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What is Literary Fiction?

April 14, 2010

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 08:  The six short...

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: 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

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Annie Evett has a suspicion that she is a snob but will fight that urge with a quick re-read of one of the Twilight series…. Follow Annie here on Twitter and start your escape into her world here

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  1. April 14, 2010 1:22 am

    I tend to like literary fiction and went on a bit of a binge at the end of last year and start of this year, but the people who discuss the medium annoy me by looking down at genre writing.

  2. April 14, 2010 5:06 am

    I love reading literary fiction, and I’m not a snob. I like reading other genres too. Living in France I particularly like Peter Mayle’s books about an Englishman’s life in Provence. And I also enjoy some detective fiction – just to give two examples to which I could add many more. But for me, there is nothing like the diversity and the complexity of literary fiction. I like a book to challenge me, and literary fiction does just that. In my writing, too, I try to get to more than just a story, but I’m not sure to what extent I really achieve that.

    In fact, I often wonder how hard and fast such a distinction is. But I suspect you might say more about that later. However, I do wonder a little at your insistance that literary fiction is about character and the others about story. Isn’t it very often the people who make the story. I think this distinction is a little unfortunate.

  3. April 14, 2010 7:40 am

    Paul – I certainly take your point – and when researching and writing this article; it was very difficult to actually “pin down” the distinction – for as you say – the two kind of merge and meld in so many ways.

    I guess – at least from my own experience and research on the definitions – that Literary Fiction *tends* to focus on characters – their inner turmoil, their perceptions of the events etc – and Genre Fiction *tends* to be driven by plot and narrative. .. but then again – that is very broad and sweeping…..

    Ben – I totally agree. I adore many classics and love to get my head in and around some of the complexities of may books which fall into the Literary Fiction arena – but on the same hand – I’ve read some truly DREADFUL , boring and tedious works – which have won acclaim and awards….and I do have a soft spot for face paced, action packed or violent or full of fluff genre fiction….where ever the mood takes me.. humm hang on.. I think I just love reading….

  4. April 14, 2010 11:04 am

    I love literary fiction, and, as both a writer and a reader, it’s what I gravitate towards the most. However, in college, all of my professors were so gung ho about plots and the plot development it felt as though this genre is being ignored in contemporary classes. It’s somewhat disheartening because people and characters react to what happens to them both in real and fictional life. Doesn’t it make sense that a character-driven book is just as important as the plot it evokes? Or, I guess, isn’t life a series of experiences and the reactions that occur due to these experiences?

  5. April 14, 2010 3:18 pm

    I hope we will see less snobbery about Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction as those of use who grew up loving stuff like Star Wars, Marvel Comics, Stephen King stories AND Literary Fiction get a chance to air our views. Perhaps then great writing and stories, whatever the genre, will get the column inches given over to the latest Literary fiction novel that everyone pretends they have read but couldn’t get more than a third the way through.

    I just spent the last week reading science fiction short stories as part of Jodi’s challenge and would argue that those stories were Literary Fiction and Science Fiction. Genre can be literary. Maybe one day the broadsheet critics will wise up to this fact.

  6. April 14, 2010 4:46 pm

    I certainly hope so Dan!!

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