Several years ago, I ran a review of "Microworlds" by Stanislaw Lem in which he defended Literary Criticism. This was a new idea to me, and I later ran a few other articles on the subject, generally with me taking the "Literary Criticism is keen" POV, and pretty much everyone else saying that literary criticism is evil, wicked, nasty, and altogether bad for your skin. Opposition generally takes the form of "Who the heck are you to tell me your opinion is better than mine, and anyone who feels 'literature' is better than my copy of Madballs #16 or that Star Trek/GI Joe fanfic crossover I wrote is *clearly* a pretentious fop who should be taken out and maimed."
Just the same, I'm once again gonna' take the 'pro' position on this one.
I used to think the way most of you do, though. In fact, it had never occurred to me to think otherwise until I'd read Lem's dissection of the subject. It went against every instinct in me, but ultimately I concluded he was right. I opposed "Literature" in concept, mostly because the heavy-hitters in the genre I liked most did so. Basically my thinking and Heinlein's thinking dovetailed, but that's hardly surprising as I was 13 and knew nothing of the world and was largely regurgitating Mr. H's own thoughts on the matter. Since then I've read a lot more, learned a lot more, beat my brains out writing enough merely-adequate fiction to realize how difficult writing the superlative stuff must actually be (I'm a housepainter at best, and the guys in the library are a bunch of Vermeers), and I've come to realize that the dude was kinda' fulla' crap on this specific issue.
Many of our readers would say - have said - that there is no difference between "Literature" and any form of "Fiction," excepting perhaps the smug self-satisfaction with which snobs cling to what they themselves have decided to classify as the former.
Well, let's think about this: is there a difference between a "Good" story and a "Bad" story? I mean, a story well told and a story poorly told? Is there a difference between Lord of the Rings and "Chicks in Brass Brassieres # 127: Bloodlust of the Lustful Blood"? Obviously there is.
So if there's a qualitative difference between a terrible book and a good book, it follows that there's an intellectual one as well, yes? I mean, I got a friend who feels that "Stranger in a Strange Land" is a really smart book, and I assume he, and everyone else, probably think "Fifth Column" is a pretty dumb one. So we're already dealing with a grading scale, admittedly subjective.
In fact, a lot of what we do, here and elsewhere, is bang our opinions of these off of each other. 'Did you read this book? Did you like it? Why not? See I liked it, but I felt it stumbled here..." or whatever. So we *all* do it, it's part and parcel of the process of reading. I don't think this is a smug thing at all, though obviously we've all had experiences where it has been.
So in this context, "Literature" simply means "Really really good" and "Not Literature" means "Everything else." Doesn't mean 'non-literature' is bad, just means it ain't that Pearl of Great Price. Likewise, it follows that when people insist that everything is the same, and that Pearls of Great Price don't exist, then you're dealing with a "Pearls Before Swine" situation: "do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces." (Matthew 7:6).
And of course they *do* try to tear you to pieces, don't they? We've all had some special book, or song, or whatever, that strikes us as especially brilliant, meaningful, emotional, trenchant, *better.* We've all held forth about it's merits, and we've all been met by philistines who insist it's no better than the latest 'Gor' book, and only effete elitists who smoke cloves cigarettes and wear patchouli would *ever* claim such a thing, and cast aspersions on you, personally: you're probably gay and drive an electric car. It's not enough that they tear down something special, they have to tear you down, too, for thinking it's special.
Maybe it's not what you do, but it's what a lot of people do. A Lot. Heinlein did it. Rand did it. A lot of people do it. It's egalitarianism taken to its dictatorial extreme. A lot of us - including myself for years and years - do it as a reflex, mostly because it's instilled into us by the stuff we read at an early age. Exactly why that should happen is a subject for a later date, however.
Getting back on track, however, the decision as to what is and isn't "Literature" is, of necessity, pretty subjective. What's special to me isn't the same as my liberal friend Carol, who's obviously far better read and educated than I. Likewise, your opinion is probably more valid than my friend mentioned a while back who claimed to like SF, but only really liked Trek. Realistically, it's not a question of whether or not some books are way the heck better than others, obviously they are, but how we scale them. That's always going to be wonky 'cuz we're humans and we really don't agree about anything. (For instance, most people would say PKD's "Valis" is literature. I think it's crap. I *do* consider his sequel, "The Divine Invasion" to be literature, but most folks who like Valis have never even heard of it).
This is where 'consensus' comes in. Buncha' well-read, well-educated types sit in judgement. Is it a timeless tale of existentialism that questions the nature of human existence and our desire to say 'I am" to an uncaring and ultimately dying universe that doesn't care, or is it just another Mack Bolan novel?
This, too, is fairly subjective, and *that's* where the system breaks down, as the nature of writing changes pretty darn fast, but I feel the scholarly types in the consensus-deciding-category tend to lag about 30 or 40 years behind the times. They also tend to be a bit self-congratulatory. This makes 'em a bit more like 'the grammies' than anyone's comfortable with. But even if the execution is a bit wanting (Let's admit it: the 20th century was a heck of a time. It was hard to keep up!), the basic concept is, I think, good.
This is the part where you guys sound off to tell me I'm wrong, likely gay, and drive an electric car...