The literature of a certain language is the set of written works and received up to the present. This definition is by no means a foregone conclusion and must be clarified in several respects. On the one hand, the definitions that have been given of the term, sensitive to different ideologies, world views, political or philosophical sensibilities, are different from each other and often absolutely irreconcilable.

Literature is a technique of “instruction of the imagination”, which serves not to “communicate”, simply, but to make people live simulated experiences. Through a practice of socially shared simulation (thus different from individual reverie) the reader has the opportunity to expand his overall existential experience: to clarify and enrich it, to articulate and extend it, thus acquiring new tools to meet the challenges of real life.

The Latin word litteratura (from littera, “letter”) meant the same tracing letters, writing. In the 1st century AD began to indicate the teaching of the language (thus corresponding to the word grammar, or the Greek grammatiké téchne, from gramma, “letter”). An important step is the reflection of the Latin rhetorician Quintilian, who extended the term litteratura to encompass all the techniques of writing and knowledge, affirming the value of disinterested studies on language. Another Latin word, the adjective litteratus, initially indicated what was “written with letters”, but then its use shifted to the writer, to indicate his ability, culture, and education.

It is however evident, from these ancient uses of the term, the deep link between literature and writing: if initially “literature” is the study and knowledge of written language, through a rather oblique process the term ended up indicating the whole of the written language. The written culture was, however, the prerogative of a very few and the knowledge of letters was a sign of an uncommon experience, completely distinct from the common one, linked as the latter was to the most immediate and basic needs of life. The act of a new writing was invariably connected with the previous literature (in essence, the documents that had survived the time), but it was the invention of printing with movable type that founded the modern concept of literature: it resulted in fact the development of codes and forms specifically literary and, above all, a hierarchy that distinguished forms properly literary “from the varied and chaotic universe of other writings. Thus, literature is constituted as an “institution”, which is handed down as a “tradition”.

The origins of a sociology of literature can be traced, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, in a famous essay dedicated by M. G. de Staël-Holstein to the relationship between literature and social institutions. In it, the development of the literary production of a national context was identified as an unequivocal signal of the political dynamism of the community. In this perspective, Romantic culture attempted to combine the subjective creative capacity of the artist with the social and pedagogical reasons for his or her production. As the cultural models and rules of industrial society spread, two opposing visions of the role of literature emerged. On the one hand, researchers inspired by the preaching of H. de Saint-Simon inaugurated a strand oriented towards social denunciation and the educational use of literature; on the other hand, a current of thought developed that was afraid of the negative effects that the transformation of society would have on the originality of the artistic message (J. Ruskin, Ch. A. de Sainte-Beuve). It will be H. Taine, with his Histoire de la littérature anglaise (1877), to interpret – even in the framework of a vision marked by the ideology of positivism – the literature as an expression of society and its changes, promoting a more critical and specialized approach. In the twentieth century, an important contribution to the renewed sociology of literature came from researchers of Marxist orientation. G. Lukács (The Theory of the Novel, 1920) explicitly connects political transformations and changes in the sphere of artistic production, identifying in this difficult dialectic the characters of the crisis of the contemporary artist. L. Goldmann, on the other hand, tries to go back to the analysis of the mental forms of literary creation. Interesting contributions also come from the ethnological-structuralistic approach of C. Lévi-Strauss. The Frankfurt School, especially with Th. Adorno, deepens the theme of alienation of which the artist participates in the context of a society subjected to pervasive mechanisms of cultural manipulation and political domination (on this line see also the analysis of W. Benjamin and J. Duvignaud). In the U.S.A., a researcher such as H. D. Duncan has instead developed – since the sixties – a precise analysis of the symbolic imaginary, which does not neglect the empirical research on contemporary writers, their status needs and their social identity.

Literary forms and genres

Literature is conventionally divided into a multiplicity of genres also called codified forms of an expression that make its classification much easier and critical discussion. The form of writing is the structure, how it is constructed and organized. A genre is a specific style or category of writing. Genres make use of the various literary forms as foundations from which to stretch out in many directions of expression. Forms and genres join with content to create the meaning of a piece of writing. Meaning is the writer’s message to the A first very general distinction is that between:

  • poetry
  • prose
  • drama

The first is characterized because it tries to reproduce the musicality of a sound through rhythm, pronunciation and word order; the second instead does not have this characterization, and therefore groups all those works not in verse. Theater, then, is to be considered a separate art form, which often merges together the first two and often joins the music, giving rise to the opera (which is based for the textual part on librettos sometimes written by real poets) and, recently, the musical (or musical comedy).

In the field of prose, we generically refer to fiction for a novel or a short story, if we cannot find a well-defined classification. Keeping in mind that within the narrative forms can be found spurious genres such as those of the photonovel (literally a novel for images) or screenplays (film or television) that sometimes arouse the attention, in recent years, of the publishing market.

In literature, the definition of literary genres is one of the most debated problems since the Renaissance, when the Poetics of Aristotle was discovered, although the origin of the concept of ‘genre’ dates back to ancient Greece, in fact Plato made the first distinctions between mimetic genre (tragedy and comedy), narrative (dithyramb and nomo), and mixed (epic).

Thus, since classicism genres have been distinguished on the basis of certain characteristics, but in the hierarchical order of genres there were constraints that were not always respected. According to the canons of classicism to define a genre is taken into account:

  • the language of the writing;
  • the nature of the themes covered.

Another fundamental epoch in the history of genre theory was the Romantic age, when Hegel in the Aesthetics distinguished the three genres of epic, lyric and drama.

Starting from the classicist distinction it is possible to identify first the language of writing, that is, whether the work is composed in narrative form, then epic, or in dramatic form (drama). The nature of the themes covered also helps to define the genre. Only through the combination of theme and form, therefore, is the identity of the genre established in a recognizable way. The readers’ (or listeners’, in the case of oral genres such as theatrical epics) horizon of expectation also contributes to the recognizability of the theme.

Many modern narrative texts announce their genre in a subtitle to guide the reader’s choices and expectations or even to give themselves a status that the text alone is not sufficient to reveal.

There are some genres (novel or lyric) that, because of their extraordinary thematic variety, force the genre scholar into interpretive flexibility.

The most formalized genres, such as epic, tragedy, comedy, that is, those genres that have an ancient history and that have presented themselves over the centuries always with new codifications, are also those that have often served as a model to a normative treatment valid for all times. In any case, a genre is always relative to the literary system that forms and describes it.

Even before their theorists, genres are defined by the authors; for example Torquato Tasso, describing the characteristics of the classical epos (epic) on the basis of the works of Homer and Virgil, stressed, during the composition of his Gerusalemme liberata, the need to exclude from the epic writing every element of lyric poetry that he led back to the model of Petrarch (considered absolute canonical model).

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