In grad school, we liked to play a game in which we guessed what writers would be considered classics in 200 years. For some reason we were especially drawn to debating J.K. Rowling's chances at literary greatness. I think most people don't think its fair to be such a successful writer and a "good" writer. There were four ways to gain a reputation worthy of study by underpaid grad students:
1. be an undervalued writer during your lifetime (think Austen)
2. have success during your lifetime but then fall out of popularity (think Frances Burney)
3. be someone no one has ever heard of (think dissertation)
4. be Shakespeare or Dickens
Ok, I'm only joking a little. As far as what living writers you were allowed to study, well, they needed to be literary fiction. Which, of course, begs the question: what the hell is literary fiction? You're welcome to peruse the wikipedia entry on this one. The truth is I find the term literary fiction to be both repetitive and insulting, which reminds me of History of the English Language appropriately nicknamed HEL.
Back when they were putting together dictionaries and rules of the fledgling English language, there were two camps of scholars: prescriptivists and descriptivists. Prescriptivists wanted to prescribe certain rules regarding usage, correct spellings, incorrect grammar, etc. In other words, they were your 9th grade English teacher. Descriptivists saw language as more fluid and changing. They wanted to merely describe the current trends in usage and grammar. Most scholars and writers have to walk a line between the two.
The debate between literary and commercial fiction reminds me of the old prescriptivist v. descriptivist dilemma. There are a lot of people out there that wanted to classify some works as literary and therefore serious or worthwhile or somehow better than other writing. These types scoff at Stephenie Meyer's success and mock the Oprah Book Club sticker. If poor Shakespeare was living today and was invited to be part of the Oprah Book Club, he'd probably be written off.
But the issue swings both ways. Not only do we denigrate commercially successful fiction, we cannot concede that classic works fall into genre or commercial categories. Try suggesting that Jane Austen would be considered chick lit if she was writing today in a grad class and see how long it takes them to build a scaffold and gather up a lynching crowd. It's okay, even cute, for an undergrad to suggest this, but serious scholars know the difference. But I maintain that there's not much difference in the themes of Austen in comparison to someone like Jennifer Weiner. Obviously there are differences in cultural and societal norms, but both writers spend a lot of time on women's psychology and relationships. It's scholarly, though, to devote significant time to psychoanalyzing Austen. After all, she is literary fiction.
There's a raging debate right now over literary fiction getting more respect than commercially successful fiction. A lot of people saying that white males writing today are given more respect than women or minorities writing about similar things. First of all, part of this comes from the old boys' club that still occupies a significant space in literary criticism, because even many of the forward thinking men and women in literary crowds today were educated under them. Secondly, I don't think its purely a racial or gender specific issue. This is really more about serious v. commercial.And truth be told nowadays if you write serious fiction and experiment with controversial issues or strange narrative structures or metafiction, you have a pretty good shot at commercial success thanks to critical reception and attention. Commercial writers rely more on word of mouth and eye-catching covers. Both groups are getting attention in different ways, so why do we need to keep up the pretense that some work is literary fiction? All fiction is literary. All we do by segregating them is create a false dichotomy that favors certain writers as better writers than others. Because in the end, a good book is a good book.