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Well, as with any discussion of the definition of a difficult concept, we'll start with the dictionary. Webster's has this to say about the word literature: "writings in prose or verse; especially : writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest (2) : an example of such writing." Not bad, MW, not bad. I quite like "excellence of form or expression and...ideas of permanent or universal interest." It straddles a nice line between vague and strict, just as the dictionary should.
I'm tempted to say that my personal definition of literature has to be something that has an intellectual or emotional effect on its reader, but that's so terribly subjective. And yet, to be honest, I think it's fairly accurate for me. If I don't care about it, in one way or another, I'm unlikely to call it literature. If it catches my attention with its ideas, its beauty, or its ability to move me emotionally, I'm likely to want to call it literature even if the establishment might not.
Still, the definition is incomplete, because I can recognize that innovation also has a place in the canon, and that we have to respect some authors and works simply because they did what had never before been done. Charles Dickens, for example, is rather stultifying, and I have a lot of difficulty recognizing the worth of his work based on its artistic and emotional merit, but he wrote novels about everyday life before anyone else did. That's pretty important. (Sure, he may have been the John Grisham of the age, but he was the first John Grisham of the age. If you reach mediocrity first, you're still remarkable by virtue of novelty alone.)
Next time, I think I'll give some thought to what isn't literature. Nothing like defining by exclusion.
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