The idea that literature could be any old printed matter seems to be not much more than 100 years old. Before then there were only two sorts, literature in Dame Muriel's sense, and light literature, which was not quite a contradiction in terms. The OED has an indignant quote from the Daily News of 1895 (a year which had seen a second change of government in less than 18 months) about "canvassing, posters and the distribution of what, by a profane perversion of language, is called 'literature'". However, the perverters who upset the Daily News were actually going back to the first Latin meaning of litteratura - something made up of litterae or letters, or simply "the alphabet"; a litterator was a person who dabbled in grammar. It was not we who dropped the second "t", by the way. The supposedly literate Romans seemed unsure of the right spelling, as were the French, through whom we got the word.
Literature came into our language in the 14th century when at first it meant someone's greater or smaller degree of learning, then what learned people wrote. Since only the educated could read and write, this had some logic in it. Now almost any fool can be taught to write nonsense, which is why literature can be anything from a Muriel Spark novel down to an election address.Reuse content