English University Interviews - Literature vs History, Art, and Language

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You will commonly be asked to compare literature to other subjects, or to other forms of media or recording. You’ll need to show that you can differentiate the subject that you’re so passionate about from other areas that could, on the surface, be very similar.

Literature & Art

A common question focusing on the relationship between literature and art is:

‘Why does a work of art sell for so much more than a work of literature?’ We must, of course, assume that the interviewer is referring to the manuscript itself, where one might actually see the original ink as put on the page by a great author. You can take two approaches here – a theoretical one or an economical one. To focus on the theoretical aspect first, you should emphasise the fact that art’s value derives (at least traditionally) from its appearance alone – we look at art and find meaning through its visuals. Therefore an original piece of art is the purest representation of that piece of art, and we can perhaps consider that the painter’s very spirit is in the brush strokes that he or she has put on the canvas. The meaning is conveyed through the brush strokes, as the meaning is the image that they create. If we compare this to a piece of literature, whilst there might still be worth in having an original manuscript and seeing original handwriting, the meaning is in the words created through the writer’s pen, not in the sweeps of the pen alone. As such the meaning is further removed from the author and perhaps more easily replicated, so an ‘original’ could be seen to be worth less. If we think of this from an economic standpoint, then we could break this down through the fact that great works of art are universally recognised at a glance and as such make obvious investment opportunities, whilst there might be more debate over great works of literature, and they will be less obvious to the common man.

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You might also expect to find questions linking literature to other forms of media. These might ask you about the relationship between a novel and its film adaptation, or the links between music and the written word.There are interesting discussions to be had about what lies on the border between spoken word and music on the one hand, and literature on the other – with ancient epics being passed down through oral storytelling, but nonetheless considered literature.

Literature & Language

You might be asked questions about language, and what constitutes language. Literature is made up of language, and as such you should understand some deeper concepts if you wish to excel. In particular interviewers like to ask questions about signs and language, and as such it is worth reading up on Ferdinand de Saussure and Umberto Eco, and being aware of the concept of the signifier (typically interpreted as the material form today) and the signified (typically seen as the idealised conceptual form). 

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Literature & History

How does literature differ from history? Once again, this is a seemingly simple question which can throw students if they haven’t given it due thought beforehand. You must make reference to the fact that literature can encapsulate history within it, or base itself firmly within history. Literature can better allow us to understand history – it could take us deep into a particular period, into a unique life within that period, and bring it to life. However, literature is not history – history is non-fiction, and while it could involve storytelling, it would only do so to illustrate historical elements, rather than the more sweeping parts of the human condition that one might see literature focus on. You would normally find that history involves itself with a larger viewpoint than literature – e.g. it will focus on a particular civilisation, or most specifically perhaps on a particular town in a particular era – while literature might follow a particular merchant as they ply their trade, delving into their thoughts and motivations. Make sure to emphasise that there is overlap between the two, that historical fiction is hugely popular, and that many great works of literature offer us insights into particular periods of history – be that Hemingway on the Spanish Civil War, or Solzhenitsyn on the USSR.

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