Terry Eagleton, in the ‘Introduction: What is Literature?’ has acknowledged the presence of something known as literature, since scholars had been studying something called the ‘literary theory’ for generations. He has taken different approaches to describe literature. From the content to its language, every aspect of a creative work is examined to determine whether it would be accepted as literature, and Literature, or not. Eagleton also touches upon most of these aspects, and this essay discusses one of them.
The author brings in the example of the Russian Formalists, like, Viktor Shlovsky, Roman Jakobson, Osip Brik, and others, in an attempt to categorize a piece of work as literature. These Formalists rejected the quasi-mystical symbolist doctrines, which had influenced literary criticism before them, and instead, focused on the reality of the text itself. Their method of analysis was pragmatic and scientific. Literature, according to them, was not a part of any other discipline, but a domain in itself. A literary work was not even a vehicle for imagination, nor a mirror of sociological reality of the time. Almost similar, as Peter Barry points out, in the ten tenets of liberal humanism, which say that literature transcends above the age specific confines and continues to prevail canonically. These Formalists believed that literature should be studied in its own right, and they added that it should be studied as a material fact.
They felt that literature was not a part of psychology or sociology, but a meaningful arrangement of language and other linguistic devices like meter, syntax, diction etc. The formalists considered that the linguistic elements had a commonality in them, in their effect of de-familiarisation of language. The Formalists, then, saw literary language as a set of deviations from a norm, a kind of linguistic violence. By virtue of its characteristics, literature was supposed to be different from the everyday, colloquial and ordinary words that people use.
This theory had a few shortcomings though. For example, to determine the deviance of literary language from ‘ordinary language’ one needed a standardized language structure. But there is no common ‘ordinary language’ even within a country, let alone the world. Moreover, this ordinary language pattern also changes with every passing era. Thus, the notion of a single ‘normal’ language, like a common currency shared equally by all members of society, is an illusion (author). Another problem pointed out is that there isn’t any work, literary or not, that cannot be read as estranging, or de-familiarising. The construction of the sentence/ passage etc, the emotional/cognitive state of the reader, and the context can make even a piece of instruction seem strange and unusual.
Nevertheless, the Formalists still presumed that ‘making strange’ was the essence of the literary. The author also feels that one can think of literature less as some inherent quality or set of qualities displayed by certain kinds of writing all the way from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, than as a number of ways in which people relate themselves to writing. As a reader, I personally resonate with Eagleton when he says that the peculiarity in language with regard to context, time, era etc. should be discerned instinctively and differentiated from the ‘ordinary speech’. As an example, he said that we would certainly know that a person is using literary words when someone says, “Thou still unravished bride of quietness”, and not when he or she says, “The drivers are on strike today.”