11 Literature (including fiction, drama, poetry, and prose)


Essential Questions for Literature

  • How is literature like life?
  • What is literature supposed to do?
  • What influences a writer to create?
  • How does literature reveal the values of a given culture or time period?
  • How does the study of fiction and nonfiction texts help individuals construct their understanding of reality?
  • In what ways are all narratives influenced by bias and perspective?
  • Where does the meaning of a text reside? Within the text, within the reader, or in the transaction that occurs between them?
  • What can a reader know about an author’s intentions based only on a reading of the text?
  • What are enduring questions and conflicts that writers (and their cultures) grappled with hundreds of years ago and are still relevant today?
  • How do we gauge the optimism or pessimism of a particular time period or particular group of writers?
  • Why are there universal themes in literature–that is, themes that are of interest or concern to all cultures and societies?
  • What are the characteristics or elements that cause a piece of literature to endure?
  • What is the purpose of: science fiction? satire? historical novels, etc.?
  • How do novels, short stories, poetry, etc. relate to the larger questions of philosophy and humanity?
  • How we can use literature to explain or clarify our own ideas about the world?
  • How does what we know about the world shape the stories we tell?
  • How do the stories we tell about the world shape the way we view ourselves?
  • How do our personal experiences shape our view of others?
  • What does it mean to be an insider or an outsider?
  • Are there universal themes in literature that are of interest or concern to all cultures and societies?
  • What are the characteristics or elements that cause a piece of literature to endure?
  • What is creativity and what is its importance for the individual / the culture?
  • What are the limits, if any, of freedom of speech?


Defining Literature

Literature, in its broadest sense, is any written work. Etymologically, the term derives from Latin litaritura/litteratura “writing formed with letters,” although some definitions include spoken or sung texts. More restrictively, it is writing that possesses literary merit. Literature can be classified according to whether it is fiction or non-fiction and whether it is poetry or prose. It can be further distinguished according to major forms such as the novel, short story or drama, and works are often categorized according to historical periods or their adherence to certain aesthetic features or expectations (genre).

Taken to mean only written works, literature was first produced by some of the world’s earliest civilizations—those of Ancient Egypt and Sumeria—as early as the 4th millennium BC; taken to include spoken or sung texts, it originated even earlier, and some of the first written works may have been based on a pre-existing oral tradition. As urban cultures and societies developed, there was a proliferation in the forms of literature. Developments in print technology allowed for literature to be distributed and experienced on an unprecedented scale, which has culminated in the twenty-first century in electronic literature.


Definitions of literature have varied over time.  In Western Europe prior to the eighteenth century, literature as a term indicated all books and writing.[1]  A more restricted sense of the term emerged during the Romantic period, in which it began to demarcate “imaginative” literature.[2]

 Contemporary debates over what constitutes literature can be seen as returning to the older, more inclusive notion of what constitutes literature. Cultural studies, for instance, takes as its subject of analysis both popular and minority genres, in addition to canonical works.[3]

Major Forms



A calligram by Guillaume Apollinaire. These are a type of poem in which the written words are arranged in such a way to produce a visual image.

Poetry is a form of literary art that uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, prosaic ostensible meaning (ordinary intended meaning). Poetry has traditionally been distinguished from prose by its being set in verse;[4] prose is cast in sentences, poetry in lines; the syntax of prose is dictated by meaning, whereas that of poetry is held across metre or the visual aspects of the poem.[5]

Prior to the nineteenth century, poetry was commonly understood to be something set in metrical lines; accordingly, in 1658 a definition of poetry is “any kind of subject consisting of Rythm or Verses”.[6] Possibly as a result of Aristotle’s influence (his Poetics), “poetry” before the nineteenth century was usually less a technical designation for verse than a normative category of fictive or rhetorical art.[7] As a form it may pre-date literacy, with the earliest works being composed within and sustained by an oral tradition;[8] hence it constitutes the earliest example of literature.


