So, one year, eleven pieces of “literature”. Am I any more equipped to answer this question? Maybe. I don’t know what definition would be given by english scholars (as in, people who study literature written in english, not academics that happen to be from England), but I’m inclined to make the distinction thusly:
Fiction that can be described as “literature” fits into a category rather than a genre, and focuses more on depth of character than depth of plot.
For example, “romance” is more of a category — because you can have a romance in any genre — whereas “fantasy” is more of a genre; either establishes a certain set of expectations on the plot, but a genre establishes expectations about the setting as well. By focusing on character I mean that the main dramatic question of the story is related to internal changes (e.g. “Will Gertrude manage to overcome her crippling ennui?”) rather than external changes (e.g. “Who stole Paula’s poodle’s pewter charm collar?”*).
The likely follow-up question is, of course, “which is better?”. I’m going to be annoying, and answer that it all depends on what you mean by “better”. Lest you accuse me of trifling with semantics (who dislike being trifled with, and are liable to bite if you tease them for too long), what I enjoy varies depending on my mood, level of energy, who I’m with, and a host of other factors. To use movies as an example, sometimes I just want to sit back and be entertained by something like “The A-Team”, other times I’m up for thoughtfully taking in “The Social Network”.
In general, I am enjoying this exercise in thought-provocation and increased well-read-edness.
In other news, Lady Susan is an amazing example of just how much character can be packed into a couple of carefully-worded paragraphs. The whole thing is in the form of letters sent between the characters, but you can tell so much about them by the way different characters describe the same incidents (or even the same character describing it to different people).
* Sorry, I’m obviously in an alliterative mood.