To begin, if we merely say that literature, in the sense of “written work valued for superior or lasting artistic merit,”Footnote 1 has been a major disciplinary shibboleth of the last thirty years and leave the reader to imagine an entry on literature as it might have appeared in 1987, or 1993, or 2005,Footnote 2 “literature” could then work as a placeholder for debates about canonicity and prestige that have since become part of a wider disciplinary self-conception. Here, I suggest that the relevance of the term now lies both in its apparent contrast with other forms of writing and in the way different types of literature are distinguished from one another. The Oxford Historical Thesaurus gives twenty-eight entries under headings of “types of literature,” including “highest class” and “inferior,” as well as “satiric,” “folk,” “ancient Latin and Greek,” and so forth. That is, the word “literature” is useful in drawing distinctions not only of value but of genre and provenance. The question about literature in the nineteenth century was often not whether a text was “literature,” but what kind of literature it was. What if the key feature of literature has really only ever been the modifier that precedes it?
If “literature” is a word whose main significance might actually lie in the adjectives that qualify it, then the most useful history of the word now accounts for it primarily in terms of the company it keeps. Computational text analysis helps restore this word to nineteenth-century discursive contexts. In a presentation called “Around the word «littérature»: The English case,” Mark Algee-Hewitt, Ryan Heuser, David McClure, and Franco Moretti developed (effectively) a series of snapshots of discourse from the narrow perspective of a string of characters: l-i-t-e-r-a-t-u-r-e.Footnote 3 Their work lets us see what McClure calls “marquee-level changes in its use,”Footnote 4 in particular the emergence of the idea of literature as belles lettres traced by Raymond Williams and others,Footnote 5 and it also draws our attention to the presence of the word in discourses about classicism, pedagogy, and nationalism. That is, literature with its modifiers helps us see past the genres we impose, if only by suggestive, implicit contrast. The language in which a text is written, the culture it hails from, or the commercial or pedagogical context of its circulation might each be considered a top candidate for the most salient feature of the texts we study, and a distanced perspective on the word lets us see all those uses at once.
This particular string of characters helps us read as Linda K. Hughes argues that we should: “sideways, including analysis across genres.”Footnote 6 Though Hughes argues in favor of nondigital methods, I follow Anne DeWitt in suggesting we orient ourselves sideways by using computational methods to develop a picture of the landscape of nineteenth-century discourse.Footnote 7 Specifically, that includes nonfictional as well as fictional genres, as the imaginativeness of fiction and poetry emerge by contrast to nonfictional genres. The essential terms of this twist on the history of this word are there in Keywords, in which Williams traces “the attempted and often successful specialization of literature to certain kinds of writing.”Footnote 8 Williams's entry on literature reveals how imaginative writing came to be recognized as literature, “affected by an emphatic definition of appropriate subject-matter.”Footnote 9 The key distinction in Williams is between imaginative books and the “concepts of writing and communication” they seem to exclude, a point that is increasingly relevant institutionally—at my university, English and mass communication are separate departments, and our program has separate tracks in literature, writing, and film and digital media. Conceptually, too, it matters, because establishing that “literature” is always a subcategory of a larger body of texts supplements the sense that students are majoring in specialized imaginative literature with a sense that they are being taught to make distinctions, broad and subtle, to help organize the mass of texts they encounter.
The thing, literature, evokes some of the same cultural crosscurrents as the canon debates—arguments about cultural capital, about the relation of class and personhood to knowledge, about nationalism and imperialism—in nonliterary contexts. By looking for the word everywhere at once, we can see how it once circulated—and continues to circulate—more broadly as a way to designate different kinds of writing and how it might function to remind us that everything is a text. The other definition of literature I'd like us to keep in mind is “non-fictional books and writings published on a particular subject.”Footnote 10 The significance of these two notions of the word now to university teaching is evident in a search for “literature” on the Open Syllabus Explorer,Footnote 11 a collection of syllabi drawn from across disciplines. As of December 2017, the top three most-taught texts with “literature” in the title are an essay on the role of contemporary literature in the college curriculum, the Norton Anthology of Literature, and a book on the literature review in the social sciences.Footnote 12 If we consider that the dust has more or less settled around fights about the idea of literariness, taking it up again now becomes a way to see past the “irrelevance” of literature in favor of a renewed interest in the many kinds of literature that circulated in the nineteenth century and that continue to circulate around us today.