I was thinking about “literature” again today, in reference to a discussion elsewhere. Obviously, after 17 years studying the subject, I think about it a fair amount. To date, I’ve found “literature” is a term that becomes more difficult to define the more I study it. Every definition I’ve tried out to date has had significant exceptions. In some ways, I guess, defining literature is like defining art or pornography (“I can’t say what it is, but I know it when I see it”).
So far, the best I’ve come up with is: literature has layers of meaning and the potential for longevity (or already has longevity).
To rephrase in Jungian terms:
Literature draws on the collective unconscious (the source of myths and legends; e.g. the things that affect us on a very deep level regardless of culture, era, etc.).
Non-Literature draws on the collective conscious (the source of fads and cults; e.g. the passing fancies that die out after a short life).
I tend to reject the idea that “literature” must be boring or pretentious. For example, I consider Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Lois Lowry, Harper Lee, Terry Pratchett, and C.S. Lewis to be literary (and certainly not boring or pretentious). I defy anyone to call Shakespeare or Chaucer pretentious (the former filling his plays with bodily functions and innuendo for humor, the latter making judicious use of fart jokes), the same for E.A. Poe.
On the other hand, Stephanie Meyer, Danielle Steele, William Shatner . . . none will be remembered for their fiction 30-40 years from now, I think.
On another hand, it’s been my experience that many who set out out be “literary” come off as pretentious.
But, then again, I just don’t see why some “literary” authors out there are considered “great” (ex. Fitzgerald, Melville, Faulkner).