If someone asked me to give a simple explanation of the difference between literary and genre fiction, I would say that literature has a deep philosophical or sociopolitical message or moral - at least to English teachers - and may also be entertaining. Genre fiction is all about being entertaining, but may also convey a message and can have hidden depths.
Of course, great literature can also be genre fiction if it also fits the definition of a romance, mystery or thriller, or is set in the future, the past, or involves paranormal characters. Similarly, books labelled as literary fiction might not be any more meaningful than the latest Star Trek novel. Beyond the quality of writing, maybe the goal of the reader is the most important factor.
Why do we read? Is it to learn? To be entertained? To broaden our perspective of the world, or to escape it? I think it's all of the above... though not necessarily at the same time. How we read a book, looking for meaning or just looking for an escape, may have more impact on the "literary-ness" of the book than the author's intent.
|The Chamber of Secrets|
Are the Harry Potter books literature? I would argue yes. Some are better written than others, but the whole of the series has inspired so much literary and philosophical discussion, it would be hard to deny these are books with depth.
As you might have guessed, I'd put quite a few of Terry Pratchett's books in the literary category. Dodger, for instance, fits the fantasy, history and humour genres, but also deals with the nature of truth and how it can be manipulated. Like the Harry Potter books, Dodger is aimed at a younger audience. This means, of course, everyone can learn from it regardless of age.
What are your candidates for future classics?