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A century later, the literary world will celebrate the hundredth “Bloomsday,” in honor of the very first time the great James Joyce received a handjob from a woman who was not a prostitute. Christopher Hitchens [1]
Great and terrible
Icon books.svg
On our shelf:
In very truth there are no gods who govern mankind: though we say falsely that Jupiter reigns, blind chance sweeps the world along. 'Lucan. The Civil War. [2]'

Throughout the history of the world, many people have written on various topics in languages of their choice. They write in either prose or poetry. The parts we like, we call literature.[notes 1] Perhaps one of the best methods of determining whether a given work is "literary" is to determine how many layers of meaning the work has - compare a Danielle Steel novel (one superficial layer of meaning) to any of Shakespeare's plays (three, four, twenty layers of meaning) - or the quantity of directions from which one may approach the work for interpretive purposes (which "coincidentally" often depends on layers of meaning).

Literature encompasses the works that have had the greatest influence upon civilisation and history. What each culture and society chooses to regard as the greatest achievements is dependent upon the influence, aesthetic quality, and depth of the work. This is a critical judgement that is made by those who have education and expertise, rather than the masses who tend to read uncritically and only for entertainment.[3]

Although most popular writers do not meet the selective criteria for great literature, there have been writers who were both popular among audiences and were also highly regarded by experts because of their high quality. Shakespeare wrote highly elaborate language which surpassed his contemporaries, and he was influenced by masters of literature and philosophy that came before him such as Ovid, Montaigne and Seneca.[4] Shakespeare was a rare example of a writer who wrote in a popular form of its time (the play), but the content surpassed the form to the point that he was highly regarded by intellectuals (he was even admired by certain elite audiences in his own time). Eminent figures such as Ben Johnson, Alexander Pope and John Milton praised Shakespeare, and he influenced hundreds of great writers, philosophers, composers and many other important figures.[5]

Certain popular writers do stand the test of time but are still not considered literature. Jules Verne was a popular writer who has stood the test of time and become a classic; yet Jules Verne is still not considered great literature because he does not have the intellectual depth or aesthetic quality of writers such as Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe and Proust. Therefore, what constitutes great literature is a difficult question that cannot be pinned down to what merely stands the test of time. The work of literature in question must undergo scrutiny and critical judgement under experts and connoisseurs to be regarded as high quality.[6]

The broadest definitions of literature include works beyond the "traditional" scope - which consists of novels, short stories, novellas, poems, and plays - to include music, graphic novels, and other such artistic productions

Some literature is an acquired taste, like warm dark beer. Try reading Moby Dick or anything by James Joyce, which are not as difficult as people seem to claim; yet, they demand greater intellectual concentration.

Literary theories[edit]

Myriad literary theories exist, but most employ some variation of the scientific method (or can be argued to do so) in the process of analysis. Some of the more common modern examples include[notes 2]:

  • Historicism
  • Marxism
  • Feminism
  • Psychoanalytic (Jungian or Freudian/LacanianWikipedia's W.svg)
  • Poststructuralism
  • Queer theory
  • Postcolonialism

Literary criticism[edit]

This exists in many forms, from the "reasonable" (as considered by most outside observers) to the totally meaningless. Typical of the latter is a story often attributed to Isaac Asimov, perhaps apocryphal, wherein he argues that a teacher is misunderstanding a piece of his, to which responds the teacher: "Just because you wrote it, what makes you think you have the slightest idea what it's about?"

Much literary criticism involves one idea spread over 500 pages, looking for examples of feminism/patriarchism/queerness/colonialist oppression/class struggle and oppression/(add examples to taste) in statements taken out of context, and, at the same time, explaining why the theories of other members of literary establishments are #totally wrong#. The overlap with woo is variable.

Then again, there are some acolytes like Harold Bloom or Helen Vendler (who both studied sciences) who find this approach pretentious, or worse, pseudo-scientific. They advocate instead the enjoyment literature as an end in itself, and their theory-oriented colleagues as attempting to find a neo-moralist approach to literature. Interestingly enough, their books tend to be deprived of jargon and fun to read in themselves.


Jorge Luis Borges coyly suggested that all religions are, in fact derived from "fantastic tales". In 1790 the admirably crazy William Blake defined religion as "choosing forms of worship based on Poetic Tales". In America, Walt Whitman first titled Leaves of Grass as The New Bible. If you're interested in how religions work... *hint hint nudge nudge*

Science-related literature[edit]

A good deal of literature has a good amount of grounding in scientific and mathematical subjects. These include

  • Douglas Adams-Writer of the Hitchhiker's series. Friend of Dawkins. Heavy on fiction, but still fun.
  • Edwin Abbott AbbottWikipedia's W.svg-Writer of Flatland, a novel using complicated mathematical concepts to satirize manners and society.
  • The works of Lewis Carroll-Not just for kids, massively entertaining and contain many many relevant logical puzzles.
  • George GamowWikipedia's W.svg-A physicist and friend of Einstein who wrote novels and humorous verse bringing both physics and its problems down to a conversational level.
  • Terry Pratchett-Writer of the Discworld series. Probably one of the best fictionalizers of modern moral problems.
  • Paradise Lost by John MiltonWikipedia's W.svg constantly alludes to science, astronomy and the atheist Lucretius. Milton met Galileo himself and writes in Paradise Lost that the earth travels around the sun.
  • Dante'sWikipedia's W.svg The Divine Comedy may have an outdated cosmological system, yet the values are timeless. Dante states that the scientific method is important to our understanding of the universe, and his work was admired by scientists such as Galileo and Newton.
  • James JoyceWikipedia's W.svg alludes to astronomy, physics and atheism throughout Ulysses in entertaining and progressive ways for its time. Despite the fact that Ulysses deals with an ordinary day in a man's life, the work has a grander cosmic impression created through allusions to science. The main character in Ulysses is also an atheist who questions religion.


  1. Apologies, or thanks, to TomMoore: [1]
  2. This list inevitably raises the question: What happened to the „common folks“ experience of simply reading a book and either liking or disliking it?


  1. https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2004/06/hitchens-200406
  2. Lucan (1928). J. D. Duff, ed. Lucan: The Civil War. Loeb Classical Library. 220. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  3. Eagleton, Terry (2008). Literary theory: an introduction: anniversary edition (Anniversary, 2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4051-7921-8.
  4. Hume, Robert D. (1976). The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-812063-X.
  5. Hawkes, Terence. (1992) Meaning by Shakespeare. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-07450-9.
  6. Cain, William E.; Finke, Laurie A.; Johnson, Barbara E.; McGowan, John; Williams, Jeffrey J. (2001). Vincent B. Leitch, ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Norton. ISBN 0-393-97429-4.