Literature is literally "an acquaintance with letters" as in the first sense given in the Oxford English Dictionary (from the Latin littera meaning "an individual written character (letter)"). The term has generally come to identify a collection of texts. The word "literature" as a common noun can refer to any form of writing, such as essays; "Literature" as a proper noun refers to a whole body of literary work, world-wide or relating to a specific culture.There is often confusion regarding the actual definition of literature and Literature. The word "literature" can be both singular and plural, likewise with "Literature". This being said, "literatures" is also plural. However "Literature", with emphasis on uppercase L, is a subset of the more general "literature". "Literature" refers to written work of exceptional intellectual calibre, whereas "literature" can be anything written. Accordingly, "War and Peace" by Tolstoy is "Literature" (singular) as well as "literature" (singular), while Dickens's work is part of "Literature" (plural) as well as "literature" (plural). Consequently, a Harry Potter novel will be included in "literature" (singular) but not in "Literature" (singular) since most people would not deem the books as sufficiently intellectual or meaningful at an academic level. Likewise the Harry Potter collection by JK Rowling will be included in "literature" (plural) but not in "Literature" (plural). What is intellectual and meaningful is subjective and often controversial or dubious, but it does not interfere with the above definition.


Nations can have literatures, as can corporations, philosophical schools or historical periods. Popular belief commonly holds that the literature of a nation, for example, comprises the collection of texts which make it a whole nation. The Hebrew Bible, Persian Shahnama, Thirukural, Beowulf, the Iliad and the Odyssey and the Constitution of the United States, all fall within this definition of a kind of literature.

More generally, one can equate a literature with a collection of stories, poems and plays that revolve around a particular topic. In this case, the stories, poems and plays may or may not have nationalistic implications. The Western Canon forms one such literature.

Classifying a specific item as part of a literature (whether as American literature, advertising literature, gay and lesbian literature or Roman literature) can involve severe difficulties. To some people, the term "literature" can apply broadly to any symbolic record which can include images and sculptures, as well as letters. To others, a literature must only include examples of text composed of letters, or other narrowly defined examples of symbolic written language (hieroglyphs, for example). Even more conservative interpreters of the concept would demand that the text have a physical form, usually on paper or some other portable form, to the exclusion of inscriptions or digital media.

Furthermore, people may perceive a difference between "literature" and some popular forms of written work. The terms "literary fiction" and "literary merit" often serve to distinguish between individual works. For example, almost all literate people perceive the works of Charles Dickens as "literature", whereas many tend to look down on the works of Jeffrey Archer as unworthy of inclusion under the general heading of "English literature". Critics may exclude works from the classification "literature", for example, on the grounds of a poor standard of grammar and syntax, of an unbelievable or disjointed story-line, or of inconsistent or unconvincing characters. Genre fiction (for example: romance, crime, or science fiction) may also become excluded from consideration as "literature".

Frequently, the texts that make up literature crossed over these boundaries. Illustrated stories, hypertexts, cave paintings and inscribed monuments have all at one time or another pushed the boundaries of "literature".

Different historical periods have emphasised various characteristics of literature. Early works often had an overt or covert religious or didactic purpose. Moralising or prescriptive literature stems from such sources. The exotic nature of romance flourished from the Middle ages onwards, whereas the Age of Reason manufactured nationalistic epics and philosophical tracts. Romanticism emphasized the popular folk literature and emotive involvement, but gave way in the 19th-century West to a phase of so-called realism and naturalism, investigations into what is real. The 20th century brought demands for symbolism or psychological insight in the delineation and development of character.

Forms of literature


A poem is a composition usually written in verse. Poems rely heavily on imagery, precise words choice, and metaphor; they may take the form of measures consisting of patterns of stresses (metric feet) or of patterns of different-length syllables (as in classical prosody); and they may or may not utilise rhyme. One cannot readily characterise poetry precisely. Typically though, poetry as a form of literature makes some significant use of the formal properties of the words it uses — the properties attached to the written or spoken form of the words, rather than to their meaning. Metre depends on syllables and on rhythms of speech; rhyme and alliteration depend on words that have similar pronunciation. Some recent poets, such as E. E. Cummings, made extensive use of words' visual form.

