Course Content
Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
BA English
About Lesson


“What is Literature?

What is a Text?

Mario Klarer

Learning Outcomes

Upon the completion of this unit, the learner will be able to:

  1. acquaint themselves with different forms of literature
  2. familiarise themselves with different concepts and key terms related to literature
  3. create awareness regarding the written form of language
  4. identify the importance of primary and secondary sources in writing


Have you heard tribals singing songs during festivals or rituals? Have you noticed that they do not have a script to write? Without a script, they pass on these songs to the succeeding generations. How? Through spoken language. Yes, it is through spoken language that our ancestors too used to do so. In Unit 2, you may have come across the ballads of the Anglo-Saxons. Remember “Beowulf”? They were the earliest literature in spoken form. Then came the literature in written form, and with that came different genres. The book, An Introduction to Literary Studies by Mario Klarer helps you comprehend the different key concepts in literature.

Key words

Oral, Written, Genre, Text type, Discourse, Primary source, Secondary source



The meaning of the term literature has not been defined clearly in any encyclopaedia. Al-though it is referred to as the whole of written works, there is a restriction that every written document cannot be categorised under literature. Hence those works that have an “aesthetic” or “artistic” quality are referred to as works of literature.

The etymological meaning of the word literature is “litteratura,” a Latin word derived from “littera” (letter), which is the smallest unit of the alphabet. The word text is related to “textile.” As the origins of these two words do not help in defining literature, it is best to look at literature or text as the product of culture, or of history.

The primary purpose behind a literary pro-duction is the human wish to leave behind a trace of oneself through some kind of creative expression. The earliest examples of such a wish can be seen in the prehistoric paintings in caves, which are the sources of encoded messages in the forms of signs.

Literature cannot be confined to written words alone, they can be in spoken form too. Oral literature originated even before the birth of pictographs and alphabet. This mostly happened in the form of oral poetry, propagated by bards and minstrels. Most of the classical and Old English epics were produced in the spoken form, and later on preserved in the written form. This spoken component of literature has now been revived with the arrival of radio and other audio-transferring media.

The visual and oral components of literature became almost extinct during the course of history. In the Middle Ages also, the visual component of literature enjoyed a prominent status in the form of decorated handwritten manuscripts. This status later diminished in the modern age with the arrival of the printing press. The “iconoclasm” or the hostility towards pictures irreconcilably broke the relationship between the written and the spoken medium of literature.

The only form of literature that still preserves this relationship is drama. An advanced form, which more obviously upholds it, is film, which is of recent birth. Since the spoken and written elements are recorded in films, as in books, it is preferred in textual studies. The methods used for textual and literary criticism are hence frequently applied to such media. The most recent hybrids that sustain the correlation between the spoken and written elements are computer hypertexts and the inter-net. Although the written medium is given utmost importance in the study of literature, other media, such as the stage, painting, film, music and even computer networks are also taken into consideration.

This conglomeration of modern textual studies with other media has resulted in controversies in defining the “texts,” and this has result-ed in the development of new ways of literary expression and analysis.

1.4.1 Genre, Text Type, and Discourse

Literary criticism, like biology, uses the concept of evolution or development to distinguish different genres of literature. The former area is known as literary history, whereas the latter is known as poetics, and both are closely interrelated.

Genre is a term used to refer to one of the three classical literary forms – epic, drama, or poetry. Epic is not categorised under poetry, although it shares the features of the latter. Epic can be considered a precursor of modern novels, as it has structural features similar to that of the novel, like plot, character presentation and narrative perspective.

Texts that do not come under the acknowledged genres of fiction, drama and poetry are presently dealt with in modern linguistics. Those works, which were considered worth-less or irrelevant, are taken for textual analysis nowadays. The term text type also comprises the highly conventional written documents, like instruction manuals, sermons, obituaries, advertising texts, catalogues, and scientific or scholarly writings. This includes the three major genres of literature and their sub-genres.

