Literariness: A term used by Russian formalists and their followers in the Prague Linguistic Circle to refer to what distinguishes a literary work from other spoken or written discourse. Roman Jakobson, a leading theorist of Russian formalism, coined the term in Recent Russian Poetry (1921), asserting that “the subject of literary study is not literature, but literariness, that which makes a given verbal work a literary work.”
Formalists such as Jakobson, Viktor Shklovsky, and Jan Mukar̆ovský claimed that literariness requires the foregrounding of language, particularly through the use of literary devices, in order to separate, or “estrange,” the reader not only from the familiar language of everyday speech but also from the world as ordinarily perceived. For instance, in “Art as Device” (1917), Shklovsky argued that “the purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By ’estranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ’laborious.’ … Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity; the artifact itself is quite unimportant.” Mukar̆ovský, a Czech theorist of the Prague Linguistic Circle, asserted in “Standard Language and Poetic Language” (1932) that “The function of poetic language consists in the maximum of foregrounding of the utterance. Foregrounding is the opposite of automatization… . [I]t is not used in the services of communication, but in order to place in the foreground the act of expression, the act of speech itself.” By overturning common and expected patterns in language, literariness was seen as freeing readers to experience language and the world in a fresh way.
The concept of literariness has been challenged by a variety of literary critics, particularly postmodernists and poststructuralists who deny that literary texts differ from other texts in any special way. Other critics have embraced the concept but defined it differently. French critic Michael Riffaterre, for instance, characterized literariness in La production du texte (The Production of the Text) (1979) as the “uniqueness” of the text, which “is always one of a kind.” David Miall and Don Kuiken, pioneers in the empirical study of literature, reconceptualized literariness as “the product of a distinctive mode of reading” in “What Is Literariness? Three Components of Literary Reading” (1999); analyzing readers’ responses to several literary texts, they concluded that “literariness is constituted when stylistic or narrative variations strikingly defamiliarize conventionally understood referents and prompt reinterpretive transformations of a conventional concept or feeling.”