Literature: Definition and Genres


Literature is like a big elephant felt by six blind men. Each one described the elephant by the part he touched. Like that big elephant, the word “literature” is open to several interpretations and in fact, polysemous.

For the purpose of this discussion, our concern would be on literature as a subject of study in the four walls of the classroom.


Definition of Literature

A workable definition of Literature-in-English is that it is a subject that studies a body of creative and literary writings/works written in the English Language. Literature itself refers to the collected creative writing of a nation, people, group or culture — Wiktionary.

For example, there is the African Prose which is an umbrella term for all works of prose written by writers of African extraction and about African sensibilities. In this category are Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not Child, Ama Ata Aidoo’s No Sweetness Here and Other Stories, and more recently Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities.

I must also add that Literature-in-English designed for secondary school curriculum extends to Prose, Drama, and Poetry—African and Non-African—, the three basic genres of Literature.

Genres of Literature

As I have hinted in the paragraph before, there are three basic genres of literature. They are:

  • Prose;
  • Poetry; and
  • Drama.

Each of these three genres have their defining characteristics. Prose is mostly written in a language that is commonplace; the kind of language one finds in newspaper articles—the every day language. It is arranged into paragraphs and in the case of longer pieces, into chapters. Examples of prose are Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, Segun Akinlolu’s Citadel Blues and Chukwuemeka Ike’s Expo ’77.

Poetry is almost diametrical to prose in language. Poetry is written in condensed language, much unlike the every day language; a careful selection of words for rhythmic purpose and immediate evocation of the reader’s emotion. Poetry is laced with imagery and symbolism achieved through a figurative use of language. What’s more? This genre of literature is written in lines and stanzas. Examples of poems are Niyi Osundare’s The Leader and the Led, Chibuike Onu’s A Government Driver on His Retirement, Leopold Sedar Senghor’s Black Woman and Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird.

Drama is another important genre of literature. It is written to be acted on stage. We read it in class, impersonating the characters and speaking the dialogue. We read it on our own, staging it in our mind. But its original intent is to be acted on stage. This said, drama is often written in acts, scenes and dialogues. Examples of drama include John K. Kargbo’s Let Me Die Alone, August Wilson’s Fences and Ola Rotimi’s The Gods are Not to Blame.

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