Basic Concepts

What are English Literary Studies?

The question “What are English literary studies?” does not look complex at first sight. However, the answer is not as simple as one might imagine. One answer students may obviously give is that English literary studies deal with English literature. Thus, literary studies differ from other branches of the subject, namely linguistics, where the main focus is on the structures and uses of the English language, and cultural studies where students learn how the various cultures in English-speaking countries have been constructed over centuries.

And yet, what is English literature? First of all, do we talk about literature written in England or do we take into account other English-speaking countries such as Ireland, Canada, USA, Australia, etc.? And how about the diversity of cultures and literatures within the United Kingdom, e.g., Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish? To make matters even more complicated, a great many authors from former colonial countries in Africa, India, etc., write in English, and literature from immigrant writers in the US, e.g., Chicano literature, has increasingly received interest from literary scholars. In other words: It is very difficult to draw a clear line, and perhaps one cannot and should not delimit the subject area at all, given the diversity of texts written in English today.

Link: Map of English Speaking People

Another question that arises is: What is literature? Although most people have some idea of what the term 'literature' means, the concept often remains vague and students, when asked about distinct features of literary texts, start to falter. In the following section, the concept of 'literature' will be discussed in more detail.

What is Literature?

In the attempt to define the term 'literature', one can distinguish between two general directions: a broad and a narrow definition. The broad definition incorporates everything that has been written down in some form or another, i.e., all the written manifestations of a culture (hence, there are terms such as 'research literature', 'the literature on civil rights', etc.). Needless to say that such a broad definition is problematic as it does not really facilitate communication about the topic. Furthermore, this concept neglects the fact that in many cultures in the past and for a number of indigenous peoples today, literature has not been captured in written media but has been passed down in a long oral tradition of storytelling, myths, ritual speeches, etc. Attempts to come up with a narrow definition have, however, led to such a diversity of approaches that one can hardly talk about 'the' narrow definition. Nevertheless, it is possible to sift out some of the criteria scholars have applied in order to demarcate 'literary texts' from 'non-literary texts'. These criteria include:

specialised language
lack of pragmatic function


One characteristic feature of literary texts arguably is their fictionality. People usually agree that literary texts, even if they attempt to represent reality in some form or another, are ultimately products of a writer’s imagination and that at least the characters and their conversations are fictitious. Thus, some of the characters in Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels for example, are pure inventions although they are situated in authentic historical contexts, and they have fictitious conversations with historical figures who actually existed. On the other hand, texts that are normally read as non-fiction, like a reportage, often display features that remind one of literature. Consider the following example:

Sesca Rompas climbed on to a plastic stool and peered through a dirty window at her brother, Aldo Kansil, lying motionless in a bed below. He was a pitiful sight: two drips attached, arms swathed in bandages, his face an angry mosaic of burns.

Taken out of its context, it is difficult to decide what type of text this is. If one looks at the way this passage is written, one can easily imagine this to be the beginning of a novel. First, it is a descriptive passage which introduces a certain setting: The window is dirty and so high up that the woman needs a plastic stool to be able to peep through it. The brother’s desolate state is captured in epithets describing his motionless, afflicted body. Secondly, characters are introduced and a mini plot is elaborated: A woman called Sesca Rompas visits her brother, Aldo Kansil, who is in hospital. Just like the beginnings of novels, this text passage is written in such a way as to urge the reader to read on and to find out more, e.g., who are these people, why is the brother in hospital, what happened? Moreover, the language used is reminiscent of literary texts. We can identify rhetorical devices such as alliteration ("bed below"), metaphor ("angry mosaic of burns"), asyndeton and ellipsis ("two drips attached, arms swathed in bandages […]"). In other words: The text uses embellishments to present a specific ‘storyworld’ and to attract the reader’s attention. And yet, these are in fact the opening lines of a newspaper article (The Independent, 16 October 2002) which deals with the victims of a Balinese bomb attack. With this information in mind, we suddenly stop regarding this text as fiction: We take it for granted that the people described here are real and that the events related in the text are also real.

