What Is Literature?

Literature is a mode of playing with reality in which pleasure is derived from imaginary engagement that organizes, constructs, and represents our physical and mental experiences in an artistic manner. It is imaginary play that draws participants into the realm of “what if,” engaging the players (i.e., creator, performer, audience) emotionally and intellectually. Literature as play engages both the writer and reader in reflecting on what it means to be human—to feel the depth of emotions, to imagine the possibilities of being, and to strive toward an awareness of the self as relational and interconnected with others.

Playing a game (e.g., of chess, of volleyball, of words) involves a freedom of movement within the structure of established rules. The creation of a fictive text involves a more profound freedom of movement, a metaphoric sense of play in the dynamic interaction between tradition/innovation, reality/imagination, life/art.

The act of reading a work of fiction invites the reader to suspend the disbelief in order to lose the self in the play of a make-belief world. By entering the play of a fictive world, the reader emerges with an experience that can be reflected upon, critiqued, and appropriated in the process of self-understanding. Literature allows us to play with reality in order to explore what it means to be human, what we should do, and what we may hope.