Prose is a form of language that possesses ordinary syntax and natural speech rather than rhythmic structure; in which regard, along with its measurement in sentences rather than lines, it differs from poetry.[9] On the historical development of prose, Richard Graff notes that ”

Novel: a long fictional prose narrative.

Novella:The novella exists between the novel and short story; the publisher Melville House classifies it as “too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story.”[10]

Short story: a dilemma in defining the “short story” as a literary form is how to, or whether one should, distinguish it from any short narrative. Apart from its distinct size, various theorists have suggested that the short story has a characteristic subject matter or structure;[11] these discussions often position the form in some relation to the novel.[12]


Drama is literature intended for performance.[13]

Leitch et al.The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 28 

Ross, “The Emergence of “Literature”: Making and Reading the English Canon in the Eighteenth Century,” 406 & Eagleton, Literary theory: an introduction, 16 

Leitch et al.The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 28 


Preminger, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 938–9 


Ross, “The Emergence of “Literature”: Making and Reading the English Canon in the Eighteenth Century”, 398 


Preminger, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 938–9 &Alison Booth; Kelly J. Mays. “Glossary: P”.LitWeb, the Norton Introduction to Literature Studyspace. Retrieved 15 February 2014.  

Antrim, Taylor (2010). “In Praise of Short”. The Daily Beast. Retrieved 15 February 2014. 


Marie Louise Pratt (1994). Charles May, ed. The Short Story: The Long and the Short of It. Athens: Ohio UP. 

Elam, Kier (1980). The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. London and New York: Methuen. p. 98.ISBN 0-416-72060-9. 


Literature. Provided by: Wikipedia. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literature#cite_note-44. License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike

PUBLIC DOMAIN CONTENT: Image of man formed by words. Authored by: Guillaume Apollinaire. Located at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Calligramme.jpg. License: Public Domain: No Known Copyright



Listen to this Discussion of the poetry of Harris Khalique. You might want to take a look at the transcript as you listen.

The first half of a 2008 reading featuring four Latino poets, as part of the American Perspectives series at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Listen to poetry reading of Francisco Aragón and Brenda Cárdenas

Listen to this conversation with Allison Hedge Coke, Linda Hogan and Sherwin Bitsui. You might want to look at the transcript as you listen. In this program, we hear a conversation among three Native American poets: Allison Hedge Coke, Linda Hogan and Sherwin Bitsui. Allison Hedge Coke grew up listening to her Father’s traditional stories as she moved from Texas to North Carolina to Canada and the Great Plains. She is the author of several collections of poetry and the memoir, Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer. She has worked as a mentor with Native Americans and at-risk youth, and is currently a Professor of Poetry and Writing at the University of Nebraska, Kearney. Linda Hogan is a prolific poet, novelist and essayist. Her work is imbued with an indigenous sense of history and place, while it explores environmental, feminist and spiritual themes. A former professor at the University of Colorado, she is currently the Chickasaw Nation’s Writer in Residence. She lives in Oklahoma, where she researches and writes about Chickasaw history, mythology and ways of life. Sherwin Bitsui grew up on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. He speaks Dine, the Navajo language and participates in ceremonial activities. His poetry has a sense of the surreal, combining images of the contemporary urban culture, with Native ritual and myth.

Remember to return to the essential questions. Can expand on any of your answers to these questions? You might want to research these poets.


Chris Abani: Stories from Africa

In this deeply personal talk, Nigerian writer Chris Abani says that “what we know about how to be who we are” comes from stories. He searches for the heart of Africa through its poems and narrative, including his own.


Listen to Isabel Allende’s Ted Talk

As a novelist and memoirist, Isabel Allende writes of passionate lives, including her own. Born into a Chilean family with political ties, she went into exile in the United States in the 1970s—an event that, she believes, created her as a writer. Her voice blends sweeping narrative with touches of magical realism; her stories are romantic, in the very best sense of the word. Her novels include The House of the Spirits, Eva Luna and The Stories of Eva Luna, and her latest, Maya’s Notebook and Ripper. And don’t forget her adventure trilogy for young readers— City of the Beasts, Kingdom of the Golden Dragon and Forest of the Pygmies.

