I recently finished Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), by Jonathan Culler. I wrote a one-sentence Book Note on it (left sidebar, way down) which is probably all I am qualified to write on the subject, but I want to run through a few terms, mostly for my own benefit. Bloggers rush in where angels fear to tread. What follows is reading notes, not a review or an essay.
Literature is writing that requires serious reading to make known its meaning(s). Narrative, including the novel and the short story, are modern subsets of literature. [I note the Book of Mormon is a narrative and a very complex one. Familiarity with a few literary concepts ought to help the inquiring reader frame that complex narrative and follow its presentation better, so this topic is not unrelated to this site's theme.]
The hyper-protected cooperative principle stands for the cooperation between author and reader that is presumed for a piece of literature (the presumption is the "hyper-protection") and justifies the inordinate attention a reader will give a text (p. 25). There's the promise of some meaning or deep feeling invested in the text that will reveal itself with patient reading and study. But non-literary text (the back of a cereal box or the want ads) won't get that benefit, nor will a forgery or fraud. So one definition might be: Literature is a speech act or text event meriting our serious attention (p. 27).
Following Saussure, language is not simply a series of word signs pointing to preexisting categories, but the language creates the categories, which thus vary across languages (p. 58). Geez, for a French linguist, Saussure sure hit the big time--seems like everyone quotes the guy. This certainly complicates translation, doesn't it? Especially from scriptural languages like Hebrew and Reformed Egyptian which are derived from cultures and worldviews so alien to ours. Of course, if this linguistic take on categories of thought were correct, then the more languages one learned fluently, the smarter/wiser one would be. Not likely--it's not like linguists or philologists find themselves overflowing with surplus categories of thought. They just know more words/languages, that's all. Know any rich linguists?
To be a candidate interpretation of a text requires that it be speculative (p. 64). A simple, obvious, or banal interpretation fails. Okay, I can see why this is generally the case, even noting the obvious fact that if there are no speculative meanings to tease out of texts then lit profs are out of a job. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. No doubt novels abound in symbols and I read mostly non-fiction, so I'm just underexposed to this area of narrative.
What determines meaning? He argues that meaning is overdetermined--there is no single cause (p. 65). Author's intention, objective text, documentary context, and the observing reader can all contribute to meaning or interpretation. He distinguishes the hermeneutics of recovery (meaning that's in the text) from the hermeneutics of suspicion (social or cultural or personal authorial themes revealed through the text) (p. 67-68). Now there's a useful pair of concepts to take with you to church on Sunday.
He discusses the theory of narrative, depicting a wide variety of textual presentations--non-fictional types like history or legal opinions as well as novels and short stories--as adhering to the conventions of narrative (p. 83). The conventions include: Plot (situation w/ tension, event and action, resolution, or more simply beginning, middle, end, and note that plot is translatable, unlike poetry!); presentation or discourse; and focalization or point of view (such as temporal, telescoping, knowledge limitations on narrator or focal character).
He uses the term "performatives" for speech acts (p. 94). For example, "You're fired" isn't simply a statement or observation of your job status, it's a speech act--the words accomplish the act. A little reflection shows how broad this approach can get, and it raises one's awareness of the rich texture of message and meaning that can piggyback, so to speak, on otherwise simple indicative statements. When the CEO, for example, makes a bold statement, it's not just a statement, it could be an expectation, a command, even a threat, and managers' thinking and speech will suddenly burst into conformity with the CEO's vision or desire as expressed in the bold statement. Works for all leaders and power-relations, I think, including church.