For me, the best literature is a book (or even movie) that stays with me a long, long time. I don't forget it the moment I close the last chapter - instead, I mull it over in my mind, reflect on characters or a storyline that was powerful.
I think part of the "magic" of this is when an author nails it. When he/she, usually in just one unexpected sentence, one little nugget, takes a feeling, emotion, or a truth that we knew all along but never found the right words for -- and plucks out of thin air the PERFECT words to describe it. When that magic happens, I find myself nodding along, and think, "Yes. That's it, exactly." I love it when that happens.
And it happens so rarely. Even in the best modern literature, it only happens a handful of times in one novel. But, I guess that's the beauty of it. If those authors could "nail" a specific feeling or emotion with every single sentence, it would be commonplace, rather than rare.
Elizabeth Berg, a favorite author of mine, describes this moment I'm talking about, in her writing book, Escaping Into the Open: "You want to solicit in your readers that pleasant rush of recognition, that satisfying surprise of finding out something they knew, but didn't know they knew."
Here's an example that I found from her own novel, The Last Time I Saw You -- about a 40th high school reunion. Here's a main character, at the end of the reunion (after some disappointments of expectations, some old wounds re-opened, some truths confessed):
"It comes to her that all of the people in this room are dear to her. As if they all just survived a plane crash together or something. All the drunks and the show-offs and the nice kids and the mean ones. All the people she used to know and all the ones she never knew at all."
I haven't been to a reunion, but I've recently reconnected with a lot of old high school friends, and this is SO much what it feels like to me. Ms. Berg nailed it - high school was rough, in different ways, for just about everyone. There were wonderful moments and heartaches, moments you'd rather forget. But, we all went through that experience together, for better or worse. Nobody else but that exact group of people in that exact graduating class could go through that exact experience the way we did. So yes, I think high school, in hindsight, feels very much like surviving a plane crash together. Some unique experience that can't be replicated, that can't be experienced except by the people inside the plane together. What an interesting way to look at it.
I love those little nuggets of magic. In fact, I seek them out, bookmark the page when I come across them. And, I'm lucky if, as a writer, I can ever sprinkle a truth like that inside my own work...