Students are often asked to read works of “Great Literature.” They're assigned novels by giants like Hawthorne, Dostoyevsky, and Dickens, and are told these works are considered “classic” or “important,” and that they’re somehow different from the vampire novels, crime thrillers, and comics that are read for fun. But at what point does fiction become literature? And who gets to decide which works make the cut?
To understand the concept of literature, we have to travel back to the 18th century, when the way people approached writing began to fundamentally change. Initially, the Latin word litteratura was used to refer to all written works, but in the 1700s, intellectuals started consciously developing an English literary canon, choosing a body of modern English-language works that they believed could stand up to ancient classics by the likes of Homer and Virgil. Essayist Arthur Krystal explained in Harpers that the idea was essentially to come up with a list of great works by English authors in order to create a “national literature." Gradually, literature didn't include all writing, just a few exemplary works.
Over the next few centuries, scholars, writers, critics, and publishers would continuously define and redefine what was considered literature. Nineteenth century publishing companies would put out anthologies and collections, canonizing select works by announcing their greatness. In the early 20th century, academics like John Erskine, Mortimer Adler, and Robert Hutchins started promoting a "Great Books" college curriculum, dedicating their professional lives to choosing "Great Books" and developing their criteria of "Greatness." Like the 18th century English intellectuals who wanted to develop a national literature, Erskine and his cohorts wanted to foster an American literary culture.
Literature has always been an amorphous concept, one that changes whenever different groups attempt to define "Great Literature." And, in the 20th and 21st centuries, it's only become increasingly blurry, as critics and readers question the literary hierarchy, noting that lists of great books tend to ignore works by female, minority, and non-Western writers. While some intellectuals continue to canonize individual works and authors, others argue that the very concept of literature is at best subjective and at worst oppressive.
“Unavoidably, booksellers and publishers are gatekeepers, making these decisions to suit their market and make their product easier to buy,” says Sian Cain, the books site editor for The Guardian. “What one person regards as an outstanding example of literature, another will consider drivel.”
Nowadays, literature is a more contested category than it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. More people are literate and educated now than when a handful of intellectuals could decide what constituted great writing. And, thanks to the Internet, more people than ever before are able to participate in literary debate. It’s not just the voices of critics and publishers that are heard. As author Daniel Mendelsohn notes in The New York Times, “Today, audiences as well as critics play a lively role in establishing which works get discussed, analyzed, noticed; the boil of resentment toward the literary gods—the Dionysuses who alone were once privileged to enshrine authors—has been lanced.”
But that doesn’t mean the distinction between popular novels and literature has been eliminated. The conversation may have opened up, but publishers, critics, educators, and readers still love categorizing different kinds of writing, distinguishing between genre novels and literary fiction; between ephemeral works and classic literature. The lines may become increasingly blurred, but one needs only to look at a few recent "Great Novels" lists to see how much consensus still exists. (For instance, compare these lists by The Guardian and Modern Library.)