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Defining Literature

The word "literature" implies a certain prestige bestowed upon only the finest writing. To be classified as a literary giant like Shakespeare or Alcott, one's work must exhibit exceptional qualities that distinguish it from the other texts. Literature is defined not by a single characteristic, but a delicate combination of various factors. The piece has to be stylistically sophisticated, convey a profound message, and withstand a changing world to ever achieve the highly coveted status of "literature."

Style is a necessary aspect of any piece of literature, but unlike grammar, it cannot be taught. A writer's style is his identity. It is unique to him, a product of his own experiences and personal thoughts. It changes as he does; it reflects who he is. Nevertheless, if it's underdeveloped, it will severely diminish the overall quality of his writing, for literature commands a sophisticated style to act as the work's foundation. This involves the employment of literary devices and precise, descriptive words, which breathe life into a piece of writing and make it original (hence the term "novel"). If Shakespeare used the plainest diction and avoided imagery, Romeo and Juliet would be cast aside as simply an ordinary tragedy, a run-of-the-mill play, and not a work of art portraying a fictional love so heart-rendering, so powerful, so strong, that the reader cannot help but experience the couple's trials as if they were real. If Alcott's words lacked their emotionally powerful connotations, no one's heart would ache, tears wouldn't stream down any face, as the reader learns how Beth gradually slips into the arms of death; nobody would truly understand how devastated Jo was after Amy burned her manuscript out of spite. A writer's style, thus, can make even the most unrealistic fantasy verisimilar, a story with which readers may connect and identify centuries after its publication.

Another major component of any piece of literature is its effectiveness. A book not considered "literature" may have a well-developed style but not a definitive purpose. A piece written purely for entertainment is all well and good; however, to be "literature," a piece needs to have a more profound purpose. It ought to address a societal issue or introduce a new way of looking at a concept, like The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. It thrust into the spotlight the corruption and unsanitary practices in and ultimately revolutionized the meat-packing industry. Sinclair's book caused such an uproar from the masses because of its exposition of a topic of great relevance in society. "Light" genres like "chick lit" and "science fiction" usually fall on the opposite end of the literary spectrum as social commentaries, so though they may include stylistically sophisticated works, they generally do not fall under the umbrella of "literature."

If a text is written in a matured style and conveys a potent message to society, it is well on its way to becoming "literature." Though there are exceptions to this rule, such as The God of Small Things, a piece must first stand the test of time before being deemed as a literary masterpiece. It needs to prove itself eternal, able to touch the hearts and souls of readers in an ever-changing world. Already established literature posseses the quality that let it survive decades upon decades, centuries upon centuries, and yet remain as effective as during the era in which it was written. If a text withstands generations, each more different than its predecessor, and is still revered, it is a "classic," and has earned citizenship in the realm of "literature."

Literature is, in some ways, subjective. What one thinks is a phenomenal piece might be absolutely horrendous to another. Nevertheless, society as a whole, not just prominent scholars, has implemented and fundamentally agreed upon the criteria for literature: stylistic sophistication, a profound message, and a history of acclamation, if not at least years of publication and only recently earned praise. Critics of Shakespeare, entitled to their opinions as they are, cannot deny the existence of these factors in his plays, nor can they accurately denounce his works as "literary trash." The line between "literature" and "non-literature" has been drawn and will more than likely stay that way in the years to come. #



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