Wondering what English Literature is? Luckily for you, I’m an English Literature graduate and am here to tell you all about this subject and what you can expect from it. From how to approach studying Literature, to what you can expect to read when taking this subject on! I’ve got all the details you need!
What Exactly is English Literature?
Firstly, we should define the meaning of literature. The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘literature’ as:
‘Written artistic works, especially those with a high and lasting artistic value’ or ‘All the information relating to a subject, especially information written by experts.’
Based on this, the definition of English literature is: literature that is written in English, this could be anything from novels and poems, to academic journals. When it comes to English Literature as a subject, whether that be at GCSE, A Level, or University, it is simply the study of these works.
What Does it Mean to Study English Literature?
In the UK, the first time many people come across the study of English Literature is at GCSE. I’m almost certain the majority of people educated in the UK have read Of Mice and Men for just this purpose. Essentially studying literature entails reading lots of books, often those considered classics, and analysing them. This analysis is done from a number of angles, and as you progress with this subject these angles become more in depth and informed.
What is Classic English Literature?
Classic English Literature refers to pieces of work that are held as having significant cultural importance and that have withstood the test of time. This could be the works of Jane Austen, in particular Pride and Prejudice, The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, or the many plays of Shakespeare. To a certain level, I think what classes as classic English Literature is subjective, whilst some pieces are indisputably worthy of their title.
How to Study English Literature
Once you understand what English Literature is, you may wish to learn how you can study this wonderful subject. There are so many ways to study English Literature and learn exactly what it has to offer. From secondary education, to university, to self study, there is an option to suit everyone.
Studying English Literature at GCSE and A Level
Whilst we all study English from a young age, the first time we’re truly exposed to English Literature as a subject is at GCSE. This is when this core subject is split into two subcategories: English Literature and English Language. Studying English Literature at GCSE in the UK usually means an indepth look at Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. At this stage you will also be introduced to the concept of analysing language and form. This can include techniques such as foreshadowing in novels, metre in poetry, and even taking stage directions into account in analysis of plays.
A Level takes a step up from GCSE English Literature and each year has a more defined focus. For example, when I sat my A Level English Literature (which was quite a few years ago now!) my AS Level had the topic of World War I Literature, whilst my A Level year was called ‘Love Through the Ages.’ Whilst my first year only contained literature from a specific time period, my second year was focused on a thematic topic across every literary period in history. This ranged from medieval English and Chaucer, to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, right up to modern day texts such as Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors. At A Level you begin to go more into depth with what English Literature really is. This includes developing comparative literature skills and identifying themes and techniques across a number of texts and how each author uses these to their advantage.
This may also be your first introduction to independent study within this subject. The number of texts to choose from for your coursework may be larger than the books you actually study in class time (at least this was the case for me). This independence allows you to put all the analytic techniques you’ve learnt over the course of your A Level into use! You’ll also be expected to take your first steps into literary criticism and working this into your own work. You’ll also be able to hone these skills ready for your university degree if you choose to take this subject to a further level
Studying English Literature at University
For those who find a true love for English Literature during GCSE and A Level, stopping formal education at this stage isn’t quite enough. If you, like me, love analysing texts and discovering their new and hidden meanings, then taking English Literature at university is for you! Again, like the gap between GCSE and A Level there is another step up when taking this subject at uni. For starters, you are expected to read far more books (I’m talking on average 3 a week)! But don’t let that put you off, I have lots of tips on how to read more and how to get through your university reading list!
You’ll be expected to form more mature opinions on the texts you read, taking into account historical and cultural influence, as well as a variety of literary techniques. A large part of university-level English Literature is, again, drawing comparisons between texts and asserting how these differences come into creating individual impacts. This is the first time you’ll be able to choose the direction your education of this subject goes. Most universities will have mandatory modules during first year that teach the basic skills required for the subject but after these, you’ll be able to pick modules and topics that you’re interested in. So whether you want to learn everything there is to know about medieval literature, or look at more contemporary texts, you’ll be able to decide the content of your degree. If you’d like a look at what types of books you can expect to read at uni, I have a blog post on my second year English Literature reading list, and a video on all the books I read for my English Lit degree.
Studying English Literature by Yourself
Studying subjects within a formal setting is not for everyone but that doesn’t mean that you have to miss out on this amazing field of study! Simply reading your favourite books, highlighting quotes that you think have a deeper meaning, analysing the text and its techniques, and researching into the author and their wider influences is an easy way to study English Lit on your own terms.
What is the Future of English Literature?
English Literature has been a staple subject for people to be taught in schools all over the world for hundreds of years. There’s no better way to deepen your knowledge and understanding of the English Language, as well as learn about a whole host of other topics, than to delve into English Literature. The more you read and analyse, the more you’ll understand how to use language to tell stories, as well as fully appreciating the variety of stories that have come before you. With this in mind, I think English Literature, as well as the literature of other languages and countries, is here to stay.
About Katie May
I’m a digital marketer who graduated from Cardiff University with a degree in English Literature and Philosophy last summer. I came to love English in Year 9 after having a very inspirational teacher who made the subject fun. Since then my love for literature has grown and I hugely enjoyed my study of it at uni. On Katie May Online I share my love for books, makeup, and travel. From giving you a Brit’s Guide to Los Angeles, to reviewing whether Glossier is Worth it, I hope you find blog posts that you enjoy!
Thanks for Reading!