Literature (from the Latin litteraturae, “writings”): Literature has been commonly used since the eighteenth century, equivalently with the French belles lettres (“fine letters”), to designate fictional and imaginative writings—poetry, prose fiction, and drama. (See genres.) In an expanded use, it designates also any other writings (including philosophy, history, and even scientific works addressed to a general audience) that are especially distinguished in form, expression, and emotional power.
It is in this larger sense of the term that we call “literary” the philosophical writings of Plato and William James, the historical writings of Edward Gibbon, the scientific essays of Thomas Henry Huxley, and the psychoanalytic lectures of Sigmund Freud, and include them in the reading lists of some courses in literature.
Confusingly, however, “literature” is sometimes applied also, in a sense close to the Latin original, to all written works, whatever their kind or quality. This allinclusive use is especially frequent with reference to the sum of works that deal with a particular subject matter. At a major American university that includes a College of Agriculture, the Chairman of the Division of Literature once received this letter: “Dear Sir, Kindly send me all your literature concerning the use of cow manure as a fertilizer.”
In its application to imaginative writing, “literature” has an evaluative as well as descriptive function, so that its proper use has become a matter of contention. Modern critical movements, aiming to correct what are seen as historical injustices, stress the strong but covert role played by gender, race, and class in establishing what has, in various eras, been accounted as literature, or in forming the ostensibly timeless criteria of great and canonical literature, or in distinguishing between “high literature” and the literature addressed to a mass audience. See, for example, the entries on cultural studies, feminist criticism, gender criticism, Marxist criticism, and new historicism. For the historical development of the concept of a work of literature as a fine art that is autonomous, and to be enjoyed for its own sake, see M. H. Abrams, “Art-as-Such: The Sociology of Modern Aesthetics,” in Doing Things with Texts (1984); and Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (1995).
Source: A Glossary of Literary Terms by M.H. Abrams