Poetry perhaps pre-dates other forms of literature: early known examples include the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (dated from around 3000 B.C.), parts of the Bible, and the surviving works of Homer (the Iliad and the Odyssey). In cultures based primarily on oral traditions the formal characteristics of poetry often have a mnemonic function, and important texts: legal, genealogical or moral, for example, may appear first in verse form.

Much poetry uses specific forms: the haiku, the limerick, or the sonnet, for example. A haiku must have seventeen syllables, distributed over three lines in groups of five, seven, and five, and should have an image of a season and something to do with nature. A limerick has five lines, with a rhyme scheme of AABBA, and line lengths of 3,3,2,2,3 stressed syllables. It traditionally has a less reverent attitude towards nature.

Language and tradition dictate some poetic norms: Greek poetry rarely rhymes, Italian or French poetry often does, English and German can go either way (although modern non-rhyming poetry often, perhaps unfairly, has a more "serious" aura). Perhaps the most paradigmatic style of English poetry, blank verse, as exemplified in works by Shakespeare and by Milton, consists of unrhymed iambic pentameters. Some languages prefer longer lines; some shorter ones. Some of these conventions result from the ease of fitting a specific language's vocabulary and grammar into certain structures, rather than into others; for example, some languages contain more rhyming words than others, or typically have longer words. Other structural conventions come about as the result of historical accidents, where many speakers of a language associate good poetry with a verse form preferred by a particular skilled or popular poet.

Works for theatre (see below) traditionally took verse form. This has now become rare outside opera and musicals, although many would argue that the language of drama remains intrinsically poetic.

In recent years, digital poetry has arisen that takes advantage of the artistic, publishing, and synthetic qualities of digital media.


A play or drama offers another classical literary form that has continued to evolve over the years. It generally comprises chiefly dialogue between characters, and usually aims at dramatic / theatrical performance (see theatre) rather than at reading. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, opera developed as a combination of poetry, drama, and music. Nearly all drama took verse form until comparatively recently.

Greek drama exemplifies the earliest form of drama of which we have substantial knowledge. Tragedy, as a dramatic genre, developed as a performance associated with religious and civic festivals, typically enacting or developing upon well-known historical or mythological themes. Tragedies generally presented very serious themes and treated important conflicts in human nature, but not necessarily "tragic" ones as currently understood — meaning sad and without a happy ending. Greek comedy, as a dramatic genre, developed later than tragedy; Greek festivals eventually came to include three tragedies counterbalanced by a comedy or satyr play.

Modern theatre does not in general adhere to any of these restrictions of form or theme. "Plays" cover anything written for performance by actors (screenplays, for example); and even some things not intended for performance: many contemporary writers have taken advantage of the dialogue-centred character of plays as a way of presenting literary work intended simply for reading rather than performance.


An essay consists of a discussion of a topic from an author's personal point of view, exemplified by works by Francis Bacon or by Charles Lamb.

'Essay' in English derives from the French 'essai', meaning 'attempt'. Thus one can find open-ended, provocative and/or inconclusive essays. The term "essays" first applied to the self-reflective musings of Michel de Montaigne, and even today he has a reputation as the father of this literary form.

Genres related to the essay may include

  1. the memoir, telling the story of an author's life from the author's personal point of view
  2. the epistle: usually a formal, didactic, or elegant letter.

Prose fiction

Prose consists of writing that does not adhere to any particular formal structures (other than simple grammar); "non-poetic writing," writing, perhaps. The term sometimes appears pejoratively, but prosaic writing simply says something without necessarily trying to say it in a beautiful way, or using beautiful words. Prose writing can of course take beautiful form; but less by virtue of the formal features of words (rhymes, alliteration, meter). But one need not mark the distinction precisely, and perhaps cannot do so. Note the classifications:

  1. "prose poetry", which attempts to convey the aesthetic richness typical of poetry using only prose
  2. "free verse", or poetry not adhering to any of the strictures of one or another formal poetic style

Narrative fiction (narrative prose) generally favours prose for the writing of novels, short stories, and the like. Singular examples of these exist throughout history, but they did not develop into systematic and discrete literary forms until relatively recent centuries. Length often serves to categorize works of prose fiction. Although limits remain somewhat arbitrary, modern publishing conventions dictate the following:

  1. A Flash fiction is generally defined as a piece of prose under a thousand words.
  2. A short story comprises prose writing of less than 10,000 to 20,000 words, but typically more than 500 words, which may or may not have a narrative arc.
  3. A story containing between 20,000 and 50,000 words falls into the novella category.
  4. A work of fiction containing more than 50,000 words falls squarely into the realm of the novel.

