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What is literature is an essay of Jean-Paul Sartre published for the first time in several parts in 1947, in his magazine les temps modernes. The essay is a manifestation of Sartre's conception of "engaged literature" which he defends against its critics. In the essay, Sartre answers three questions: What is writing? Why write? For whom does one write?
The first question that Sartre asks is ,"What is writing?" which is a pure inquiry into finding a clear definition of the act of writing. Sartre will first explain that writing is neither painting nor playing music. In fact, unlike the painter or the musician, who actually care only to present things as they are and give the spectators the absolute freedom to see what they want, the writer can guide his reader. Therefore, he does not present the things as being merely things but as signs.
So, when Sartre makes this clear-cut distinction between literature and other forms of art, he can subsequently make another differentiation but within the realm of literature itself, between prose and verse. The latter distinction is very essential in Sartre's reflection. I can sum up his distinction by this simple formula: prose uses words whereas verse or poetry serves words. Poetry considers words as a material, just as the painter considers colors or the musician the sounds. Additionally, the prose writer uses a different approach: For him, words are not objects but design objects. He is considered a speaker, and to speak means to act (to do something). In fact, while speaking, we are unveiling facts and while doing so we change them.
With his distinction between prose and poetry, Sartre answers the fundamental question of the first chapter. Thus, according to him, to write is to reveal and to do so means to ensure that nobody ignores about the world which is exactly the same situation as with law which everyone should know as they become accountable for their acts. After having elaborated on the definition of writing, Sartre tackles its form. He insists that the style can be added to the essence and must never precede it. It is, he adds, the circumstances and the subject which the writer intends to treat that will push him to seek new means of expression, a new language, and not the other way around. Next, Sartre takes us back to the idea of engagement with which he has begun his book explaining that we cannot ask a painter or a musician to engage himself. Sartre concludes that the writer has to engage himself entirely in his works. One should write when he wants and when he chooses to do so. However, if we write when we decide to, we should now ask ourselves why we write. That is going to be the topic that will be discussed in the next chapter entitled: "Why write?"
For Sartre, literature is a means of communication. Knowing that, we should then find out why one writes. The author begins the chapter by stating the origins of literature, "one of the chief motives of artistic creation is certainly the need of feeling that we are essential to the world" . To explain this, let's ponder on this example: A man contemplates a landscape. By doing this, he unveils/reveals this scenery and establishes a relationship that would not exist if he were not there. In the meanwhile Man is profoundly conscious of the fact that he is not essential to the uncovered scenery. In fact, he only perceives it without taking part in the process of its creation.
Man can also create, but then he will lose his revealing/unveiling function as the produced object reflects rules that he himself created and so will be subjective, for example a writer cannot read his writings from an external angle. The situation here is contrary to the scenery's one in that the creator becomes essential because without him, the object would have no existence, but he is unessential. He has assuredly gained the creation which was not when he was contemplating the landscape, but he has lost the perception. So far, the key to the problem is at the reading stage. A reading which will make a synthesis between the perception and the creation, because any literary work will not shine completely until read, "It is the conjoint effort of author and reader which brings upon the scene that concrete and imaginary object which is the work of the mind. There is no art except for and by others" .
In reading, the object is essential because it imposes its proper structures just like in the landscape's example I mentioned earlier, and the subject is also essential since it is required not only to reveal the object but to guarantee its existence, too. Furthermore, Sartre specifies that the literary object is not conveyed in the language but through it. That is why any literary work deserves to be read in order to make it complete, revealed and ultimately created. Hence the activity of the reader is linked to creation, which makes us reach a unique instance: The object is given as it is to its creator which makes him enjoy what he creates.
After explaining the essence and meaning of writing and reading which are interrelated and complete each other, Sartre will proceed with the third question which is about the special relationship existing between the author and his reader. The former is in need of the latter to complete what he started. In fact, for Sartre, every literary work is an appeal and particularly an appeal for freedom of the reader so that the latter would be able to contribute to the making of the literary work. So there will be no work without readers. Here, it is noticeable that Sartre's existentialist tendency is dominant as he places the word freedom at the core of the relationship between the author and the reader. What is more, there is an implicit agreement between the two to recognize the freedom of the other, and so the reader presupposes that the writer has realized his writing freely as any human being, otherwise the written work would be uninteresting and purely determinist. Parallelly, the author recognizes the freedom of his reader as it is a basic requirement for the completion of his work. For this reason, reading is defined as an act of practicing generosity: Each one devotes himself to the other in thorough freedom and being as much demanding as possible both vis-à-vis the author or towards oneself.
