The Good and Bad of Expanding the Definition of 'Literature'


What is literature? And what isn’t?

Labels like “literature” expand and contract as a medium like books breathes in and out. Right now, a lot of the talk seems to be about expanding the definition of literature. Expanding and including seem to be the way we’re headed.

Is this a good idea? A bad idea? Some of both? Does the expansion of “literature’s” definition accomplish the goal of bringing more readers into the fold?

The Importance of Genres

Genre labels are hard to get right, but easy to spot when they’re wrong. My library had Fight Club categorized as Sci-fi/Fantasy, complete with the little red spine sticker with a dragon on it. Non-spoiler alert: There are no dragons in Fight Club. Nothing remotely dragon-ous.

I’m going to start by saying that “literature” is a genre. Yes, I know it hasn’t always been that way, but in today’s book market, how would you better categorize books like A Little Life or Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom or Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad? I’m not sure how we package a book like Beloved without the tag of “literature.” I don’t know what you’d call a section in a bookstore where Jesus’ Son goes if not “literature.”

Lots of people use “literature” to mean “anything written down.” That’s fine, but that’s not how I use it, and not how I’m suggesting we use it going forward. Here’s why.

Expansion is Bad When It Muddies The Waters

Beloved and Carrie are both women’s stories. Both focus on mother/daughter relationships. Both involve a supernatural element. Both involve societal outcasts. If you go through the major plot points, there’s certainly stuff in common here.

And yet readers of both know that they aren’t the same thing. Reading Beloved and Carrie are not the same experience. It’s more than fair to say they were written with different readers and reactions in mind.

I see a benefit to keeping the “literature” genre tighter in this case. I like both books, but not in the same way. If I’m looking for something to read on an airplane, I’d go with Carrie. If I’m looking for a book to set on the nightstand and read over the course of a month, it’s Toni Morrison.

When books enter the “literature” genre when they may better fit as a thriller or a mystery or a horror novel, I think we’re breaking down a barrier, but we’re also removing a useful tool for decision-making. 

Expansion is Good When We’re Talking About A Quality Distinction

Come up with a better way to separate that stuff you like from an Edward Lee novel where a guy drills holes in peoples’ heads and has sex with them.

Expanding the boundaries of what’s considered “literature” is a good idea for people who use the term to denote quality. These are people who probably pronounce the word like, “lit-tra-tour” between sips from teeny tiny espresso cups, people who think their work for the New York Times Review of Books is interesting or relevant to anyone besides the writers of books and those writers’ mothers. Seriously, the only reason that thing exists is so writers can go home for Thanksgiving and convince mom and dad that their MFA was a good decision.

“Literature,” from where I’m standing, sets aside a kind of book, but it shouldn’t be about whether or not the book is any good.

Expanding the definition of “literature” is good when fighting against the word/label being used as a weapon in the quality wars. Sorry, snooty types, but you’ll have to come up with a new weapon. Come up with a better way to separate that stuff you like from an Edward Lee novel where a guy drills holes in peoples’ heads and has sex with them.

Expansion is Good When It Results In Individual Expansion

I was steered away from Stephen King by the “literature” distinction. I felt like a horror novel about vampires was beneath me. I was incorrect. Perhaps even stupid. A dullard. I’m still stupid, but I have relaxed my ideals and come out far better for it.

Expanding the boundaries of literature, perhaps to include popular materials or materials that are tough to place in a genre, might help readers expand out into books adjacent to their interests.

Expansion is Bad When It Confuses Occasional Readers

“Occasional Readers” is a term I use for people who consume books occasionally, maybe one or two a year, or maybe only when they do certain things like take vacations.

Occasional Readers need consideration on the issue of “literature’s” slippery definition.

While relaxing the definition of “literature” may bring heavy readers across genre divides, if one-book-a-year people are turned away from a good romance, which is what they want, because it’s being sold as “literary,” that’s a disservice to them and the book in question.

For Occasional Readers, books aren’t their entire lives. They don’t read ABOUT books all the time. We’re not doing them any favors by using them to make a point about flexing genres.

Expansion is Bad When It Bleeds The Genre

When movies like It Follows and Get Out and The VVitch came out, we watched news media do everything they could to not call them “horror.” They were “psychological thrillers” or “genre-bending statements.” To their credit, most of the filmmakers resisted these labels and went with “horror.” And they were right to do so.

When we expand great horror movies outside of the horror label, we end up cherrypicking the best examples of a genre and putting them somewhere else. So when someone attacks the horror genre, you can’t defend it by saying “What about Hereditary?”

Expanding “literature” can have the same effect. Taking books that are excellent out of their genre (for example, saying The Sirens of Titan isn’t really sci-fi) might elevate the status of a particular book, but leaves a genre without its best works and examples.

Last Analogy

When I go get Thai food, they ask how spicy I want it. They ask if I want it mild, medium, or spicy. While the cook might put in a different amounts of spice based on these labels, the person eating the food will interpret the spice level based on their own experience and palate.

Generally, I’m a medium guy. Well, my mouth is medium. The other end doesn’t always agree.

My “hot” and yours probably aren’t the same, but these are still useful labels. They aren’t perfect, but they’re a starting point. Something to consider when I go to the Thai place for the first time, then another time, and eventually get it dialed in.

To me, the worst way to go about this would be for the Thai place to be like, “We’re going to expand our 'medium' label to include a lot more dishes so that eaters will try them out."