What does this example tell us? First of all, we can say that the boundaries between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ are often blurred and by no means always identifiable. More importantly, whether a text is fictional or not, is perhaps less the consequence of some inherent quality of the text but of a reader's attitude towards it. If I know the text above is from a newspaper I automatically assume that the ‘story’ must be real. By contrast, if this had been the beginning of a novel, I would undoubtedly have classified these characters and the setting as fictitious. In other words: We as readers are conditioned through education and cultural norms to approach texts in certain ways. In this view, fictionality is no longer an inherent feature of literary texts but part of our expectations of what a literary text should be like. Likewise, literary language is partly determined by the fact that we want to read it as ‘literary’. This will be explored in the following section.

Specialised Language

People often say that literary language is ‘special’ and that it differs considerably from normal everyday language. The linguist Roman Jakobson spoke of the poetic function of literary texts in his essay “Linguistics and Poetics: Closing Statement” (1960), i.e., the fact that literary texts draw attention to the language they employ. As the Russian Formalists maintained in the early twentieth century, literary texts make use of language in such a way that it becomes strange and unfamiliar in a given context. They called this process defamiliarisation. The following example from Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House illustrates this process:

Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest. (Dickens, Bleak House, ch. 1)

The way the bad November weather in London is described here has hardly anything to do with the way people would normally talk about the weather. One thing is particularly conspicuous: the blending of a description of natural phenomena ("mud", bad weather) with the jargon of the world of finance ("deposits", "accumulating", "compound interest"). By combining these two areas, the words are taken out of their usual context and put into another one, which thus becomes ‘new’ and ‘unfamiliar’ to the reader. We are attracted by this strange linguistic description and we start to wonder why such language is used here. One explanation might be that London as one of the financial centres in the mid-nineteenth century has become so immersed in its business that even nature participates in it and is no longer ‘natural’.

One area where the ‘literariness’ of language seems to be particularly obvious is poetry. Poetry is often marked by a conspicuous shape (lines, stanzas, etc.), a dense structure (thematically and linguistically), specific prosodic features and rhetorical devices. Now, as the example above from The Independent shows, even non-literary texts frequently use rhetorical devices and certain patterns to arouse the readers’ interest. Still, we do not necessarily classify them as literature. We do not, for example, consider a telephone directory a literary text although it is indeed extremely structured and ordered in a special way. Nor do we regard the above-mentioned newspaper article a poem, for example. And yet, is this really because the language in this article does not qualify for poetry or because we are simply not used to looking at newspaper articles in such a way? Consider the following sentence from the same article:

Just around the corner, an anxious-looking couple were standing close together, clutching plastic bags.

At first sight, this looks like a ‘normal’ sentence. There is nothing conspicuous about the words or the sentence structure. What happens if one pays attention to the rhythm of this sentence and displays it accordingly?

Just around the corner,
An anxious-looking couple
Were standing close together,
Clutching plastic bags.

All of a sudden, one realises that the sentence actually follows a regular metrical pattern, namely a trimeter with alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. Does that make the sentence poetic? Again, one can see that the line between literary and non-literary language is a very fine one and that the decision whether a text is literary or not largely depends on the way we look at the text and perceive its language. A lot of contemporary poetry plays with our alleged ‘knowledge’ of the literariness of texts. Have a look at the following "Found Poem" by Ronald Gross:

All too often, humans who sit and stand
Pay the price of vertical posture. Sitting
And standing combine with the force of gravity,
Exerting extra pressure on veins and tissues
In and around the rectal area.
Painful, burning hemorrhoids result.
The first thought of many sufferers
Is to relieve their pain and their discomfort.

Products, however, often used for this
Contain no anesthetic drug at all, or one
Too weak to give the needed pain relief,

Or only lubricate. But now, at last
There is a formulation which provides
Pain-killing power, prolonged relief, on contact.
(Gross, Open Poetry)

Although this text must originally have been an advert for anti-hemorrhoids medication, we can now read its language as literary language and thus perceive the text as a piece of literature simply because it has been transformed by means of formalisation and re-arrangement. Trained readers of literature may even identify this text as a sonnet because it follows the structural convention of fourteen lines with an octave and a sestet (here presented as two tercets). What this example also shows is that the way we read texts depends very much on the context in which we read them. If we had read this text on an information leaflet we would never have dreamed of looking at it as poetry and paying closer attention to its language. As soon as it appears in the guise of a sonnet, however, our reading practice also changes and we can start treating it as ‘literary’, e.g., by attempting an interpretation. This leads us to the next criterion often mentioned in discussions of literary texts, namely their lack of a pragmatic function.