Another important term used in theoretical treatises is discourse, which means any kind of classifiable linguistic expression. It has gained significance in referring to areas of content and theme, like discourses related to gender, political, sexual, economic, philosophical and historical matters. While text type denotes written documents, discourse includes both written and oral ones.

In short, it can be concluded that genre can be used for the three classical forms of literary tradition, text type can be used for “non canonical” written texts, and discourse for a variety of written and oral works which share similar thematic or structural features.

1.4.2 Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary sources are those traditional objects of analysis in literary criticism, which include texts of all literary genres, such as fiction, poetry or drama.

Secondary sources are texts, like articles or essays, book reviews and notes, primarily published in scholarly journals. It is through journals that the readers are informed about the latest advancements in research. Essays are published as collections or anthologies. They are compiled by one or more editors. If an anthology is published in honour of a famous researcher, it is known as a festschrift, which is a German term. Monographs are lengthy scholarly treatises, like dissertations and scholarly books.

Secondary literature gives importance to scholarly practices that have been established for scientific discourse, including objectivity, documentation of sources, and general validity, which enable the readers to check the validity of the statements. The reader of a secondary source should be able to refer back each quotation or paraphrase to the source from which it has been derived.

Critical apparatus is the formal criteria that has evolved in literary criticism, which includes footnotes or endnotes, a bibliography and an index.


Identifying the difference between a primary source and a secondary source is not an easy task. An examination of the literary essay form of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries shows that this type of classification did not exist in those days. These essays possessed the stylistic qualities of the primary sources, as well as themes and questions, which are the features of secondary sources. Hence, the literary essay can be considered a mixture of both.

A deliberate attempt to neglect the classification can be seen in the works of twentieth century writers. A famous example from English poetry is T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” in which the poet includes footnotes in the primary text. The second half of the twentieth century witnessed a mixing up of elements in the primary and secondary texts, where elements of the primary source are included in the secondary one, and vice versa. Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire is an example for this. The fact that this work is categorised un-der the genre novel, although it has a poem as its centre, displays the phenomenon of breaking of rules in the modern period.


  • Term ‘literature’ – not clearly defined
  • Primary purpose of writing – to leave behind a trace of oneself
  • Oral literature – pictograms – written literature
  • Literary history – evolution of literary genres
  • Poetics – development of literary genres
  • Genre – epic, drama or poetry
  • Text type – written documents
  • Discourse – both written and oral documents
  • Primary sources – texts of all literary genres, such as fiction, poetry or drama
  • Secondary sources – texts, like articles or essays, book reviews and notes, primarily published in scholarly journals
  • Festschrift – an anthology published in honour of a famous researcher
  • Anthology – a collection of essays
  • Critical apparatus – footnotes, endnotes, bibliography, index
  • Distinction between primary and secondary sources – blurred in the modern period

Objective Questions

  1. What is the etymological meaning of the word literature?
  2. Which are the two forms of literature?
  3. Name a most recent hybrid form of oral literature.
  4. In what form did the visual component of literature gain prominence during the Middle Ages?
  5. Who propagated the earliest forms of oral literature?
  6. What is the development of different genres of literature called?
  7. What can be considered a precursor of the modern novel?
  8. What is the term used for highly conventional written documents?
  9. What is the term used for oral and written works that share a common feature?
  10. Give an example of a primary source.
  11. What informs the readers about the latest developments in research?
  12. What is a collection of essays called?
  13. Dissertations are examples of?
  14. What is an anthology published to honour a single person called?


  1. Letter
  2. Oral and written
  3. The internet
  4. As handwritten documents
  5. Minstrels and bards
  6. Poetics
  7. Epic
  8. Text type
  9. Discourse
  10. Fiction
  11. Journals
  12. Anthology
  13. Monographs
  14. Festschrift


  1. Find out two examples from works of English literature that tend to blur the differences between primary sources and secondary sources.
  2. Identify a few examples for festschrifts.
  3. Mention the features of journals.
  4. Write a note on the earliest forms of literature.

Suggested Readings

  1. Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 9th ed. The Modern Language Association, 2021.
  2. Klarer, Mario. An Introduction to Literary Studies. Routledge, 2005.