"What is literature?" is often interpreted as a question regarding the nature of literature, but it can also be a question about the distinguishing characteristics of works known as literature: what distinguishes them from non-literary works?
Hence, the question attains a certain degree of difficulty as works of literature come in many shapes and sizes.
For twenty-five centuries people have written works that we consider today "literature," but the modern sense of literature is scarcely two centuries old. Prior to the 1800s literature and analogous terms in other European languages meant “writing” or “book knowledge.”
Works that today are considered as literature were once treated not as a special kind of writing but as fine examples of language and rhetoric. These works were speeches, sermons, and writings on history, and philosophy; which students were tasked to memorize, study their grammar, and identify their rhetorical figures and structures or procedures of argument.
The modern Western sense of literature as imaginative writing can be traced to the German Romantic theorists of the late eighteenth century.
But even if we restrict ourselves to the last two centuries, the category of literature becomes slippery: would works which today count as literature—say poems that seem snippets of ordinary conversation, without rhyme or discernible meter—have qualified as literature to the German Romantic theorists?
The definition of literature, therefore, is not stagnant. As new ways of thinking are created, literature's definition definition and what constitutes literature are changed as well. As a result, it would be easy to define literature as a set of texts that cultural arbiters recognize as belonging to literature. However such a definition is weak since it leads to these questions: who are these arbiters and why are these arbiters given such privilege?
The Paradox of Literature
Literature is a paradoxical institution. Looking at its history and development, literature is an institution that needs both convention and change to survive. Right now we have a body of works that are described as literature, and we study, categorize, interpret, and analyze them. We are able to do so since literature has rules and certain standards to adhere (e.g. poems use rhyme, meter, and figures of speech). At the same time, literature breaks its own rules (e.g. modern poetry does not require the use of rhyme and meter.). It is in this paradox that literature becomes hard to define. Nevertheless, the question, “what is literature?” is a testament that even in this day and age literature is alive and flourishing. The search for literature’s definition is the force behind why we study literature and why it is alive and still evolving.
Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford U Press: New York, 1997.