Yesterday, The Atlantic posted an interesting article about "The Underrated, Universal Appeal of Science Fiction. The article suggests that the way we use "genre" as both a way to categorize a book's subject and a way to distinguish some books from general fiction may cause us to devalue works in popular genres like mystery, romance, and speculative fiction. General fiction becomes regarded as literature, while genre books are considered fluffy and escapist. I personally think this is an artificial distinction, as genre books can be serious too. However, as both a writer and a reader, I do like having a way to separate books with things I like (magic, science, alternate realities) from books that focus on reality and have no sense of wonder. Therefore, the labels of "science fiction" and "fantasy" do have use for me, and I'm sure fans of other genres feel the same way about their favorite books.
However, I'm now left to wonder how useful the literature label still is. Some stories that are considered classics today were very popular in their own times and might have been considered genre works once. Since self-publishing allows authors to avoid the publisher gatekeepers, any type of work can be published without getting "approved" by "authorities." That means readers will have to find other ways to pick the books they read. Some might rely on reviews or personal recommendations, while others will trust their own judgment. But when everyone brings different preferences and requirements to the same book, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to agree on what is worth reading (or calling "literature") and what isn't. Is this a problem? It might be for teachers, but for readers, more choices are better than less.
What's your opinion on the literature vs. genre debate? What, if anything, separates literature from other books? Let me know in the comments.