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If you have ever taken an English course, it's likely that at one point your professor asked the question: What is literature? Every student attempts to give an all-inclusive answer, which is inevitably discredited and revised. The professor creates an ever-broadening definition until it can be concluded that it's uncertain what exactly constitutes literature. Eventually you have to admit that according to your own definitions, newspapers, graffiti, advertisements and even shopping lists are considered literature.

Though I'm not able to give the exact definition of literature, I can tell you one thing that isn't literature: the graphic novel.  

Like most students, you might think literature is something pertaining to books, story lines and, most importantly, bodies of words. Many think reading is involved with literature and rightly so. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word literature comes from the Latin word "litteratura," meaning "writing" or "system of letters."  

Therefore, literature should be something that consists of words. Without a doubt, graphic novels have words in them most people point to this as proof that graphic novels are literature. However, just because something has this quality doesn't make it literature. I'm 10 percent German, but I don't I identify as German, nor do I think I could.

Likewise, if a book is 90 percent pictures and 10 percent words, it is no longer literature. A graphic novel may contain literary elements, but as a whole, it isn't literature.  

Let's look at it this way - a movie, by the definition above, isn't literature. Movies may very well be based off of literary works and the scripts themselves constitute literature, but the movie itself isn't.

However, if the movie is being watched with captions, is it now a piece of literature? No. Without a doubt, it is a work of art and a noble creation on its own, but it's not literature.

Movies serve the same purpose as books in that they can tell a story, be educational or convey news, but they do it using a different medium.

Graphic novels work the same way. They can easily have the same effect as a book full of words, but in a different way. They are based on visuals, like movies and convey the story line through these visuals with words acting as an auxiliary force.

Any book consisting primarily of words works in the opposite manner. They may have pictures and graphs to add to the message being portrayed by the words, but the visuals act merely as a secondary force.

Therefore, I would argue that words have to be the primary medium on which the message is portrayed in order for a work to be considered literature.

An easy way to determine this is by looking at how the actions in the work are carried out. Often, graphic novel scenes that show movement or fighting use a sequence of pictures to portray those actions with very little use of words, if any. However, in a piece of literature, actions (and everything else) have to be conveyed using words.

The point where many problems arise is in the varying definitions of the word literature itself.

In some instances throughout history, the word has taken on the meaning of "written work valued for superior or lasting artistic merit." In this definition, we get the sense that for something to be considered literature, it has to be a grand work of art as well as educational and worth reading. Because of this, it is easy to falsely conclude that if something is not literature, it is not a great work of art and not worth our time.

In terms of books, this is absolutely right. More often than not, the worthier books are considered literature, while the lesser writings aren't.

When it comes to graphic novels, they don't even qualify to be judged as great literary works because they deal so little with letters.

Quite frankly, there is nothing wrong with that. Just as certain paintings have been able to define an age and remain with us through time, graphic novels have the potential to become great artistic works. They just can't do it under the name of literature.

I don't doubt the artistic integrity of graphic novels, but when something strays so far from the use of words and relies so heavily on visuals, it can no longer be considered literature.  

Ryan Duggan is a Senior English and Classical Languages major. Reach him at opinion@