One of the things that we've learned through this site's scope discussions is that literature has a very subjective definition.

I'm curious how academics define and have defined literature. Is there any chance we could put together a list of the various definitions of literature that have been proposed by academics?

"Over the years" here means since the earliest academic discussions about the definition of literature, not just the last few decades.

  • Is closing the best option here? Perhaps while we might agree that in general, a question like this isn't useful, in this specific case we'll allow it? (A lot of sites do this for questions about, say, recommended introductory textbooks). Or perhaps while this question in its current form is unacceptable, there is a way to improve it? I do think this is an important conversation that is worth keeping in some form.
    – user111
    Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 2:39
  • I like this question, although it's loaded in the sense that academics also define literature in regard to the textual canons of a given field, as in "the scientific literature" or "legal literature". The word has an entirely different meaning when applied to art. (As always, the etymology of literature is useful.)
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 20:09

1 Answer 1


This is a collaboratively edited list; please feel free to add to it.

Jim Meyer, 1997, "What is Literature A Definition Based on Prototypes"

Meyer's 1997 paper is based around the idea that words are defined on the basis of a "prototype", or an ideal example that perfectly fits the definition of the word, and that other examples fit the definition to a lesser degree, or not at all. Experimental evidence has shown that people's definitions of words tend to be based on a list of criteria: a perfect fit for the definition will meet all of the criteria, while some words will still meet the definition because they meet some of the criteria, but not all of the criteria.

Meyer proposes that literature is defined by the following list of criteria:

  • are written texts
  • are marked by careful use of language, including features such as creative metaphors, well-turned phrases, elegant syntax, rhyme, alliteration, meter
  • are in a literary genre (poetry, prose fiction, or drama)
  • are read aesthetically
  • are intended by the author to be read aesthetically
  • contain many weak implicatures (are deliberately somewhat open in interpretation)

A perfect example of literature will meet all of these criteria; other examples still count as literature, but are less perfect because they only meet some criteria. For example, oral literature meets all of these criteria other than not being a written text; it still is literature, but it is not as good of an example of literature compared to a work that was written down.

  • This is a good answer with the caveat that it applies to the use of "literature" in the context of art, thus the aesthetic requirement and weak implicatures. (Avoiding the latter in particular is the primary goal of scientific and legal literature.)
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 20:12
  • @DukeZhou it's just one definition; I can think of quite a few other definitions that I haven't bothered to put here yet. BTW I rolled back the edit because the stuff in the blockquote is a direct quote from the article.
    – user111
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 1:17
  • This is a very interesting question, and I've been thinking about it over the weekend. Although "literature" does reference the textual medium, "literary" has a much broader definition. Poetry in particular is not bound to text, and yet it is arguably the leading exemplar of those qualities we consider literary. Thus Bob Dylan can win the prize for literature, despite his poetry not being intended for the textual medium.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 16:48

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