What is Literary Fiction?
Literary fiction has been a common usage term since the 60s; mainly to distinguish what some may consider ‘serious’ fiction from the myriad of popular or ‘genre’ fiction.
This type of work is said to have literary merit and default, literary fiction wins most of the lucrative awards, gets most of the review space in the media and generally does better out of the grants and funding arenas.
In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character and tends to be multilayered stories which wrestle with universal dilemmas rather than with plot. They usually provoke the readers beliefs and thoughts, often with an outcome of changing or altering their audiences outlook on life. More often than not, literary fiction addresses what might be considered more serious issues to uncover a truth bringing its audience; by the way of the main character; to a deeper understanding about life.
Most of what is considered the “classics” (ie. novels written before the 1950s) would be termed literary fiction. Most of these books are character centred rather than plot oriented; looking at the human condition and provoking the reader into some sort of change.
Wheres the Plot?
In literary fiction, the plot bubbles underneath the surface. The important factors in literary fiction is what is happening in the thoughts, minds, desires and motivations of the characters as they move about and within the setting. Adding a further layer upon that, are the underlying cultural expectations and social issues which influence the motivations and actions of the characters.
Often a story will be built on religious or mythological symbolism or incorporating archetypes from other types of literature. For this reason, it is very difficult to read a literary fictional piece in a cultural or social void as generally a major element is a reflection of this structure, contributing to the overall theme.
Literary Fiction can be seen as being characterised by two important traits:
- That it is often impossible to discuss with non readers about what the book is about until you’ve finished reading it.
- When you have finished reading it, its difficult to surmise the plot. When words do eventually come about, the conversations about the text is highly likely to change with the readers changing attitudes and beliefs and very likely to evolve over a period of time and further reading or discussion.
Readers of literary fiction are most often interested in what the text may have been awarded. Major literary awards which are seen as influential to the placement of a novel within the realms of literary fiction include:
- The Booker Prize for Fiction
- The National Book Awards
- The National Book Critics Circle Awards
- The Nobel Prize for Literature
- The Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction
- The Pulitzer Prize.
Some links which are useful in further research on Literary Fiction are:
AllReaders.com which has reviews of books by readers. Each review includes five searchable elements; plot, main character, main adversary, setting and style. The user can search by any combination of over 2,000 literary terms using a unique book review search engine. The site is partnered with Random House, but reviews books from all publishers.
The New York Times on the Web has a very complete book section that includes lists of best sellers as well as reviews of current books. This is a list and a resource that many literary fiction fans count on.
Next weeks post will look at Genre Fiction with the following week comparing and discussing the two.
Is Literary Fiction for snobs – or is it the serious side of “real writing?”
What has been your experience of either reading or writing Literary Fiction?
Image of books shortlisted for Booker prize via Daylife