A novel consists simply of a long story written in prose; yet it developed comparatively recently. Icelandic prose sagas dating from about the 11th century bridge the gap between traditional national verse epics and the modern psychological novel. In mainland Europe, the Spaniard Cervantes wrote perhaps the first influential novel: Don Quixote, published in 1600. Earlier collections of tales, such as Boccaccio's Decameron and Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, have comparable forms and would probably classify as novels if written today. Earlier works written in Asia resemble even more strongly the novel as we now think of it — for example, works such as the Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Japanese Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki. Compare too The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.

Early novels in Europe did not, at the time, count as significant literature, perhaps because "mere" prose writing seemed easy and unimportant. It has become clear, however, that prose writing can provide aesthetic pleasure without adhering to poetic forms. Additionally, the freedom authors gain in not having to concern themselves with verse structure translates often into a more complex plot or into one richer in precise detail than one typically finds even in narrative poetry. This freedom also allows an author to experiment with many different literary styles — including poetry — in the scope of a single novel.

Other prose literature

Philosophy, history, journalism, and legal and scientific writings traditionally ranked as literature. They offer some of the oldest prose writings in existence; novels and prose stories earned the names "fiction" to distinguish them from factual writing or nonfiction, which writers historically have crafted in prose.

The "literary" nature of science writing has become less pronounced over the last two centuries, as advances and specialization have made new scientific research inaccessible to most audiences; science now appears mostly in journals. Scientific works of Euclid, Aristotle, Copernicus, and Newton still possess great value; but since the science in them has largely become outdated, they no longer serve for scientific instruction, yet they remain too technical to sit well in most programmes of literary study. Outside of "history of science" programmes students rarely read such works. Many books "popularizing" science might still deserve the title "literature"; history will tell.

Philosophy, too, has become an increasingly academic discipline. More of its practitioners lament this situation than occurs with the sciences; nonetheless most new philosophical work appears in academic journals. Major philosophers through history -- Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Nietzsche -- have become as canonical as any writers. Some recent philosophy works are argued to merit the title "literature", such as some of the works by Simon Blackburn; but much of it does not, and some areas, such as logic, have become extremely technical to a degree similar as that of mathematics.

A great deal of historical writing can still rank as literature, particularly the genre known as creative nonfiction. So can a great deal of journalism, such as literary journalism. However these areas have become extremely large, and often have a primarily utilitarian purpose: to record data or convey immediate information. As a result the writing in these fields often lacks a literary quality, although it often and in its better moments has that quality. Major "literary" historians include Herodotus, Thucydides and Procopius, all of whom count as canonical literary figures.

Law offers a less clear case. Some writings of Plato and Aristotle, or even the early parts of the Bible, might count as legal literature. The law tables of Hammurabi of Babylon might count. Roman civil law as codified in the Corpus Juris Civilis during the reign of Justinian I of the Byzantine Empire has a reputation as significant literature. The founding documents of many countries, including the United States Constitution, can count as literature; however legal writing now rarely exhibits literary merit.

Most of these fields, then, through specialization or proliferation, no longer generally constitute "literature" in the sense under discussion. They may sometimes count as "literary literature"; more often they produce what one might call "technical literature" or "professional literature".

Somewhat related narrative forms

  1. Graphic novels and comic books present stories told in a combination of sequential artwork, dialogue and text.
  2. ilms, videos and broadcast soap operas have carved out a niche which often parallels the functionality of prose fiction.
  3. Interactive fiction, a term for a prose-based genre of computer games, occupies a small literary niche.