To sum up this process, I can say that the author has recovered the world by "giving it to be seen as it is, but as if it had its source in human freedom"  and not in the mere chance of things. As to the reader, he recovers and interiorizes this external world [or non ego, Sartre's term] by transforming it into a compulsory task, "The world is my task" . In fact, it is this process of interiorization which will cause the reader to feel what Sartre calls an esthetic joy, and it is only when this joy takes place that the work can be considered complete. So each one is a winner and is thus rewarded. But is that all? Of course not! Sartre thinks that this disclosure-creation process should also be "an imaginary engagement in the action" . Afterwards, he moves on to criticize realism which pretends doing only contemplation, a word which contradicts action because when the author names something [Sartre takes injustice as an example], he creates it as well and invites his reader to do the same, which makes the two sides responsible for it in the real world.
After evoking responsibility, J.P Sartre goes back to his central idea, that of freedom, "the writer, a free man addressing free men, has only one subject --- freedom" . This sounds a good answer to the question of the chapter: Why write? According to Sartre, writing is undoubtedly and profoundly linked to freedom; consequently one should take his chance fully by writing about critical areas like politics and democracy. To write is a way for seeking freedom; if one starts this process of writing either willingly or unwillingly, he is definitely engaged. Again Sartre launches the term engaged, so now the question would be to know the public for whom one writes so as to define where and how to engage. That is what Sartre is going to answer is his next chapter entitled, "For whom does one write?"
In this chapter, the author will tackle the fundamental relationship between the writer and his public but this time from a historical perspective. Sartre proposes an answer to the chapter's question. As a matter of fact, "one writes for the universal reader, and the exigency of the writer is addressed to all men."  However, Sartre restrains this assertion by explaining that the writer has always had this ambition to be somehow immortal through overstepping the historic moment he lives into a high level, but Sartre insists that the writer should communicate with his contemporary fellow writers and also with those sharing the same culture with him. So to say, there is a certain degree of complicity and some shared values between them which makes of the latter communication, a very specific one. It is indeed a historic contact both because it is a part of history and also since it is engraved in it. Therefore, the writer has a role to play: a mediator; not only is he a Man, but a writer as well; a position that he chose. Again, Sartre uses his existentialist key-term: freedom, which is at the origin of this choice, but once this choice made, the society will invest on the author by putting barriers and frontiers in front of him by their demands and exigencies. This point brings us to question the importance of the relationship between the writer and his public.
To illustrate this point Sartre introduces the example of the African American writer Richard Wright; a writer that had as an aspiration to defend the rights of the oppressed black Americans. There are mainly two points to stress on: the first is that Wright was addressing the cultivated Negroes--his compatriots, but at the same time he was addressing all men. Thus, by putting his name in history, the writer will achieve this much desired infinite leap. The second point is that his public was torn apart, Negroes on one side and whites on the other, which gives words a double meaning, one for the Negroes and one for the whites.
From the aforementioned example, Sartre will develop his reflection upon the relationship between the writer and his public. As I have already explained, the writer reveals the society which makes the latter faced with an imperative choice: to assume itself or to change. That is why it is said that the writer has a parasitic function: he seeks to meet those who make him live by attracting their attention to situations they would rather not want to see. This conflict, which is at the very base of the position of the writer, can be explained as follows: on the one hand, we have the conservative forces or the real public of the writer but on the other hand, we have the progressivists or the virtual public. Sartre will subsequently present a brief history of the relations between the two forces: the real and the virtual. He starts from the Middle Ages, an era in which only the clerks knew to read and write and these two activities were considered as techniques just as those of any craftsman.
What is more, the public was very restricted to clerks since they write for each other and the goal was not to change things but to maintain the order as it is. Next, Sartre moves to the 17th century which brought up "the secularization of the writer"  but this secularization did not mean a universalization since the public was very restricted, too. Additionally, the public was very active since everybody was reading because they knew to do so, but they were judging following precise values. People at that time had a dominant religious ideology guarded by the clerks, and which was soon doubled by a political ideology which had also its watchdogs. Nonetheless, there was a third category, one composed of writers who accept both these religious and the political facts because they are part of the context without being completely useful to them. They do not naturally question their mission; the latter is already traced contrary to today's writer. They are classical, that is to say they progress in a stable world where the quest is not to discover but to construct what is already known. The society or rather the elite demand that the writer reflects not what the society is but what the society thinks it is; art should be moralizing. Again, Sartre asserts that we can detect a liberating power within a given work since the latter has an effect, which is to free the human being from his passions.
Sartre will afterwards tackle the 18th century turning of history in which the writer will refuse ideologies of the ruling classes, and then he will talk about the 19th century's status of literature which is characterized by the ideology of destruction which will end up by the advent of surrealism. So literature is at a hard stage of alienation in which it is merely a means or a tool and not an aim in itself. Sartre sums up the present situation of the writer in three points: First, he is disgusted of the sign as he prefers disorder to composition and thus poetry to prose. Second, he considers literature a sample expression like all other expressions existing in life and thus he is not ready to sacrifice his life for literature. Third, the writer is going through a crisis of moral conscience because he can no longer define his role. So, Sartre proposes for the writer to act in order to survive and ultimately to create a state of equilibrium. Finally, Sartre draws the portrait of an ideal society without classes and in which the virtual public is in a rich relationship with the real public. This way the writer could speak to all his contemporaries so as to express their joys and angers. Literature would contain the whole human condition and would be anthropologist. It would be a pure utopia which would enable literature to be fulfilled in all its purity. This utopia can be very useful as an example, but it has its limits since it does not actually represent what was happening in Sartre's time.