As a memoirist, she has written about her vision of her lost Chile, in My Invented Country, and movingly tells the story of her life to her own daughter, in Paula. Her book Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses memorably linked two sections of the bookstore that don’t see much crossover: Erotica and Cookbooks. Just as vital is her community work: The Isabel Allende Foundation works with nonprofits in the San Francisco Bay Area and Chile to empower and protect women and girls—understanding that empowering women is the only true route to social and economic justice.

You can read excerpts of her books online here: https://www.isabelallende.com/en/books

Read her musings. Why does she write? https://www.isabelallende.com/en/musings

You might choose to read one of her novels.

Listen to Novelist Chimamanda Adichie. She speaks about how our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. She tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” brought Latin American literature to the forefront of the global imagination and earned García Márquez the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature. What makes the novel so remarkable? Francisco Díez-Buzo investigates.

Answer these questions as you listen:

How many generations of the Buendía family are in One Hundred Years of Solitude?

A 5

B 6

C 7

D 8

In what year did Gabriel García Marquez start writing One Hundred Years of Solitude?

A 1967

B 1965

C 1982

D 1928

Who inspired the style of One Hundred Years of Solitude?

A Colonel Aureliano Buendía

B Gabriel García Márquez

C Nicolás Ricardo Márquez

D Doña Tranquilina Iguarán Cotes

Which real-life event is almost directly represented in the novel?

A The Banana Massacre of 1928

B The Venezuelan coup d’état of 1958

C The Thousand Days’ War

D The bogotazo

What is the name of the town where the novel is set?

A Aracataca

B Bogotá

C Macondo

D Colombia

Please explain how One Hundred Years of Solitude exemplifies the genre of magical realism.

What were the key influences in García Márquez’s life that helped inspire One Hundred Years of Solitude?

The narrative moves in a particular shape. What is that shape? How is that shape created?




Gabriel García Márquez was a writer and journalist who recorded the haphazard political history of Latin American life through his fiction. He was a part of a literary movement called the Latin American “boom,” which included writers like Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa, Argentina’s Julio Cortázar, and Mexico’s Carlos Fuentes. Almost all of these writers incorporated aspects of magical realism in their work. Later authors, such as Isabel Allende and Salman Rushdie, would carry on and adapt the genre to the cultural and historical experiences of other countries and continents.

García Máruqez hadn’t always planned on being a writer, but a pivotal moment in Colombia’s—and Latin America’s—history changed all that. In 1948, when García Márquez was a law student in Bogotá, Jorge Eliécer Gaítan, a prominent radical populist leader of Colombia’s Liberal Party, was assassinated. This happened while the U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall brought together leaders from across the Americas to create the Organization of American States (OAS) and to build a hemisphere-wide effort against communism. In the days after the assassination, massive riots, now called the bogotazo, occurred. The worst Colombian civil war to date, known as La Violencia, also broke out. Another law student, visiting from Cuba, was deeply affected by Eliécer Gaítan’s death. This student’s name was Fidel Castro. Interestingly, García Márquez and Castro—both socialists—would become close friends later on in life, despite not meeting during these tumultuous events.

One Hundred Years of Solitude’s success almost didn’t happen, but this article from Vanity Fair helps explain how a long-simmering idea became an international sensation.

When Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize in 1982, he gave a lecture that helped illuminate the plights that many Latin Americans faced on a daily basis. Since then, that lecture has also helped explain the political and social critiques deeply embedded in his novels. It was famous for being an indigenous overview of how political violence became entrenched in Latin America during the Cold War.In an interview with the New Left Review, he discussed a lot of the inspirations for his work, as well as his political beliefs.