Lack of Pragmatic Function

Undoubtedly, texts derive their meaning partly from their context. I read a novel as a novel because it is presented in a certain way (bound, with a title on the front page, sometimes the word ‘novel’ in the subtitle, and a plot summary as well as commentary on the back cover). Moreover, I use the novel as a novel and not as a cookery book, a newspaper or an encyclopaedia of garden plants, for example. Why is that? One might argue that these texts, in contrast to literary texts, have a definite pragmatic function, i.e., they are written and used for a specific purpose, e.g., to assist with the cooking or gardening or, generally, to inform the reader. A piece of literary writing, on the other hand, need not have been intended by the author for any specific purpose. It sometimes seems as though literature was just written into time and space, to nobody in particular and without any function.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to take that as a basic rule. Even literary texts do have a purpose, e.g., to criticise, to educate or even just to entertain. The fact that authors like Salman Rushdie, for example, are persecuted by political and religious groups shows that something must be attributed to their writings which other people consider dangerous or at least influential in some way or another. While non-literary texts may have a more clearly defined and generally agreed-upon function, literary texts can have a range of purposes which again depend on the reader. Thus, I can read a book simply to have a good laugh or, for that matter, a good cry, or I draw analogies with my own life and try to gain consolation or advice from the text. The text as such may not necessarily tell me how I have to use it but the reading practices I have been taught in school, at university, etc. will certainly influence my approach to texts. In other words: Even if we claim that a literary text has no immediate pragmatic function, we usually start to ascribe one to it in our usage or treatment of that text. While non-literary texts seem to have an inherent pragmatic function, i.e., they were ‘born’ to be a telephone book, a time-table, a women’s magazine, etc., literary texts gain their more specific and possibly individual pragmatic function in the reading process.


People generally accept the view that literary texts are far more ambiguous and thus often more complicated than non-literary texts. If one reads a recipe, for example, or a time-table or an instruction manual, the meaning expressed in these texts is presumed to be more or less fixed and not open to interpretation. In fact, these texts must not be open to interpretation because then they just would not ‘work’. A time-table has to be precise in order for people to be able to rely on it. And ten people using the same recipe for carrot cake should reach approximately the same result by following the step-by-step instructions.

This is certainly not the case if these ten people read a novel, for example. As classroom discussions show, different students can come up with rather different interpretations of what a specific literary text ‘means’ or what it tries to convey. This is also reflected in the vast amount of divergent critical interpretations of literary texts published over the years. So what is it that makes literary texts so ambiguous? For one thing, there is obviously the ‘human factor’: When we read a text we usually bring to bear on it certain expectations and interests, and inevitably we start looking for exactly those things that seem relevant to us. Thus, for example, Christina Rossetti’s long poem Goblin Market can be interpreted as a simple fairytale, as a hymn in praise of sisterly devotion, as a poem restating the biblical concepts of sin and redemption, as the indirect expression of repressed sexual fantasies, or indeed as a combination of all of these facets at the same time. No matter which interpretation one favours, one can find evidence for all of them in the text if one only searches through it thoroughly. This example illustrates that literary texts indeed must have some quality which makes them more ‘open’ than non-literary texts. One can say that literary texts always express meaning on different levels or in different layers. In other words: They express something beyond their literal ‘meaning’, and these other layers of meaning can be explored by attentive reading and analysis. It is a bit like archaeology: the deeper one digs the more interesting one’s findings are likely to be. At the same time, one needs suitable equipment for ‘digging out’ hidden meanings. That is where literary studies become important and where the fun begins once one has mastered the tools at hand.



poetic function
• defamiliarisation
pragmatic function