What Are the Seven Literary Standards?

By Kate Halse and Anjannette ConnerLast Updated Jul 26, 2020 11:03:01 PM ET
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Outside of school, you probably read for enjoyment, and your favorites could include everything from comic books to the masterpieces of William Shakespeare. Your preferences are your own, but from an academic perspective, some written works are certainly viewed as higher quality than others. Based on criteria developed by author William J. Long in English Literature: Its History and Its Significance for the Life of the English-Speaking World, seven literary elements determine whether a specific work is literary — which translates as quality literature. 

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A written work must contain all seven standards to be considered literary. Most works that are considered literary are scholarly articles or classical pieces of writing that are exceptionally well-written and informative. Literary writing is often intellectual and features various hidden meanings and thought-provoking ideas. These pieces sometimes continue to provoke new thoughts and ideas when read again. Let’s take a look at what it takes to qualify.


Get to Know the Seven Literary Standards

Writer William J. Long developed the seven literary standards used to determine if a piece of writing is literary in 1909. The seven characteristics are artistry, suggestiveness, intellectual value, spiritual value, permanence, universality and style.

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Artistry describes literature that is aesthetically appealing and reveals or conveys hidden truth and beauty. This type of literature appeals to broad audiences and possesses a sense of beauty in the writing that could even feel poetic.

A suggestive piece of literature relies on emotional power to convey nuances, symbolism, implied meanings, imagery and messages. The power of suggestion allows the work to inspire and provoke thoughts and understanding beyond the actual words written on the page.

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Intellectual value takes readers into a bit of a gray area as they may have different opinions about what qualifies as intellectual, but from an academic point of view, intellectual works are relevant to society and thought provoking. Literature with intellectual value promotes critical thinking that enhances both abstract and reason-based thought processes and makes readers focus on the fundamental truths of life and nature.

Literature with spiritual value lifts up the inner spirit and soul and has the power to motivate and inspire readers. It typically draws on the suggested lessons and moral codes of society that are depicted in various literary genres.

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Permanence is determined by a written work’s ability to stand the test of time, which makes it impossible to determine at the moment of writing. Novels that continue to be read over and over again across decades, either for enjoyment or for fresh insights and ideas, meet this criteria. Many novels enjoy initial popularity but ultimately fade into obscurity with time, failing the permanence test.

Universality describes a piece of writing that appeals to the hearts and minds of almost any reader. The appeal is considered universal due to its ability to cross gender, racial and cultural barriers, regardless of the time it’s written.

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Style refers to the distinct way the author expresses his or her thoughts. Words can be used in unique, creative and entertaining ways that make the work memorable. Style is another element that is subject to interpretation by readers in terms of its appeal.

Qualifying as "Good" Literature

The seven literary standards determine whether a piece of work is considered literary, but you won’t find any set guidance or standards when it comes to determining if a piece of literature is “good.” From inspirational characters to compelling plots to thought provoking themes, different characteristics in a written work play a huge role in determining whether the read is enjoyable and worthy of your time or merely worthy of boring you to tears. 

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Aside from the actual creation of characters in a story, the way those characters develop throughout the story are equally crucial to holding readers’ attention. Proper character development means drawing in readers from the beginning and then holding their attention for the rest of the story. Plots can also make or break a story. The most intriguing plots contain events that are exciting, interesting and close to real-life experiences. Vivid and intriguing world-building — the creation of a unique world in readers’ minds — is another hallmark feature of a great piece of literature.

The Complexities of Literary Universals

A literary universal is a feature within a work that recurs too frequently to be considered chance, but it isn’t related genetically or by area. These features could include relationships or other properties. Literary universals take two primary forms: absolute and statistical. An absolute universal consists of a feature that is found in every tradition, such as the creation of some type of art. In contrast, a statistical universal is a feature only found in some traditions, such as the creation of a specific type of art like pointillism.

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