Genres of literature

A literary genre refers to the traditional divisions of literature of various kinds according to a particular criteria of writing. These include:

  • Alternative/Alternate history
  • Autobiography
  • Bildungsroman
  • Biography
  • Children's literature
  • Constrained writing
  • Diaries and Journals
  • Fiction

        Airport novels
        Bodice rippers
        AChick lit
        ACrime fiction, Detective fiction
        A Fable
        AFairy tale
        AFamily Saga
        Southern Gothic

  • Historical fiction
  • Historiographical metafiction
  • Hysterical realism
  • Legal thriller
  • Mystery
  • Nouveau roman
  • Roman à clef
  • Romance (genre)
  • Romance novel
  • Saga
  • Satire
  • Speculative fiction

        Science fiction

  • The Slave narrative
  • Spy fiction/Political thriller
  • Thriller
  • Western

Oral Narrative (Oral History)

  • Poetry


Travel literature

Literary techniques

  • Commonplace
  • Epistolary novel
  • First-person narrative
  • Omniscient narrator
  • Transcription
  • Translation
  • Vision / Prophecy
  • Story within a story
  • Flashback
  • Metafiction
  • Fictional guidebook
  • False document
  • Lipogram
  • Plagiarism
  • Quotation
  • Setting

Literary figures

  • Authors
  • Critics
  • Dramatists
  • Essayists
  • Journalist
  • Novelists
  • Poets
  • Short story authors
  • Writers

Literature by country, language, or cultural group

  • African literature
  • Albanian literature
  • American literature
  • Anglo-Norman literature
  • Anglo-Saxon literature
  • Anglo-Welsh literature
  • Arabic literature
  • Australian literature
  • Austrian literature
  • Azerbaijani literature
  • Babylonian literature and science
  • Bengali literature
  • Brazilian literature
  • Breton literature
  • British literature
  • Bulgarian literature
  • Canadian literature
  • Catalan literature
  • Celtic literature
  • Chinese literature
  • Croatian literature
  • Czech literature
  • * see also Bohemian literature
  • Danish literature
  • Dutch literature
  • Egyptian literature
  • English literature
  • Esperanto literature
  • Finnish literature
  • Francophone literature
  • French literature
  • Frisian literature
  • Galician literature
  • German literature
  • Greek literature
  • Hebrew literature
  • Hindi literature
  • Hungarian literature
  • Icelandic literature
  • Indian literature
  • Irish literature
  • Israeli literature
  • Italian literature
  • Japanese literature
  • Jèrriais literature
  • Kannada literature
  • Kashmiri literature
  • Korean literature
  • Latin literature
  • Latvian literature
  • Malayalam literature
  • Marathi literature
  • Mexican literature
  • Literature of Myanmar
  • New Zealand literature
  • Norwegian literature
  • Pakistani literature
  • Persian literature
  • Philippine literature
  • Polish literature
  • Portuguese literature
  • Provençal literature
  • Puerto Rican literature
  • Quebec literature
  • Romanian literature
  • Russian literature
  • Sanskrit literature
  • Scottish literature
  • Serbian literature
  • Siraiki literature
  • Slovak literature
  • Slovene literature
  • South African literature
  • Southern literature
  • Spanish literature
  • Swedish literature
  • Tamil literature
  • Thai literature
  • Turkish literature
  • Urdu literature
  • Venezuelan literature
  • Waray literature
  • Welsh literature
  • Western literature
  • * see also Otto Maria Carpeaux
  • Yiddish literature

Literary criticism

  • Literary criticism
  • Literary theory

Story elements

  • Dramatic structure
  • Elements of plot
  • Figurative language
  • Inclusio
  • Setting tone

Themes in literature

  • Anti-hero (List of anti-heroes)
  • Adultery in literature
  • Chess in early literature
  • Family life in literature
  • Generation in literature
  • Heroines in literature
  • Norse mythological influences on later literature
  • Philosophy in literature
  • Post-colonialism in literature
  • Robots in literature
  • School and university in literature
  • Smuggling in literature
  • Technology and culture in literature
  • Tourism in literature


  • Scientific literature
  • Ornithological Literature
  • Blindness literature
  • Literature cycle
  • Rabbinic literature
  • Vernacular literature
  • Postcolonial literature