In a post discussing his list of "Best American Fiction, 1968-1998," D.G. Myers makes this assertion:
Literature just is a selection of masterpieces. There is no getting around this obstacle. The problem is what criteria of selection you are going to use.
I really can't imagine a more reductive and, especially for a literary scholar who professes to love literature, a more implicitly dismissive view of the value of literature and literary study. It's all about choosing up sides and announcing that your "criteria" are better than the other side's?
That "literature" is determined by selection--ideally, in Myers's case, by scholars, but presumably by whomever--would surely come as a surprise to all those writers who thought their own efforts to define and redefine the "literary" through their work had something to do with the way "literature" is received. Apparently literature has nothing to do with reflection on how a work of fiction or poetry might be created, or how it might appropriately be read, nothing with determining how literature differs from other kinds of writing, with the possibilities of language, with human imagination, nothing to do with the evolution of literary forms over time and across cultures. It's a competition to see how many lists onto which the work in question might appear. It's certainly true there's a long-term "selection" of books that make it onto our collective reading list--the test of time--and the judgments of critics play some part in this process, but individual lists of masterpieces are just momentary bursts of opinion.
Putting aside the difficulty of determining which works count as "masterpieces" in the first place, at least once you've gathered the usual suspects, why must we concern ourselves only with masterpieces? Is there no pleasure to be found in a "minor" but still accomplished work, nothing to be learned from the flaws in an unsuccessful one? I admit that I myself am sometimes overly impatient with books that don't engage my interest early enough, but in some cases I probably would have found something of value if I'd stayed with them, even if I'd never put them on a list of Best This or Best That. In other cases I really can't see any contribution to "literature," but such books still raise questions about definition and method that do contribute to the discussion about literature, and for that reason are worth reading.
Later in his post, Myers claims "For literary critics there are, as I see it, only two choices. Either the course of intellectual honesty, where a man admits that there are books that are not worth reading, or the course of literary preening, where he pretends to enjoy books because he thinks he should." I'd suggest a third: admit that there are books not worth reading but in doing so don't conclude you've engaged in an act of criticism or made some contribution to the proper definition of "literature." Making lists does not make literature magically come into existence, although it does make the prospect of teaching literature more manageable and does allow one to make one's points about whatever subjects one's selection has made available. Presumably they will be those points opposed to the points being made by the guy who has selected the books "he thinks he should." In this way, literature surely does become more than "a selection of masterpieces." It becomes the act of overcoming that "obstacle" and casting literature aside in favor of promoting one's own wisdom.