Don Quixote

Mounting his skinny steed, Don Quixote charges an army of giants. It is his duty to vanquish these behemoths in the name of his beloved lady, Dulcinea. There’s only one problem: the giants are merely windmills. What is it about this tale of the clumsy yet valiant knight that makes it so beloved? Ilan Stavans investigates.

Answer these questions as you listen:

Why do Don Quixote and Sancho Panza work well together?

A They eat at strange times of the day

B They are impatient

C They like to dance together

D Their characters complement each other

Why does Don Quixote want to fix the world?

A He is a knight who believes in social justice

B He reads many books

C He doesn’t have any friends

D He loves toys

Why is Don Quixote’s love for Dulcinea described as “platonic”?

A Plato is their matchmaker

B They love Greek philosophy

C They want material fortune

D It’s purely spiritual

Why is Cervantes’s book described as “the first modern novel”?

A It was originally adapted to television

B The characters evolve throughout the story

C Cervantes only wrote poetry before

D It refers to technological advances

What does the term “quixotic” mean?

A A reader

B A person without money

C An old man

D A dreamer

In what ways do Don Quixote and Sancho Panza change as the plot progresses?

Is it possible to count the total number of days that pass during their journey?

In what ways does their journey reveal the changes that 17th-century Spain is also undergoing?




Interested in exploring the world of Don Quixote? Check out this translation of the thrill-seeking classic.

To learn more about Don Quixote’s rich cultural history, click here. In this interview, the educator shares his inspiration behind his book Quixote: The Novel and the World.

The travails of Don Quixote’s protagonist were heavily shaped by real-world events in 17th-century Spain. This article provides detailed research on what, exactly, happened during that time.

Midnight’s Children

It begins with a countdown. A woman goes into labor as the clock ticks towards midnight. Across India, people wait for the declaration of independence after nearly 200 years of British rule. At the stroke of midnight, an infant and two new nations are born in perfect synchronicity. These events form the foundation of “Midnight’s Children.” Iseult Gillespie explores Salman Rushdie’s dazzling novel.

Answer these questions as you listen:

Saleem Sinai’s birth coincides with:

A The invasion of India by the British

B The end of British occupation and the creation of two new nations, India and Pakistan

C The death of his mother

D His discovery of magic powers

Midnight’s Children is set over the course of:

A About thirty years of Saleem’s life

B A single day in Saleem’s life

C The duration of British occupation

D About thirty years of Saleem’s life, as well as flashbacks to before he was born

Saleem is the only person in the book with magic powers

A True

B False

Saleem has powers of

A Telepathy

B Shape shifting

C Predicting the future

D Flight

Midnight’s Children is full of cultural references, including

A 1001 Nights

B Food

C Religion

D Mythology

E All of the above

List some of the historical events that are part of the plot of Midnight’s Children

Why is Midnight’s Children a work of postcolonial literature? Describe some of the features of postcolonial literature.

In addition to being a work of postcolonial literature, Midnight’s Children is considered a key work of magical realism. Why do you think this is? What are some of the features of the book that could classify as magical realism?

Midnight’s Children filters epic and complex histories through one man’s life. What are the benefits of fictionalizing history in this way? What do you think he is trying to tell us about the way we process our past? Can history be as much of a narrative construct as fiction?



At the stroke of midnight, the first gasp of a newborn syncs with the birth of two new nations. These simultaneous events are at the center of Midnight’s Children, a dazzling novel about the state of modern India by the British-Indian author Salman Rushdie. You can listen to an interview with Rushdie discussing the novel here.

The chosen baby is Saleem Sinai, who narrates the novel from a pickle factory in 1977. As this article argues, much of the beauty of the narrative lies in Rushdie’s ability to weave the personal into the political in surprising ways.
Saleem’s narrative leaps back in time, to trace his family history from 1915 on. The family tree is blossoming with bizarre scenes, including clandestine courtships, babies swapped at birth, and cryptic prophecies. For a detailed interactive timeline of the historical and personal events threaded through the novel, click here.
However, there’s one trait that can’t be explained by genes alone – Saleem has magic powers, and they’re somehow related to the time of his birth. For an overview of the use of magical realism and astonishing powers in Mignight’s Children, click here.

