What is English Literature?


Staff member
English literature is one of the most visible majors at any college or university, with huge a portion of students enrolling. But with this area of study being so broad, some people are confused as to what exactly English literature is. This article explores the scope of English literature in school and in the workplace.

English literature is a vast and rewarding area of study for international students. Plenty of students choose this major at respective college or universities throughout the USA. But… just what is English literature, anyway? And why study English literature above other, more specific options like
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? The answer isn't a simple one, especially since the concept of literature is constantly changing. Let's look at what the span of English literature is and how it relates to your academic career and the workplace.

What is English literature at its very core?
The easier half of that question to answer is that it covers literature in English – not from the United Kingdom, just any literature in the English language! But defining just what literature is becomes a more complicated prospect. While commonly thought of as novels, poetry, and sometimes drama, the nature of literature itself is debatable. Literature is generally defined as writing with artistic merit, meaning that other mediums like screenplays, nonfiction, and even song lyrics could be considered literature by open-minded international students! The scope of most schools' English literature programs will be largely limited to the traditional literary pursuits, however. A standard English literature major will cover a balance of poetry and prose fiction, with drama and other, more contentious forms of “literature” mixed in to varying degrees.

Why study English literature when you could just read a few classic novels?
Well, any English literature program worth its salt will cover all important periods and movements of English literature while introducing new critical ideas and analyzing things more deeply than you would in your own independent studies. The course catalog of an English department is often broken up by region (British literature, American literature, and world literature) and period (pre-1800 and post-2000 are common markers, for example), with at least some required classes in each of these areas. English literature classes will also expose you to thematic frameworks for analyzing literature, helping you more deeply understand both the assigned reading for class and whatever literature you read moving forward.

Why study English literature?
It will give you a better understanding of the world around you! Studying English literature sets international students up for all sorts of jobs upon their graduation. Many of these are within the literature world itself. Prospective high school and college English teachers will need an English literature degree to reach that job and help a new generation of curious students learn how to relate to the writing around them. The wide array of positions in the publishing industry, from editor to proofreader to literary agent, can claim English literature as the single most important area of study en route to getting a job. Many creative writers, including novelists, poets, dramatists, and more, get their start with the deep understanding of written English that comes from an English literature major before they begin to explore their own ability to express themselves the same way.

Even more numerous are the non-literature jobs that an English literature degree can prepare international students for. Given students' strong command of reading and writing, as well as their demonstrated ability for basic academic skills like critical reasoning, persuasion, and adaptability, a degree in literature can be a precursor to a successful career in just about any field. Some of the more common crossovers for graduating English students are
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, and
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What is English literature?
There's no simple answer to that question, as it covers a wide and oft-debated range of written works in the English language. But if developing your reading and writing skills and deepening your understanding of written English sounds engaging to you, then a degree in English literature might be in your future!