20 literary terms with definitions and examples

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The definition of literature is not easy, although everyone immediately understands what is meant when literary education, literary criticism, literature references or further literature is mentioned. It depends on historical influences as well as on individual points of view.

Status: 07.12.2012 | archive

The originally very broad and neutral concept of literature was referred to as the entirety of "everything recorded in writing" (Meid, p.304). The determination of its essence, i.e. the definition of literature, depends on what it is supposed to achieve, what it has to fulfill, and what it can ideally do.

The dtv lexicon defines neutrally: In the narrower sense, literature is what others classify according to various criteria: "Literature: [Latin] totality of the written statements, in the narrower sense all of the scholarly literature. The literature is arranged according to epochs, peoples or subject areas.."

Gero from Wilpert (Author and literary scholar, 1933-2009) saw literature in the narrower sense as the totality of "linguistic works of art" that meet special aesthetic criteria and are poetry in their highest form. However, he did not say what criteria these are. Literature here is everything that can become the "object" of literary studies. Since literary studies also endeavor to analyze orally transmitted testimonies, contrary to the original meaning of the word, this also includes anything that has not been put down in writing.

Extract from his "Non-fiction dictionary of literature“:
"Literature: (Latin literatura = letter writing), 'literature', literally the entire inventory of written works of all kinds including scientific works on all areas (literary studies: secondary literature) from letters to dictionaries and from legal, philosophical, historical or religious treatise up to the political newspaper note , Knowledge and problems, but consists of itself and evokes its own objectivity, language becomes a linguistic work of art through a special emotional and aesthetic design of the raw material and the highest form is achieved in poetry. As such, on the other hand, via the literal sense of the sc In addition to what is written down in writing, what has been handed down orally in pre-literary terms (myth, saga, fairy tale, proverb, folk song): Not all literature is poetry, not all poetry is literature in the literal sense of the word. "

In complete contrast to this definition, which at first glance is not exactly understandable, our most famous literary critic is determined Marcel Reich-Ranicki the literature in view of the readers:

"Literature has to be fun. It is supposed to bring joy, pleasure and fun and even happiness to people."(Spiegel 25/2001)

Reich-Ranicki breaks with the distinction between "high ridge" and entertainment literature, which is so popular in this country. "According to Reich-Ranicki, it is important to entertain with good literature, of course in an intelligent way. We learn to understand ourselves better through literature."Reading books“, So it says in his autobiography My life, we wanted "above all, understand ourselves."

There are also attempts to elevate fictionality to the actual defining characteristic of literature. Literature is then anything that creates an "as if reality" that doesn't have to be true but appears to be true, which is literally probable. But the criterion of fictionality is not enough either. Because there are undoubtedly numerous non-fictional literary texts, e.g. autobiographies, memoirs, diaries, travel reports, tracts and letters that are legally traded as literature.

Conclusion: What is specific about literature beyond the broad literal sense of "everything recorded in writing" depends on what the respective cultural establishment - literary scholars, authors, critics, publishers and readers - regard as such and what they expect from it.

Literature is not only defined differently, but also divided differently depending on interests and culture.

Classification of literature in publishing

Many publishers first categorize their literature roughly according to fiction, also called fiction or simply literature, and non-fiction, also called non-fiction and specialist books. Depending on the offer, classics or even "modern classics" are emphasized within fiction and German-language literature is separated from international literature. Similar to music critics between serious (serious) and entertainment) music - so many literary critics distinguish between literarily demanding so-called "high-level literature" (also called high-level literature) and entertaining "mass literature". "High-ridge literature" applies to literary works that are demanding in terms of form and content, which have or once had the chance of being included in the narrow canon of "what one must have read". In other words, they are works that are recognized by leading people and the media as aesthetically high-quality, as tradition-building and representative, works that can be alluded to directly or indirectly without having to give much further explanations. The "Höhenkammliteratur" is mainly determined by its difference to mass and trivial literature. The latter is said - sometimes wrongly - of kitsch, schematic black and white painting and pompous sentimentality. What is kitsch, however, and where a sensation deserves to be called "pompous" is - apart from the dime novels - mostly a matter of taste.

This showed e.g. Robert Schneider novel Sleep brother (1st edition 1992). Numerous editors and critics rigorously rejected the work because it was too sentimental and bombastic, but the readers liked it: It conquered the bestseller lists, whereupon many critics felt compelled to revise their kitsch judgment.

Classification of literature in science

In literary studies, it is customary to organize "beautiful literature" according to languages, times, genres and motifs. In his "Non-fiction dictionary of literature“Wrote the literary scholar Gero from Wilpert For this: "World literature is linguistically broken down into various national literature, chronologically in epochs, formally in genres, in terms of content according to groups of subjects, subjects, etc."We don't need to worry about the division of world literature into different national literature here, since in the subject of German we mainly deal with German-language literature.

Classification of literature according to epochs

The literary history of individual countries is usually divided into epochs by literary historians: Here it is assumed that each period also has its typical, characteristic literature, the characteristics of which emerge in representative works, so to speak, in their pure form.
The common epoch terms in German literary history come from (see Meid p.145)

• From the field of art history: Baroque, Biedermeier, Expressionism, New Objectivity
• From the field of the history of religion and philosophy: Reformation period, Enlightenment
• from political history: restoration period, pre-March
• from literary and intellectual history: humanism, Goethe era, romanticism.

Concepts of epochs are as useful and as catchy as all concepts of order. They offer a first orientation because they outline the "spirit" of the time and what determined and reflected it (politics, philosophy, economy, architecture, painting, poetry). They are captivating because they tempt you to think in terms of stereotypes, i.e. to overlook the individual richness and uniqueness of the individual works. For example "fits" Holderlin in the romance drawer because he lived at the time of the romantics and "fulfills" the romantic criterion of the revival of the myth. And yet it would be a mistake to call him a romantic. His understanding of nature, man and God nowhere shows the Christian-tinged aversion to the world and the longing for the hereafter that is so characteristic of the Romantics.

Classification of literature by genre

The term literary genre is used in various ways:

• as a designation for superhistorical constants such as Goethe'sNatural forms the poetry epic, lyric and drama (Meid p.190).
• as a term for concrete, historically determined forms (Goethe poetry) such as tragedy or novel and their subgroups. The latter are defined in more detail according to content and form: for example novella, historical novel, ballad and civil tragedy.

There are undoubtedly mixed forms such as the "epic theater" or the "lyrical novel", and there is no doubt that spirits have been arguing for a long time about how one can justify, define and systematize the genres (cf. Meid p.191ff). Nevertheless, an understanding of the genres and their different characteristics and objectives offers a first glimpse into "beautiful literature". Mixed forms in particular open up in this way, e.g. the "epic theater": Only those who know what drama and epic are will also notice what is being broken through here. Brecht's alienation effects can only be understood and grasped in their revolutionary power when two things are clear:

On the one hand, that traditional drama includes the creation of an illusion in which the actors fully immerse themselves in their roles and the audience is directly emotionally drawn into the dramatic events. And secondly, that narrative distance is part of the traditional epic, the objectifying / judging view of what happened in the past.


  • Volker Meid. Non-fiction dictionary on German literature. Stuttgart 1999; Reclam Paperback 2001
  • Gero from Wilpert. Non-fiction dictionary of literature. Stuttgart 1969 (5th edition) Kröner Verlag 2001
  • Marcel Reich-Ranicki. Nothing but literature. Essays and Notes. Stuttgart 1995