For a long time I couldn't figure out how to explain how I define the genre "literary fiction." Analysing what I didn't like about the Kite Runner (in parts one, two and three of this series) has helped helped me realize that besides high quality writing and an important or deep topic, Literary doesn't have too many ingredients thrown in. The literary genre finds one or two things to focus on, and then plumbs their depths.
I can dislike a literary novel for all kinds of reasons; but a book that tries to handle too much Stuff, I won't even classify as literary. Not even failed literary. I just don't consider something like Kite Runner to be a literary novel. It's of the "fiction" genre.
I recently, finally, read Maus by Art Spiegelman. It's a portrayal of Spiegelman's father's Holocaust experiences, called Maus because the Jews are portrayed as mice, the Germans as cats. Presumably Spiegelman had to pick through his father's stories and figure out which to tell, which to spend more time on, and I think he instinctively understood that he didn't need to dwell on the most revoltingly-shocking stories to get the horror of the war across. Sometimes the smaller indignities say it all.
The same week I read The Kite Runner, I had tea with pal Harvey and we talked about Maus cause it was her copy I read while petsitting. Harvey's 12 year old daughter read the book and was most moved by the story of Mandelbaum. This intrigued Harvey because the Mandelbaum story isn't the most horrifying--but I also vividly remembered it, and it wasn't hard to find online, so obviously others were moved by it.
In Auschwitz they gave people random clothes and shoes, so you ended up with any old size. Speigelman's father describes a nice man he'd known back home, who got pants that were too big, and one shoe too small--so he had to hold his pants up, and hold the shoe til he found someone to trade with, walking barefoot in the snow, and trying to hold onto his precious bowl and spoon which someone could steal.
And this story is enough to get across the idea that the Germans didn't see the Jews as people--they were vermin. That story really gets across the idea of "death camp." If your captors don't even care about giving you pants that'll stay up, then you're not in a prison with freedom as one day possible; you're not even in a torture chamber, because the torture here isn't explicitly inflicted. The torture comes from unimaginable indifference by one human being to another. If you die before it's time to go to the gas chamber, then that's just one less Jew they have to bother killing. That one page, that one story, tells you everything you need to know about the Final Solution.
Yes, there were some sadistic Nazis--people like the baddie in Kite Runner, raping and torturing just for pleasure. But you don't need rape and explicit torture for a tragedy like the Holocaust to happen; you just need one set of people deciding that another set of people are not people at all, but cockroaches to be cleansed from their country. Spiegelman could easily have passed that story off as trivial and not included it; that he did, and spent time on it, is part of what makes this a Literary work. Nails driven home using the most basic tool necessary to get the job done.
There's one scene in the Kite Runner where a man has to sell his artificial leg in the street in order to survive. That tells you more about post-Soviet Afghanistan than does the child-molesting-psychopath-Taliban-childhood-bully. That's the story I wanted to read.