Literature, or creative writing of lasting importance, is a major branch of study in schools and universities around the world. To qualify as literature, a piece of writing must have artistic merit and fall into one of three categories. Each of the three types of literature has its own history, defining characteristics and representative works.
The oldest form of literature, poetry has existed since at least 2000 B.C., the date assigned to five Sumerian poems inscribed on clay tablets and included in the “Epic of Gilgamesh.” Poetry is compressed writing with a high degree or descriptive or emotional content, and uses conventions such as meter -- the structure of individual lines -- and rhyme. Poetry also makes free use of metaphor and simile, terms that characterize the description of one thing through comparison to another. Unlike prose, poetry has no established rules of syntax, and includes everything from long, highly structured narratives, such as Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” to brief, abstract works like Arthur Rimbaud’s “Voyelles.”
Dramatic works, or plays, stand as the second oldest type of literature. Greek playwrights such as Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides popularized drama throughout the second half of the first millennium B.C. Greek playwrights, along with their Roman counterparts, later inspired the dramatic writing that characterized the Renaissance and Enlightenment literature of Western Europe. Plays serve as the written script for stage performances, and typically portray events involving an individual or cast of characters. In addition to spoken dialogue, plays may also include descriptions of setting and stage actions. Recognized dramatic masterpieces include Sophocles’ Theban trilogy, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” In the 20th century, the concept of drama expanded to include screenplays, recognized masterworks of which include “Chinatown” and “Citizen Kane.”
Prose literature differs from poetry in that it lacks poetic conventions, is not broken into individual lines, and more closely resembles everyday speech. Prose includes brief pieces like fables and anecdotes, and longer works like allegories and novels. Lady Murasaki’s “Tale of Genji,” which some consider the world’s first novel, appeared in the 11th century A.D. Prose literature generally has a unified plot structure and individualized characters, and presents a unified vision of reality. Novels became popularized throughout the 18th century with the appearance of Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela” and Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.” Other examples of prose masterpieces include Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote,” Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.”
The Nonfiction Exception
Nonfiction, a broad category of writing that includes journalism, biography, memoirs and historical works, emphasizes factual reportage over literary technique and usually does not count as literature. Creative nonfiction, which employs prose components such as dialogue, setting and character development, presents the occasional exception to this rule. Examples of creative nonfiction often categorized as prose literature include Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem," Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Epic of Gilgamesh
- Merriam-Webster: Poetry
- Pearson Higher Education: Three Genres -- The Writing of Literary Prose, Poems and Plays
- Harvard Universty: The Athens Dialogues -- Ancient Greek Theatre and the Theatre of the World
- Merriam-Webster: Drama
- Northern Virginia Community College: The History of the Novel
- UNESCO: Tale of Genji -- About
- Writers Guild of America, West: 101 Greatest Screenplays
- University of Vermont: Creative Non-Fiction
- Photo Credit Connel_Design/iStock/Getty Images
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