Wednesday, July 31, 2013

4 Types of Literature

Literature, by it's own right, is a troublesome thing to define. The word itself comes from the latin literatura witch originally meant "writing formed with letters." Well, you can't get much more vague than that! Today, people try to define a more narrow box for literature. Rather than the wide as scope of everything ever written, the word literature has come to mean a certain class of writing with shared characteristics. However, people disagree on which works fit in the box of literature. You don't find many people who argue that the works of Shakespeare or Jane Austen aren't literature. But what about Stephanie Meyer or John Green? 

In The Study of English Literature, Samuel Cowardin Jr. and Paul More summarize literature as "such writings as have the power to stimulate thought about life, the power to stir the emotions, the power to kindle the imagination, and, to some extent at least, the power to survive." There are multitudes of books that fit that definition. Still, the box of literature can be divided into smaller compartments. Cowardin and More identify four distinct types of literature: romanticism, idealism, realism, and naturalism. 

1. Romanticism
The term romanticism comes from the stories written in romance languages (like french and latin). Prevalent themes in these early works were love, heroism, and adventure. Sometimes, the word is used to talk about a specific movement in English literature from the 18th century. However, if you take a closer look at writings from a broad scope of time, you'll find these romantic themes in many different eras. For example, stories like the Odyssey and Treasure Island are works that exemplifies the romantic spirit. This sort of universal romanticism, found across the ages, is filled with strangeness and wonder. Romanticism prefers the fantastical and contains themes of love and adventure.(Cowardin and More, 1939 p. 121)

2. Idealism
This comes from the latin word idealis, meaning "existing in ideas." These are things that exist in our minds. The ideal is something better than real life, something a little closer to perfect. Idealism within literature "designates a tendency to depict things in an imaginary way--not as they actually are, but as they are not"(Cowardin and More, 1939). Examples of this type of literature are Plato's Republic and Sir Thomas Moore's Utopia. Rather than describing near perfect places, some books utilized idealism in their heroes and heroines. They create protagonist so noble and good that even the best person in the would couldn't live up to the standard.

3. Realism
Realism acts as a counter point to idealism. This genre shows life as it is, not as it should be. These are the "slice of life" books which give us ordinary events and people. Realism isn't interested in dramatic moments or people who stand out. Jane Austen is an excellent example of true realism with her particular gift of making everyday life seem interesting. Some authors use realism to delve into the lowest depth of society depicting the ugliness and filth found there. 

4. Naturalism
Naturalism comes in opposition to romanticism.  It takes the idea of showing the underbelly of life to the extreme. "Literary naturalism tends to paint the bestial, the repulsive, and even the obscene in such a way as to give them undue prominence in the board picture of life" (Cowardin and More, 1939). In a way, it is a sort of exaggerated realism. Naturalism often deals with warring emotions such as lust, greed, and the desire for power. Emile Zola is a classic example of a naturalist writer. Examples of other naturalist authors are Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner. 

Question: What type of literature do you prefer to read or write? Are there other types of literature that Cowardin and More could have added? 
Leave your answer in the comments.

Cowardin, S., and More, P. (1939). The study of English literature. (2nd ed.). New York: Henry Holt and Company.

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