The telling of stories has enormously important effects on the society they are told to, and for this reason, a society which has reached a certain level of sophistication will produce people who will consciously analyse the stories, the people who tell them, the processes by which those people are chosen and the effects that their stories have. This is an important part of understanding our selves, and literate societies with a leisured class have tended to produce people to analyse them.
But is that what European and US teachers of literature do? What is the object of their study?
If we look at the motives of those who analyse stories and the telling...
Teachers of literature, literary critics and the like, the analysers of stories, do not take as the object of their study the stories whose purpose is overtly social, the religious texts, creation myths, foundation legends, campfire tales, newspaper articles. All of these are studied, but not by those who claim to deal with literature. Professors of English or European literature are almost exclusively concerned with stories that were not told for any of the important social reasons, and which might have had important social effects, but with texts written for money and as exercises in language. This suggests that the people who make it their business to study a thing they call literature think of it as a very specific kind of storytelling, done for personal, not social reasons, with limited social impact and with a form and a complexity that raise them above the simpler stories. I think to be considered literature a story must satisfy certain criteria for being considered art.
It is not unreasonable that these analysts should be attracted to the better crafted, more difficult tales, and, although the motivation for literature as they study it is not social, they usually like the teller to be socially interesting, and the story to have social complexity. It appears, therefore, that we may tentatively conclude that those who study literature consider literature to be those stories which are non-trivial comments on a society, rather than a part of that society. In that sense, there is such a thing as literature, because it can be defined in a way that makes sense.