Literature as a Form of Expression

Instructor: Millie van der Westhuizen

Millie is currently working in tertiary education, whilst completing her master's degree in English Studies.

In this lesson, you'll learn how to distinguish literary texts from other types of texts. You'll also explore how authors might use literature to express their culture, values and ideas.

What Is Literature?

Admittedly, there is no single definition that encompasses what literature really is, but in general, when it comes to literature, we are dealing with something that has been very consciously constructed by an author using particular techniques and styles to express themselves.

To better understand this, let's compare a work of popular fiction with a literary classic. Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series (2005-2008) is considered popular fiction, while Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) is seen as a literary work.

Even though both texts are about vampires, Dracula might be considered literary since the author wrote the text in a way that allows our knowledge about Dracula to develop - something which suited the context in which he was writing, since vampire mythology was not as well known in the nineteenth century as it is today. Instead of being very explicit and direct about the nature of his vampires, Stoker mimicked the sense of these creatures as being mysterious by presenting a series of letters and diary entries alluding to their existence. In contrast, with the Twilight series, readers are told about events more directly through the use of a first-person narrator. In addition, Meyer's novels are based on certain clichés (or overused literary devices), like the idea that love can overcome all obstacles.

Literature as a Form of Expression

When you consider the fact that literary texts generally employ very strategic ways of communicating, then an awareness of language's potential becomes important. Literary authors have the opportunity to present their culture, values and ideas to others in a way that is not confrontational, and which might even draw the reader in enough for them to learn more about these things.

Expressing Culture Through Literature

Culture is a term that is sometimes used to describe the social customs of a particular group of people. It is important not to generalize and stereotype people according to the customs associated with particular groups, but very often, people take pride in their culture since it is often the product of a long line of history.

When authors express their culture, they do so, not by presenting a single value or idea, but rather by demonstrating how their values and ideas play out in daily life. One example of people expressing their culture through literature can be seen in the work of the 'Drum Decade' authors.

The name 'Drum Decade' came from DRUM magazine, which, during the 1950s, published not only articles, but also short stories written by 'black' South African authors. At the time, the country's political system enforced racial segregation and yet, despite this oppressive system, a culture developed among the people living in informal settlements which blended the glamour of 1950s America with their own culture. As such, the Drum Decade authors wrote about shebeens (informal and illegal pubs), jazz, glamorous African women, men in 'zoot suits', as well as some of the issues plaguing the informal settlements and the country in general. By writing about this culture, these authors not only left a wonderful legacy for understanding their experiences, but provided their peers with a sense of ownership over and pride in their culture.

Expressing Values Through Literature

Values refer to those beliefs that are closely tied to your perspective of what is right or wrong. As such, a particular value is often informed by multiple ideas on a certain aspect of human life. When authors use literature to express their values, they might do so by presenting either the way that they believe things should be, or by presenting things that go against their values in a problematic way.

One example of this can be seen in Margaret Fuller's essay 'The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men and Woman versus Woman' (1843). In it, the author wrote about the position of women during the nineteenth century and her belief that women needed to be liberated on political, social and intellectual levels. In doing so, the author uses both direct statements on how she believes things should be, as well as presenting examples of what she considers a problematic view of women. As such, we can consider the text as one which expresses Fuller's feminist values.

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