In an earlier post I argued that there was nothing in the nature of genre fiction to categorically exclude it from the body of work dubbed "literary." Looking back on it, however, it seemed that some elaboration of what, exactly, this contentious word "literature" means.
Where this discussion is concerned the word may be said to refer to texts, usually but not exclusively fiction (e.g. poetry, prose works like short stories and novels, dramatic works like plays), which are identified by the relevant experts (professional critics, from the Academy to the review pages) as such on the grounds of outstanding form and/or content, and which accordingly comprise the written, verbal portion of a society's "high culture."
Of course, this raises the question of what qualifies as "outstanding" form and content, what exactly a writer must be good at to win such accolades. The standard, of course, varies immensely with time and place, and certainly has been a subject of well-documented debate throughout modern history. Indeed, that history can be seen as a record of such debates, typically reflecting broader conflicts in society (the Romantic reaction against Enlightenment rationalism, for instance), and new developments in thought (like the impact of psychoanalysis on early twentieth century literature), as well as more "purely" aesthetic concerns.
Enter the Moderns
It seems useful to start with the attitudes of the present. It seems fairly obvious that the tendency in the last century or so has been to esteem conspicuous technical accomplishment (complex narrative structures, stylized prose, etc.) over straightforward storytelling. Where content is concerned, works dubbed literary tend to emphasize character over plot and action, the author's engaging with Important Themes or conveying a sense of "felt life" over "mere" entertainment. The realistic is favored over the fantastic, the everyday over the sensational or exotic, as these things are perceived by the critic making the judgment. (Joe Lansdale made a case for the merits of Robert Howard as compared with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Few but confirmed Howard fans are likely to give it serious consideration.) The serious is preferred to the comic (though the comic has hardly been excluded, as the status of writers like Evelyn Waugh demonstrates). And the doings of grown-ups are more likely to be appreciated by critics than those of the young (the difference in the protagonists' ages certainly one reason for the comparative standings of Romeo and Juliet and King Lear).
Modernist novels about the love lives of discontented middle-aged persons of means just so happen to fit these criteria perfectly (so that someone making a survey of twentieth century British or American literature can easily feel as if they are reading about little but that).
One can go into greater detail where the last half century or so has been concerned, the work accorded the most prestige in those decades distinctively postmodernist literature--which is to say, literature expressive of the postmodernist turn of mind.1 Here the skepticism of the postmodernist philosopher extends to the conventional view of art as a way of making sense of the mess that is existence, that activity instead depicted as illusory or subverted through such devices as the use of unreliable narrators, fragmented narrative structures, and disruptions of not merely cultural boundaries (like the distinction between "high" and "low" culture), but "consensus" reality (as with abrupt intrusions of the paranormal, or historical anachronism, into the course of a story)--tendencies evident in such works as Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughter-House Five or Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon.1 Just as in our politics, there has also been a heavy stress on identity here (exemplified, perhaps, by the work of Toni Morrison and Michael Chabon), so that along with ontology (approached by way of the "reality games" described above), it is one of postmodernism's principal themes.2 And in the end, just as postmodernist philosophy's sense of irony reduces it to a parlor game, so does this go for "postmodernist literature," in which a text is likely to not be about anything but an author's game with the reader, a tendency reflected in the prominence of metafiction (writing about writing) and pastiche (homage to and parody of other works, rather than engagement with life) in postmodernist writing.3
It is, of course, not a very postmodernist thing to look at one work and deem it better than another (and certainly to esteem the "originality" that postmodernists dismiss), but the innovativeness or skill with which one postmodernist author or another works in these ways, with these subjects, nonetheless wins them distinction--while authors who work in more "old-fashioned" ways, or with themes other than the fashionable ones, have generally got less acclaim. That is not to say that such authors do not exist in the upper echelons of the literary world--but it is worth remembering that Jonathan Franzen's eschewing postmodernism for realism and social criticism in his more recent novels has been sufficient to draw widespread commentary about their anomalousness.
Reflecting Upon the Canon
Where older literature is concerned, critics (mostly) accept the received judgment of tradition, but pay special attention to work that enjoys a prominent place in literary history--for instance, because it appears to have been a turning point (like the contributions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions or Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther to Romanticism), or exemplifies or epitomizes an earlier literary school or tradition (like the satires of Jonathan Swift). Claims are also made for writers and works which have purportedly "withstood the test of time," retaining their appeal and cultural significance despite changes of taste (as with the plays of William Shakespeare).
It is worth remembering, however, that the older works in the canon also gain or lose in esteem in line with the concerns prevailing at the moment (Virginia Woolf gaining it as Sinclair Lewis, whom Woolf had rather admired, lost it), while works which retain high status (like Shakespeare's plays) are likely to be reread in the light of contemporary concerns (as with the absurdist take on King Lear, the existentialist interest in Hamlet, and more recently, the postcolonial emphasis of writing and teaching about The Tempest). It is worth remembering, too, that the natural interest of literary scholars in the history of their subject makes old but artistically marginal works seem worthy of examination (trashy Elizabethan revenge plays or nineteenth century dime novels, for instance).
One may argue with the criteria, which are far removed from what most of that already small minority of people who read for pleasure typically look for from books. One may argue, too, with the ways in which these standards have been applied--as many fans of "genre" work do, feeling that this slights many worthy works. However, the point is that they do exist, and an understanding of them is crucial to any serious debate about the issue.
1. While less evident outside of "highbrow" literature, much of this appears to have filtered down even into "middlebrowish" work--the avoidance of the third-person omniscient viewpoint in particular having come to seem like a "rule."
2. The intrusions of the paranormal into the normal, the disregard for generic boundaries (including the boundary between speculative fiction and other genres), the anachronistic treatment of history, all constitute occasions where speculative elements find their way into literary work--and thus the significant exceptions to the preference for realism.
3. The influence of postmodern thought in these respects would seem to have been reinforced by a number of other factors, like an increased concern with the possibilities of language itself as electronic media supplant print (which is to say, the things which a novel can do that films cannot), and the convenient fodder that hard-to-read books provide for learned articles and books--the publication of which makes the works in question more likely to be taught and studied.
Reading Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith
My Posts on Postmodernism
Of Genre Fiction and Literary Fiction