The result wouldn’t be a bunch of satisfied customers. It would be disappointed spice-lovers and tender-mouthed folks going somewhere else.

When it comes to “literature” I don’t have a problem with the label changing. I just want us to do it thoughtfully. And we need to ask whether it’s the best way to bring more readers to the books they want to read.

Buy Header by Edward Lee at Bookshop or Amazon

Buy Beloved by Toni Morrison from Bookshop or Amazon

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jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like April 29, 2020 - 10:48am

I dislike using "Literature" as a genre. If you pursue a college degree in literature, you will likely read at least a few poems and plays, though these aren't in the "Literature" bookstore section. Not to kick anyone while they're down, but I would blame publishers, critics and retailers for any confusion in this matter.

If we wish to retain genre classifications, and a work lacks sufficient genre characteristics, what's wrong with "General Fiction" instead of "Literature"? What reason is there to narrow the latter term's use except to piggyback on existing notions of what "Literature" is?



helpfulsnowman's picture
Community Manager
helpfulsnowman from Colorado is reading But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman April 29, 2020 - 4:02pm

I see where you're coming from. I've got one of them fancy degrees. And I think those of us with degrees have it wrong, not the retailers and booksellers. Plays and poems are their own thing, and rubbing elbows with a Murakami novel doesn't benefit either, in my opinion, except in the rare case (Raymond Carver, for example) where a writer of literature also writes poetry, and perhaps people wouldn't know that. From a practical standpoint, when you shelve chapbooks with fiction, those chapbooks get completely lost. 

I think "literature" has taken on a meaning that denotes a certain type of novel. If you look up a list of popular "general fiction" on Goodreads, it includes The Da Vinci Code, The Book Thief, Fight Club, Pride and Prejudice, and The Fault in Our Stars. If you go into a list of popular "literature" you basically get classics. "General Fiction" is just too wide a swath for me, and I do think that "literature" has qualities that make it distinct rather than being a catch-all. 

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like April 30, 2020 - 12:21am

I guess I just resist the idea of another wide-swathing word such as "literature" getting the treatment instead. I would hope to keep the generalized definition open to use. Of course, common words can have different commonly understood uses in different commonly occurring contexts.

Regardless of retail space—a store can have a poetry section, while also putting Poe's poems next to his stories—do you believe you should not have been assigned poems & plays to read? Would you prefer a degree course covering different forms of "literature" have another name? (I suppose they could call it "Linguistic Arts" or something, which wouldn't be that bad per se.) But I kind of hate the idea of schools being pressured to change nomenclature because "Literature" became a genre. You know, some freshman wondering why he's reading a sonnet when, after all, he signed up for a "Literature" class, and so on.

helpfulsnowman's picture
Community Manager
helpfulsnowman from Colorado is reading But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman April 30, 2020 - 8:47am

I hear you, and I also feel that it's people who take a deep dive that need to be more flexible. Reason being, hey, if I'm studying something seriously for 4 years, I can deal with the confusing nature of terminology. That's what I'm there for. Whereas the occasional reader who hits a bookstore or library once or twice in a year shouldn't have to spend time unwinding what's what. I want it to be as easy as possible for those folks to find the right books, and English students should have a much better idea of how to do that on their own.

I certainly don't think colleges would have to change their program names. My take is that bookstores and colleges can do their own thing because they have different goals. "Literature" in an academic arena doesn't have to match up with "literature" in a retail setting. 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine April 30, 2020 - 8:47am

I don't think "literature" is a genre. But "literary fiction" is. And it's already being used as more of a pejorative. Like calling something "high falutin."

helpfulsnowman's picture
Community Manager
helpfulsnowman from Colorado is reading But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman April 30, 2020 - 10:07am

It feels almost like a pendulum thing. For a long time, calling something "genre fiction" was the pejorative. Now it's the other way, saying something is too fancy for a genre is a jab.

michelbes's picture
michelbes August 13, 2020 - 3:50am

In my opinion, literature is the one of the ways that helps people to expand their vision and become much more versatile. As you mentioned, the expansion of “literature’s” definition accomplish the goal of bringing more readers into the fold but it is not the only aim, isn't it? I learn English literature at college and found our more thoughts on this subject from this resource where the best essay samples are introduced, so feel free to check it as well. Maybe you will get more ideas and decide whether "literature" it is the genre or not :)

coreybrooks10's picture
coreybrooks10 September 4, 2020 - 6:56am

We live in a fast-paced world and I think that the term "literature" will expand even more, this is simply inevitable. As a fiction writer, I can say that I don't like that other writers produce lots of low-quality books that are shallow and not interesting to read. The productivity of education is declining with the high rise of technology and social media, people become lazy and unwilling to think. And why would you want to, if you can visit one of the paper writing websites and buy your essay from someone on the internet. It doesn't require you to do a research and invest your time in learning something new.

Andrewton's picture
Andrewton September 11, 2020 - 5:53am

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Texts that interpret literary works are usually persuasive texts. Literary critics may conduct a close reading of a literary work, critique a literary work from the stance of a particular literary theory, or debate the soundness of other critics’ interpretations. The work of literary critics is similar to the work of authors writing evaluative texts. For example, the skills required to critique films, interpret laws, or evaluate artistic trends are similar to those skills required by literary critics.