What Is World Literature?

Pablo Garcia

The term “Weltliteratur,” or world literature, was coined by German novelist and poet Johan Wolfgang von Goethe in 1827. He used it to describe what at that time appeared to be a rise in the availability of literature from other countries around the world. The access to such diverse works eventually gave rise to comparative literature departments in universities throughout the US and Europe. World literature includes works of literature from any country with a written language. It also includes publications of ancient texts from cultures as diverse as those of the Aztecs and Sumerians.

The literary fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen are read to children across the globe.
The literary fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen are read to children across the globe.

Comparative literature scholarship involves the study of the literature of at least two distinct linguistic cultural or national groups. Most comparative literature scholars, sometime called comparatists, are fluent in several languages. Generally, comparative literature departments require that students become fluent in at least two languages other than their own.

Goethe came up with the term "world literature" to describe literature from other countries.
Goethe came up with the term "world literature" to describe literature from other countries.

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Initially, the study of comparative literature focused on US and western European works. It later expanded to include the Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic literature, as well as that of other world languages. World literature is now studied along with world film and compared with other genres such as music and painting. Comparatists still debate what the scope and direction of the study of comparative literature should be.

Many publishers now print and update anthologies of world literature. Folk epics from around the world, some previously thought lost, are now available for reading and study. Texts include Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic from India; Liyana, from Africa; and Epic of Gilgamesh, from Mesopotamia, which is the oldest known epic in the world.

World literature continues to arouse excitement in the academic world as well as among general reading population. Some scholars believe that the availability of properly presented global literature creates a new arena of insight, knowledge and learning. It has the possibility of engendering exciting ideas and knowledge between the creating and receiving cultures. It may also lead to innovative and cross-cultural literature with shared themes.

Some think that Goethe’s appraisal of the concept of world literature was partly right. It may have sprung from sudden availability of new books from other parts of the world. That the concept was sustained and continues to grow, however, is also attributed to the many universities and scholars around the world interested in the concept, as well as to the many lovers of literature.

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Discussion Comments


@indigomoth - I have to say, though, that I would rather someone at least try to write with more diversity in their characters and settings than just put out another book about middle class America.

I think it's important to get someone who knows a culture to look over the book in order to ensure that you do get the details right. And I do think people should seek out world literature, because the whole style of a book is likely to be different. But don't avoid authors who write about characters in foreign places altogether. Just the ones who don't do it well.


@KoiwiGal - I agree and would recommend that people try to read books from authors who actually live in the countries that they are writing about as much as possible. The details really do matter and they matter in ways that might not be obvious.

For example, I was in an English literature class a few years ago where someone was talking about a book written by a white guy about Islanders in the Pacific. He was generally considered to have done a good job and had obviously intended his book to be respectful.

But he had done things like having the first person narrator describe skin color and hair color in ways that weren't really realistic for a person who was living in the area. They were the ways that a white audience might describe Polynesian hair and skin.

It's the kind of mistake you don't find if the author genuinely knows what they are talking about.


World literature today is just really exciting and it always makes me wish that I spoke a dozen languages so that I could read the books in their original prose.

It's just so wonderful to read something from a country completely different from yours and find out that there are some vivid similarities between your life and the lives of the people living there.

You also get to learn all the little differences, which are even more fascinating.

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