Defining digital literature

I am currently the subject coordinator of ETL533 Literature in Digital Environments, an elective subject for the Master of Education (Teacher Librarianship), Master of Information Studies, and Graduate Certificate of Information Studies courses. We are exploring different aspects of digital literature and in our meeting last night, we started to consider the question of “what is literature?” Suffice to say, this question is one that we grappled with and I still don’t have a concrete answer for my students (much to their consternation, I am sure). However, I have done some digging and propose the following. I do want to note that I intentionally leave it open for YOU to decide, after, cognitive struggle is a great way to learn.

According to Gosman, “literature is a genre that uses creative imagination, often in the form of a narrative” (2014, p. 6). Gosman further stated that literature includes the following elements:

  • A cast of characters who have experiences as the story unfolds;
  • A series of events that combine to make up the plot of the story;
  • Conflict within the plot that occurs either internally (protagonists internal struggles) or externally (protagonist and antagonist battle it out) (2014, p. 8); and lastly,
  • A central theme that colours the story (e.g.: love, money, health, etc.) (2014, p. 7).

Gosman does draw a clear distinction between classic literature and literature:

Classic literature is usually literature written many years ago that’s considered the best work of that time. It usually reflects the feelings of people living in that time and expresses a universal theme in a way that still strikes us today

(2014, p. 6).

Gosman’s definitions of literature and classic literature are simplified representations of the genres. I would argue that it would be possible to classify almost anything as literature using Gosman’s definition.

Yi and Rhee (2011) suggested that literature is difficult to define, but provided the following possible definitions. Literature is a form of written text, including a variety of approved genres, such as poetry, fiction, playwriting and literary criticism. The important distinction here by Yi and Rhee (2011), is that it is written word. Therefore, this discounts anything that does not fit within those predefined genres. Furthermore, they stated that literature is “human emotion and thoughts” (2011, p. 295), thus other areas of study (such as history, law, physics, etc.), whilst written, cannot be included in literature. The key takeaway from this study is that literature is about feeling something when engaging with the text. This brought to mind Rosenblatt’s theory on aesthetic and efferent reading. If you’re interested in reading more about that, my blog post on Aesthetic and Efferent Reading would be a good place to start.

I then remembered an article I read on defining young adult literature and how perceptions of this genre can influence teacher appreciate and promotion of this material. Beumer Johnson defined young adult literature as “those works written by authors specifically for a young adult audience” (2011, p. 216). This made me question the different formats of reading material available to young adults and whether Beumer Johnson (2011) considered these as part of their definition of young adult literature. The formats I was thinking of included graphic novels, comic books, biographies… You will note that these formats do not appear in Yi and Rhee’s (2011) definition of literature, but as they are “works written specifically for a young adult audiences” (Beumer Johnson, 2011, p. 216), should they be considered literature?

Cliff Hodges (2010) explored the idea that new developments and new technologies have had a significant impact on English curriculum. Particularly interesting, is the note that popular culture resources were increasingly viewed as appropriate reading material and that multimodality and visual literacy were of growing importance. Furthermore, Cliff Hodges (2010) signaled the importance of considering different media as part of literature, such as graphic novels. While this article is 12 years old, it is interesting to see predictions about the importance of technology and other reading formats included in literature.

Bringing all this together, so far I think literature can be defined as stories written (or typed because as we discussed in our online meeting, hardly anyone actually writes anything these days) to evoke an emotional response. I am leaving this definition open to include more than novels…

Now the tricky part… What about digital literature?

At this point, you would be forgiven for assuming that digital literature refers to eBooks, after all, they are digital versions of literature. However, according to Wright, digital literature “does not refer to e-books, but to works that depend on electronic ‘code’ to exist… you can print an e-book, but you cannot print electronic literature” (2019, para. 2).

This brought me back to the conversation we had in our meeting around social media and the differences between stories on TikTok or Instagram, and digital literature… Could you consider these stories to be digital literature?

I think for me, the clear distinction between digital literature and social media stories is the difference in intention. Authors of digital literature set out to write and tell a story that evokes an emotional response, they just tell it in a slightly different way. However, I’m purposefully leaving this open ended to encourage you to make up your own mind!

If you’re interested in explore more about digital literature, I highly recommend the following site. It’s the Electronic Literature Organisation and their whole organisation is about researching, promoting, sharing, and reviewing digital literature. Their Electronic Literature Collection – Volume 4 has a list of current digital literature examples. If you do explore the catalogue, let me know which ones you looked at and what you think!


Beumer Johnson, A. (2011). Multiple selves and multiple sites of influence: Perceptions of young adult literature in the classroom. Theory Into Practice, 50(3), 215–222.

Cliff Hodges, G. (2010). Reasons for reading: Why literature matters. Literacy, 44(2), 60–68.

Gosman, G. (2014). Analyze it: Looking at texts critically. Rosen Publishing Group.

Wright, D. T. H. (2019). From Twitterbots to VR: 10 of the best examples of digital literature. The Conversation. Retrieved 22 July 2022, from

Yi, K., & Rhee, J. (2011). What is literature? (Munhak iran hao). Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature & Culture, 4(1), 293–313.

Feature image by Dariusz Sankowski from Pixabay 

One Comment Add yours

  1. Joseph De Guia says:

    Thank you for your insightful post. You write really well. It is comforting that there is still much conjecture and debate about what constitutes digital literature because it liberates me from the guilt of not having a clear cut definition of my own at this early stage of learning. I hope to have a little more clarity on the matter by the end of the course. Carpes Librum.


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