English University Interviews - Light Reading vs Literature

Interview Preparation Specialists

The question of where ‘literature’ begins and light reading ends is a subjective one, and one that can be debated at great length – and with time and changing ideas that line in the sand will shift. However, you ought to have some clear ways of expressing what you see to be the differences, as well as showing that you have recently enjoyed reading some lighter works as well as heavier literature.

Have you Enjoyed Lighter Reading Recently?

If asked this, you should take the chance to show that you can relax and enjoy pop culture. Do your best to highlight what made the lighter reading enjoyable – you might admit to the interviewer that it was less ‘highbrow’ than some of the heavier reading that you have done, but that you were drawn in by the directness of the narrative, the way the characters developed, or the way the writer was able to weave together different plots to create suspense – find a way to show that you can see the worth in this type of writing. You might add that you find it a good way to relieve stress – a Literature degree at Oxbridge or UCL will involve hard work, and will cause you stress!

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Is a Joke Literature?

This is a question that has been given to Oxford applicants before, and is worth bearing in mind as you work to distinguish between literature and non-literature. You might state that a joke would generally not be considered literature as it has a particular goal in mind – to make people laugh – that is not in keeping with the more sweeping themes found in literature. The narrative is likely simplistic and built around a particular punchline. However, some jokes could be seen as literature – if they have artistic merit, if they make people consider their humanity or what it means to be human, then they might start to stray into literature.

What is Literature?

You should prepare for a back-and-forth with the interviewer if posed this question, and show that you are willing to engage with their viewpoint and not be dogmatic. As stated before, there are no clear cut answers. However, you must make reference to the Canon, which was the first definition of literature. The Canon’s purpose was to curate modern works that could be compared to the Ancient works. Thus we could state that, a few hundred years ago, the Canon and Ancient Literature would have been considered literature – and perhaps nothing else. However, today we have a much broader set of works to draw upon. I would highlight the Encyclopaedia Britannica definition from 1911 that stated literature is ‘the best expression of the best thought reduced to writing.’ The key to literature, perhaps, is that it sets out with an intention beyond simply distracting the reader. Literature seeks to draw our attention to greater themes, concepts, or ideas, rather than simply give us something to read that we will enjoy, and that will pass the time. Nonetheless, simple works can be literature too – short, blunt detective works from the mid 20th century that might once have been seen rather poorly might now be seen as having artistic merit, for example.

You should think about some examples of works that tread the line between literature and non-literature that you are passionate about, and have these ready to discuss at interview.

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How do you Differentiate Light Reading & Literature?

Lighter reading is reading to distract, rather than to provoke. We might not learn about ourselves, or about philosophies, or the human condition, when we read a light work. Instead, we have fun – and this is perfectly acceptable. There is a place for both. I personally like the distinction between a blockbuster movie and an arthouse film as a good way of showing the difference. You would be happy to spend energy on watching Battleship Potemkin, for example – you would likely enjoy it, but you would certainly find it required far more effort than watching a recent DC superhero movie. However, you make the effort to watch the arthouse film, or the classic, because it brings something to you – it will make you feel, it will make you question, and it will help you to grow.

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