Is It Literature?

My first meeting of Literary Theory and Practice is today at 12:30, and I’m super excited about it! I’ve taught the class once before, using the same basic materials, and this term I’m fleshing it out a bit more with some excerpts from primary theoretical sources. FSG also recently republished the collected poems of Elizabeth Bishop with a wonderful new section of facsimile drafts, so we’ll be able to take a look at those sometime in the next 15 weeks. One of my goals for teaching this class the second time around is to create some effective videos and discussion activities that will bring home the central theoretical concepts we’re working on. First up is formalism, though today we’re starting with a general conversation about the class, the work of the critic, the nature of literature, and how it’s changed over time.

So, today I want to start with an activity I’m calling “Is this Literature?” I’ll give students a selection of excerpts from a variety of texts, and they’ll have to organize them into a couple categories: is it literature? is it good literature? is it something a literary critic can talk about? The idea is to get students thinking about some of the criteria that make a text “literature” and the extent to which those criteria are fungible and contingent. Here are my excerpts, if anyone is interested. If you have good ideas you want to share, please comment!

One Reply to “Is It Literature?”

  1. Great discussion today about some of the criteria that make up our understanding of “literature”! Among the topics addressed: context (generic, historical, experiential), familiarity, level of apparent difficulty, unexpected language or ideas, unexpected shape for those ideas, popularity, different kinds of popularity. Didn’t get through all of the examples, though, and didn’t have enough time to set up student blogs–in the future, that should be a whole class period (note to self). But, everyone was game to tackle it on their own. Kudos to the go-getters!


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