term means anything (and everything) written. When you buy medication in the pharmacy, it usually includes literature; there is printed information explaining the drugs and how to use them. The ‘literature’ about any subject refers to all the printed, published or written information about it. For example, “I could find nothing in the literature to confirm that the musical instruments used in parang came from Spain.”
All of that notwithstanding, literature may be accepted as the writing, including the creative output, of a people or a nation, or collectively, all people and all nations. But we have not quite finished with the twists and turns, because there is now a fairly new concept of exactly what constitutes this ‘literature,’ and it is no longer confined to ‘writing’ or to what has been ‘written.’ It now includes ‘oral literature’ and cultural traditions, and literature has been expanded to include cultural studies.
Many elements of folklore, traditions, belief and mythology generate linguistic output, linguistic expressions and speech and stories, generally spoken, sung or otherwise performed, but often (transcribed and) written down.
These constitute the oral literature; traditional, ritualistic or religious utterances, folk songs, folk tales, riddles and proverbs.
The Greek epics, for example, told stories of gods, heroes, great wars and Greek culture; the mythology of the people and their religion. The two great Greek epic poems, however, are known as the works of a writer – the greatest known epic poet Homer, who wrote The Illiad and The Odyssey. The first is dominated by the story of the Trojan War (ten years of fighting between Greece and Troy over Helen), while the second is the story of Ullysses, otherwise known as Odysseus, a leader and hero of Greece who spent another ten years wandering in his attempt to return home after the war.
Despite the fact that Homer wrote these down, their form is epic poetry which is oral poetry, performed to an audience and containing the very extensive and complex mythology of ancient Greece, a tangled network of stories and beliefs which are part of Greek literature. The style of the epic was later adopted by writers as a literary form.
Much further down in history Anglo-Saxon or Old English poetry is known for its use of oral qualities including alliteration and the epic heroic styles. Poetry was much linked to social conditions with much of it Christian since it was used by the clergy and the monarchy to teach the people. Much of it was epic and heroic because it developed from among the consciousness of the people in hard warlike times. But it was not only the influence of the oral that helped to make the literature, it was the oral forms themselves.
Some strains of English literature originated in the Middle English period from folklore and superstitious beliefs. Witches, elves, goblins, leprechauns, fairies and sundry spirits are the dramatis personae of folk tales, fairy tales and myths that developed during that period. These have been written down and now exist as part of the literature.
A very rich corpus of similar stories developed in Germany and other parts of Europe, which we now read as literature. These include tales that have been attributed to authors. Examples of those are the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. The former were collectors and compilers of folk tales gathered from the oral traditions of Germany, recorded and admitted into the literature, but are actually the written and often edited versions of oral literature.
One of the distinctly oral characteristics of these stories is their existence today in many versions. The ‘Junior’ section of the Sunday Stabroek newspaper quite well illustrates this in the series of fairy tales that they carry, including several versions (known in folklore and linguistic study as ‘variants’). They recently included versions of Cinderella and of Beauty and the Beast. The different versions are created in oral literature when the same story finds its way across borders into different parts of the same country or into foreign countries and different cultures.
The fact that the stories are published as children’s literature is also significant because many of these stories in their original unedited versions have content not normally told to children. There is a preponderance of violence and murder, most of which remain. But in publication they are sanitised of the sexual content that is often part of the plots.
Another important part of the content of English literature is the form of oral poetry known as the ballad. There are now different types of ballads because of evolution, but also because literary writers have used and adapted the form. But many surviving traditional ballads are preserved and take their place in the literature. Although writers have composed ballads, they came into the literature as oral poetry, usually anonymous or composed by the community, rather than by any individual.
Two things emerge from this notion of composition by the community where literature is concerned. The work of good writers displays two main features – a close and functional relationship with the social environment, and artistic techniques (usually literary).
Many forms of oral literature emerge from the oral traditions of a country, traditions which reflect the ethos or world view of the people, sometimes their religion, traditions which serve as rites of passage, means of social control or entertainment.
Because they emerge from or are composed by the people, they reflect their image and beliefs probably better than any writer can. To strengthen this, sometimes a piece of oral literature may arise out of a social need.
Oral literature has proven very efficient in literary techniques. Take for example, repetition as found in fairy tales, refrains and incremental narrative as can be seen in the ballad.
Repetition is an oral literary technique which assists the narrative of a tale being delivered orally. It makes it easier to listen to and reminds the audience of previous details, linking one event in the story to another event that went earlier. It also lends the story neatness of pattern, making it easier to remember. Refrains are another form of repetition doing very much the same thing in poetry. It lends shape and structure to the poem, makes choric comment on the plot and adds to the music of the poem. The incremental repetition serves all those purposes while adding suspense to the telling.
In the end these are literary devices, yet they were not thought out and composed at the desk of a skilled fiction writer, dramatist or poet. They were created by villagers, often illiterate villagers or people who did not belong to a literate culture. How is this possible? These oral forms came into being before written literature and were used for various social functions with techniques to make them easy to listen to, effective as communication and as entertainment. Written literature borrowed from them, imitated them or intellectually and artistically sharpened and remade them.
For those good reasons literature today is understood to include oral literature and cultural studies.