To conclude his book, Sartre will be more concrete as he states the situation of the writer in his time (that is in 1947) and suggests some pieces of advice to his contemporary writers.
Sartre's contribution to literary theory is very important and what makes it so meaningful is the fact that Sartre is both a critic and a writer. His ideas about literature are very influenced by his existentialist-Marxist view of the world. Generally speaking, existentialism tries to make meaning in a chaotic and irrational world and Sartre argues that it is Man who makes himself, and as a major representative of existentialism, Sartre seeks to analyze literary works while emphasizing on the struggle to define meaning and identity in the face of alienation and isolation.
Thus, in his book, Sartre sees literature as the product of the relation between the author and the society he lives in. As far as form is concerned, he prefers prose to verse and considers that the aim of prose is humanist or the sublime human existence and this idea goes hand in hand with his famous motto Existentialism is humanism. Also, for him, language is the strongest tool of communication and literature is the culminating stage of this communication. This view leads Sartre to embrace the idea of engagement of literature since literature is essentially a social product though written by individuals. Here, I personally feel attracted by this idea of commitment since a writer or an artist in general has a vital responsibility over his society, and even though sometimes readers may read works with no didactic or moral intention, it is undeniable that art is extremely purposeful. The evidence that shows that art has an influence on society is that it presents new values not only helping to develop society, but shaping its behavior as well, for example we can draw many lessons from a play's characters that do not stop at purifying us but influences us by its content and result [Aid 1988] .
Moreover, I share this idea of Sartre raised mainly against the 19th century movement of art for art's sake and which views that "the intrinsic value of art, and the only "true" art, is divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function"  and also against the bourgeois writer, who was more devoted to his craft than to his audience. Furthermore, considering the existentialist idea of Man in the world and since the writer is a Man, his real existence is a literary identity for him. That is to say, a writer defines himself by engaging willingly and consciously in intentional action.
I think that Sartre is like Terry Eagleton  in seeking a definition of literature. However, the latter does not consider literature as being merely imaginative, but as using language specifically, that is to say, as Jakobson believes: literature is a type of writing which exerts an organized violence on the ordinary discourse and condenses the ordinary language as the composition, sounds and rhythm of the words overtakes its lexical meaning. Thus, the language of literature aims at attracting attention to it. In addition, for the Russian Formalists, cited by Terry Eagleton in his introduction to literary theory : the literary work is neither a vessel for transporting ideas nor a reflection of the social reality but a physical truth since it is compounded of words and not subjects or emotions, "Literary language is a set of deviations from a norm â€¦ a 'special' kind of language, in contrast to the 'ordinary' language we commonly use." [Eagleton 1983] 
Here, it would be useful to notice that the formalists overlook to analyze the literary content and focus only on analyzing the form, and instead of considering the form as an expression of the content, they see it as a mere motive for it, and even though some formalists never deny the existing relationship between literature and society, they refute the idea that this relationship might be of some interest to the critic. Besides, If Sartre focuses on two main principles: engagement and freedom, Eagleton stresses on one major principle which is that literature by nature is a non-pragmatic discourse contrary to Sartre's convictions, that is to say that literature is a language that indicates itself only. This view of Eagleton resembles the views of the Russian formalists about literature.
As to the idea of alienation, Eagleton thinks that there is no writing which cannot be read as being alienated since readers can use their ability of interpretation, because ambiguity and confusion are present even in most logical discourses, so every text is open to interpretation. I can add to Eagleton's contribution that life is full of instances of confusion, for example in cinema; most films' plots are based upon the ambiguities and confusions linked to everyday language.
This idea is also advanced by Wolfgang Iser (1978) ,in which he says that readers are free to interpret a text the way they want but they have to construct it in such a way that renders it internally consistent. An open work must become coherent, and the vagueness must be normalized. 
To conclude, I would say that Sartre's book was a manifestation of engaged literature in which he defines firmly the characters of the contemporary literature. However, his lucid reflections have raised many critiques from different scholars in different periods of time, but it still remains a good reference for anyone who seeks to answer questions related to the nature and function of literature. I should say that I share most of Sartre's ideas especially those related to the nature and role of art and the relationship between the author and his reader. Literature has always had a function throughout history from Plato to our recent days either morally, educationally or socially, and any writer, anywhere, should know his responsibility over humanity and thus write purposefully. However, one can write for reasons which are not necessarily didactic, such as for delight and amusement of the reader. In any case, I think that a writer should combine both meaningful and amusing approaches in his literary work, therefore literature can "teach and delight" [Sidney 1595]