The four stages of literary appreciation theory, which is unnamed and still very much a work-in-progress, arrives with apologies to Aristotle and other great theorists, snippets of whose thoughts I skimmed, tried to comprehend while being schooled, and now re-regurgitate.
The goal is an aid for writers trying to consider who their audience might be as aid to story structure and creation. The working outline is of appreciation evolving through four levels, reflective of both our physical aging process as well as emotional and mental development.
First there is interest in the schnook to king (or queen) tale — a plot arc most appreciate when very young. “Schnook” and “King-Queen” are used as stand-ins for the lowly and highly placed.
The next stage of development takes places somewhere within or between the elementary school years and end of high school the primary desire is to read how the K-Q is actually a schnook (or by a plot element is exposed as the schnook s/he always was).
As the mind matures and life experience adds up there is an appreciation for twists and turns where the schnook turns into a K-Q and then back again (and sometimes back again, again).
Later in life, when a full maturity cloak is settled about the shoulders, there should be appreciation for the story that starts and ends in a different place, takes in the hills and dales, moves from where is started, but with a K-Q/schnook antagonist who neither starts nor ends at either extreme. The key attraction for the audience is the complexity of the journey that mirrors real life (while also creating a larger drama and so entertaining escape from the reality that is being “funhouse” mirrored).
While the theory should (hopefully) develop, a germination point appeared while staring at racks of labeled books and trying to figure out why some were “fiction” and others “literature” as well as a recent discussion that touched on genre writing. The current working hypothesis regarding labeling is that “fiction” fits within the strictures of one of the first three stages while “literature” lands within the confines of stage four. (There are, of course, also marketing aspects to the labeling, but those must be set aside for now.)
And now comes the big caveat: With all things communication, as much as we know (see Arthur C. Clarke below from nearly 40 years ago), we will never know everything. The glory comes from a current generation being entertained and instructed, and later generations appreciating how much was correct.