Saleem recounts a new nation, flourishing and founding after almost a century of British rule. For more information on the dark history of British occupation of India, visit this page.

The vast historical frame is one reason why Midnight’s Children is considered one of the most illuminating works of postcolonial literature ever written. This genre typically addresses life in formerly colonized countries, and explores the fallout through themes like revolution, migration, and identity.

Postcolonial literature also deals with the search for agency and authenticity in the wake of imposed foreign rule. Midnight’s Children reflects these concerns with its explosive combination of Eastern and Western references. On the one hand, it’s been compared to the sprawling novels of Charles Dickens or George Elliot, which also offer a panoramic vision of society paired with tales of personal development. But Rushdie radically disrupts this formula by adding Indian cultural references, magic and myth.

Saleem writes the story by night, and narrates it back to his love interest, Padma. This echoes the frame for 1001 Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folktales told by Scheherazade every night to her lover – and as Saleem reminds us, 1001 is “the number of night, of magic, of alternative realities.”

Saleem spends a lot of the novel attempting to account for the unexpected. But he often gets thoroughly distracted and goes on astonishing tangents, telling dirty jokes or mocking his enemies. With his own powers of telepathy, Saleem forges connections between other children of midnight; including a boy who can step through time and mirrors, and a child who changes their gender when immersed in water. There’s other flashes of magic throughout, from a mother who can see into dreams to witchdoctors, shapeshifters, and many more. For an overview of the dazzling reference points of the novel, visit this page.
Sometimes, all this is like reading a rollercoaster: Saleem sometimes narrates separate events all at once, refers to himself in the first and third person in the space of a single sentence, or uses different names for one person. And Padma is always interrupting, urging him to get to the point or exclaiming at his story’s twists and turns.

This mind-bending approach has garnered continuing fascination and praise. Not only did Midnight’s Children win the prestigious Man Booker prize in its year of publication, but it was named the best of all the winners in 2008. For an interview about Rushdie’s outlook and processed, click here.

All this gives the narrative a breathless quality, and brings to life an entire society surging through political upheaval without losing sight of the marvels of individual lives. But even as he depicts the cosmological consequences of a single life, Rushdie questions the idea that we can ever condense history into a single narrative.


Tom Elemas: The Inspiring Truth in Fiction

What do we lose by choosing non-fiction over fiction? For Tomas Elemans, there’s an important side effect of reading fiction: empathy — a possible antidote to a desensitized world filled with tragic news and headlines.

What is empathy? How does story-telling create empathy? What stories trigger empathy in you? What is narrative immersion? Are we experiencing an age of narcissism? What might be some examples of narcissism? What connection does Tom Elemans make to individualism?


Ann Morgan: My year reading a book from every country in the world

Ann Morgan considered herself well read — until she discovered the “massive blindspot” on her bookshelf. Amid a multitude of English and American authors, there were very few books from beyond the English-speaking world. So she set an ambitious goal: to read one book from every country in the world over the course of a year. Now she’s urging other Anglophiles to read translated works so that publishers will work harder to bring foreign literary gems back to their shores. Explore interactive maps of her reading journey here: go.ted.com/readtheworld


Her blog: Check out my blog (http://ayearofreadingtheworld.com/), where you can find a complete list of the books I read, and what I learned along the way.

Jacqueline Woodson: What reading slowly taught me about writing

Reading slowly — with her finger running beneath the words, even when she was taught not to — has led Jacqueline Woodson to a life of writing books to be savored. In a lyrical talk, she invites us to slow down and appreciate stories that take us places we never thought we’d go and introduce us to people we never thought we’d meet. “Isn’t that what this is all about — finding a way, at the end of the day, to not feel alone in this world, and a way to feel like we’ve changed it before we leave?” she asks.



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