“American literature” is a term that appears to explain itself: books written by Americans. Yet perhaps it’s an idea more complicated than that. It brings about some more complicated questions, questions like, “What (or who) is (an) American? What is a book? What is literature?” and some more complicated questions.
I think what makes something American is whether it comes from America or not. Yet I also think that something American can be something that American society has adopted and made its own (like French fries, which originally came from Belgium but have become an American staple). This idea can also apply to someone who sees themselves as American yet who originally came from another country: if this person has adopted the American culture in their lives enough to consider themselves American, then they are American. So when it comes to American literature, I think this basic criterion is all that is needed to make something American literature rather than foreign literature. Of course, this can also bring about even more complicated questions. What makes influential British literature not also be considered American literature? After all, these books have seeped into American culture and into American language; Shakespeare is proof of that. Yet Shakespeare is not American somehow. Also, what makes books that take place in other countries (like For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway) American literature? For Whom the Bell Tolls takes place in Spain. The main character, Robert Jordan, might be American but even he has adopted the Spanish culture up to the point that his American heritage almost seems to be an afterthought. The culture throughout the book is almost entirely Spanish. Yet still, it is considered American literature. I think ultimately something is the sum of its labels. If the majority of people label a book as American literature, then it’s American literature. If one labels themselves as an American, they are American.
This same idea of labels also goes further to the idea of what literature is. Obviously, I think the distinction must be made that “literature” involves plays or books that society is somewhat old and has not gone out of print. It has a very connotation than just a simple “book”, I think. It is different from “media”, which can be any form of oral or written communication. Not all books are literature, though, because not all of them are old enough to reach this requirement.
What makes books good enough to become literature in the first place? I’m not sure. I personally think it’s a matter of luck as there’s no formula for what makes a book successful. If the book is released at the wrong time, it won’t make it. Many British books would have flopped in today’s markets given their verbose language and long beginnings aren’t things most people enjoy. I’ve read classics that have bored me to tears but I’ve read others that have totally wowed me. For me, “good” books are books with an intriguing plot, well-rounded characters and good writing (which there is a way to measure but that’s a subject for another day). Some might have a more complicated list of requirements; others, not so much. At the end of the day, though, art is entirely subjective, though, and it’s a bit difficult to be able to give clear criteria for what makes it “good” or “bad”.
Obviously, the concept of American literature is much more complicated than it appears.
An English assignment I thought I'd share ;)