Really, Who Is the Unidentified “they?”

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“If they decide that you are literature then it seems that you are, irrespective of what you thought you were.”  -From Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, “Introduction: What is Literature? page 8


            Well, if this is at all a definitive way to describe how some sort of writing falls into the esteemed category of literature, please correct me.  And, really, who is the unidentified “they?”  I have always wondered exactly who or how it was that writing was deemed “literature.”  However, Eagleton continues this way throughout the rest of the introduction, never really answering the question he proposes through the introduction’s title. 


            I’m not saying that this evaluation of literature was not helpful, however.  I really enjoyed and benefited from the way that the author questioned many different definitions of “literature,” different ways people view literature, different ways people read literature, and different types of literature in a discussion format that was also funny and entertaining at times. 


            I also really thought that the terminology that Eagleton used was interesting.  He referred to “value-judgments” and “social ideologies,” both of which affect what is placed into the category of literature.  This suggestion seems very true.  For instance, if Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” had not been written by him long ago, but today, people may not have added it to the category of literature, mainly because it would have been written by someone attempting to model the classics and because many people in this culture do not value this type of poetry.  This idea relates to some of the ideas Eliot mentioned that I have quoted and discussed on another blog.  Therefore, when current trends and interests of society (occurring now or hundreds of years ago) are considered, literature could occur in any form.  I had never really thought of literature being determined as such in this manner, but it seems very true.  Hopefully, the following chapter will prove whether or not Eagleton’s suggestions are valid.


See what others said about Eagleton's introduction.


Greta Carroll said:

Erica, I definitely relate to what you are saying. I got a lot out of Eagleton’s introduction as well. But in some ways I would have liked a more definitive definition as to what literature is. But, I think in a way what Eagleton is trying to show us is that so much in literature is open to interpretation. As we learned in EL150, there is no “right” answer. There are answers that are more probable than others, but to some degree the “answer” will always be affected by our value-judgments and those of our society. And as you question, who is this all-powerful “they?” As a child, I imagined a group of the “all-knowing” under-graduate and graduate professors having some sort of meeting to decide what is literature and what is not. But I suppose when it really comes down to it, the “they” refers to those professors I imagined, you, me, our classmates, and everyone else that reads. We all have some say in what is considered literature.

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