Although their names imply otherwise, national literatures often emerged before the emergence of modern nation-states. Dante, famously, in De Vulgari Eloquentia, his defense of writing in Italian, declared that literary Italian must be “curial”, or “of the manner of the Italian court”” – even though, at the time he wrote there was no such singular Italian state. Like Chaucer and other medieval poets, he wrote before the language of his compositions reached its modern form. The writers of the Renaissance were a vital part of the emergence of their respective national literatures, though some, like Sir Thomas More, eschewed their own vernacular in favor of Latin. Even writers whose works now seem essential to their national literature, such as Goethe or Shakespeare, only became legitimate subjects of serious academic consideration very late in the nineteenth century, when national vernacular literatures became subjects for schools and universities. Today, at a point when literary works are frequently translated into other languages soon after their publication, and literacy rates around the world are at historic highs, there is a growing sense of an international audience for literature.
Not all the study of literature takes place along national lines; comparative literature is one academic discipline that engages in the study of literature in an interdisciplinary and transnational context. The relationships between the national literatures of former colonial powers has also led to postcolonial literature’s emergence as a significent area of study. Other interdisciplinary fields with close ties to literature, such as film studies and cultural studies, also move readily across the old boundaries of national and ethnic literatures.
The future of literature
In 2003, poet Dana Gioia, chairman of the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, noted that the average American spent a mere twenty-four minutes per day reading, compared to more than four hours spent watching television. “The decline of print as our culture’s primary means of codifying, presenting, and preserving information isn’t merely a methodological change,” he observed, “it is an epistemological transformation.” This trend, combined with the proliferation of new media for literary expression—such as e-books, “blogs” and other online vehicles, audiobooks, “podcasts,” text messaging, and other technologies—could be seen as cause for alarm about the future of letters, especially on the part of devotees of traditional written literature. Yet Gioia and other literary futurists suggest that the likely outcome is not the end of literature, but new ways in which the literary impulse expresses itself through new media. In other words, the future of literature may have less to do with traditional literacy and letters than anyone can predict.