Not everything should be considered a text

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Last week someone talked about how much she dislikes the word “text” to refer to literature, especially since we call everything else—even a coffee cup—a text where a text is basically anything cultural that can be analyzed. I thought what she said made an important point about our culture and English studies.

While I have no issues with someone spending a whole essay discussing the cultural relevance of a coffee cup (it is your life, not mine), I do wonder if we should be looking at literature and calling any work of imagination a text. Sure, literature is at its simplest form “words on a page,” which can easily designate the text definition. But if the coffee cup is a text and the poem by Robert Hayden is also a text, are we then devaluing literature? Are we telling Robert Hayden he just wrote a bunch of texts and yes, good work, sir? Possibly.

I think this is an important question to ask, especially at this time where literature programs and jobs are not exactly what people are lining up for. (Though I certainly would.) Perhaps we are devaluing literature by defining it as a text one moment, then turning around to discuss how the stop sign at the street corner is also a text. What would other audiences think of that? What kind of message are we sending by doing that?

It is confusing, for sure, and while I have no real answers, I am doing my best not to call literature a text anymore. This is a habit that is hard to change, though, especially after my MA in literature where every professor referred to a work of literature as a text. After a while, you call it that, too. I think back to how my world literature students were confused when I told them to analyze a “text.” They asked me, “you mean a story or poem we read for the class, right?” I said yes and everything was cleared up after that. I’ve had no more questions regarding this once I changed “text” to “any story or poem from this class.” Now, you could also argue I had not defined the word text for them and it was probably vaguely inserted, but in my mind I thought it made perfect sense, just like how it probably does in your mind.

In the end, literature can certainly exist as a text, considering how we define what makes up a text. But I cannot help but be a little concerned about defining the works of authors I greatly admire as simple texts. Literature has taught me how to be a good reader and a good writer. Literature has also helped me experience things I would not have experienced. Defining it as nothing more than a text really does seem to devalue it, at least for me.

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