What is literary fiction?

What is literary fiction?

This isn’t a post that starts with a rhetorical question I’ll answer further down.  This is a question borne of genuine curiosity.

Why is a book, for example, Pride and Prejudice, considered literary fiction and others are not?  (Especially since Pride and Prejudice could be classified as a romance novel…wasn’t it back in the day??)

I started by having the argument with myself because in the Creative Writing/Fiction Writing courses I’m taking all strive to have the students produce “literary fiction, not that genre fiction stuff”.  I’m doing an independent study/directed reading next semester and I’m going to have to “produce a work of literary merit” which would be totally fine, if I KNEW WHAT THAT MEANT.

I Googled it.  Yep, I did, thinking: “Trusty ol’ Google will help me out!”

This is what I found:

*Literary fiction is a term that has come into common usage since around 1960, principally to distinguish serious fiction (that is, work with claims to literary merit) from the many types of genre fiction and popular fiction (i.e., paraliterature). In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character[1][2], the plot may or may not be important. Mainstream commercial fiction focuses more on narrative and plot.

Then, I scrolled down and it said:

*“What distinguishes literary fiction from other genres is somewhat subjective, and as in other artistic media, genres may overlap.  Even so, literary fiction is generally characterized as distinctive based on its content and style (“literariness”, the concern to be “writerly”). The term literary fiction is considered hard to define very precisely[3] but is commonly associated with the criteria used in literary awards and marketing of certain kinds of novels, since literary prizes usually concern themselves with literary fiction, and their shortlists can give a working definition.

Then, I scrolled down some MORE and under the heading “Limitation”, it said:

*“ To understand what literary fiction is, it’s probably easier to look at what it isn’t. Literary fiction is not about chick lit, mystery, science fiction or horror although they are marvellous literature in themselves and literary fiction can incorporate certain aspects of them.[5]

Literary is not precisely defined and it might be difficult to state whether Science fiction classics like, The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds are or are not literary fiction.”


My understanding as of now is it has a definition, but it doesn’t.  I guess it’s like asking someone how to write a good book.

But, my questions are: What exactly is literary fiction? What is wrong with genre fiction? Why does there have to be a division between Literary and Genre fiction?

While I was having this argument within myself (and eventually with Google), a Professor I work with (as a tutor for his class) walked in (laughed at me -__-) and then said, “It’s an interesting question.  No, really, think about it.  Why is there a division?  Is it because of elitists who think some literature is better than others?”

Now, I’ll admit, some books that are published are simple, but I’ve read a lot of “genre fiction” that touch on subjects “literary fiction” rarely does, navigate the human psyche, and explore character development – all while having a good narrative voice AND a plot.

Personally, I think more people are reached through “genre fiction” because it’s read for leisure/entertainment and it’s a subtle way for ideals to be expressed or to cause people to think about their society – not that all literature should preach or attempt to convert the masses, either blatantly or subliminally.  However, my questions still stand:

What exactly is literary fiction?

What is wrong with genre fiction?

Why does there have to be a division between Literary and Genre fiction?

I’m not going to run off and write about sparkly vampires, but even they have literary significance.

Literary fiction generally impacts society, right?  So, what are Harry Potter and The Hunger Games classified as?

Oh, one thing that bothered me while I was Googling was I stumbled across an article that said: “Literary fiction is character driven and appeals to a smaller, more intellectual audience.

More intellectual?  Really?  How insulting!

Anyone have answers for me?  I mean, I already have a plot in my head that I think fits (what I was told was) “literary fiction”.  But, I’d still like to know what it means.


BTW, this is a pretty interesting article: http://www.shellythacker.com/marketsavvy.htm

20 thoughts on “What is literary fiction?

  1. Ah, the question I fried my brain with a few weeks ago.

    Here’s an answer my friend gave me that I thought was QUITE insightful:

    “The biggest difference between literary and genre writing, I think, is the different concentrations. Genre writers are focused WITHIN the world of the book, and simply wish to provide us with laws of right and wrong within the story. But literary writers are intending to use the story to example the outside world – the ‘real’ world, and their works are mediums with which to analyze the human condition.

    Genre writing is story telling.
    Literary writing is an essay told in narrative, fictional form”

  2. We talked about this in my Critical theory class in September, and this is what I came up with:

    I think the reason why some of the older novels, for example “Pride and Prejudice” are considered literary fiction, despite being a romance novel is that it has some literary value. Jane Austen, afterall, based her stories on what she knew – not the characters, but the situation – now we consider it as having literary merit because they tell us about how life was back then, gender relations, what was valued, etc.

    Who knows, maybe someday “Twilight” will be considered literary fiction. I mean Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” is…(Although when this happens, I will be thankful that I am no longer alive.)

    • I should also add that Austen, Stoker, Shakespeare were NOT consider literary in their day, but are now. So the definition of what is and isn’t literary fiction is changeable or “fluid” as my prof would say.

      • Yeah, and I totally understand that. Like I was saying in the other comment, those authors and their works had the benefit of time and were able to contribute to society and the literary world. While Twilight isn’t currently considered “literary fiction” like you said it may one day (ugh >_<). But, that's because people – anthropologists most likely – will want to know why teenage girls were obsessed with sparkly virginal vampires and depressed/clingy werewolves.

        I know literature has come a long way and more books are available. But, who determines literary merit?

        • “Sparkly virginal vampires” LMAO!

          As long as those anthropologists don’t lump me in with the rest of these fangirls. Hmm, maybe I should write a note and bury it in my backyard, saying that if they mistake me for a fangirl I’ll sue them from my grave. Yes, this seems like a good idea…

          • It makes sense that literary merit is determined by historians, english profs and what people want to know about the past when it comes to novels/plays by older authors. For instance, I lot of my profs at university refuse to teach Jane Austen because they don’t think she has enough of value to say. Ex: She focuses too much on the romance and less on the situations of the individual characters. Same reason why some Shakepeare plays are studied more often than others.

            On the other hand, I have some profs who are equally happy to study genre fiction as literary fiction. For instance, we did study “Harry Potter” in Children’s Literature. Plus, more and more profs are now interested in bringing pop culture into english courses. Ex: The reason why I’m allowed to write an essay on “The Brothers Grimm” (2005) for my Critical Theory course.

            So university English profs are definitely on board when it comes to determininf literary value.

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  4. After I posted my comment, I saw this tweeted by another friend. How perfect is that?! Well, for what I was saying, not actually to answer your question.

    “We are not trying to entertain the critics. I’ll take my chances with the public.” ~ Walt Disney.

  5. Well, I have my own test, and it’s just as insulting to the lit fic writers as the definition you posted of lit fic appealing to “more intellectual” people is insulting to genre writers. Lit fic puts me to sleep. *That’s* how I distinguish. It’s more about the poetic prose, the characters, and less about anything else. To be honest, I don’t really like a lot of the artsy movies, either. If a movie has won a Cannes Film Festival award, I can almost guarantee it will bore me to tears or I’ll hate it. I can admit that it will likely be because I don’t *get* it. I don’t read or go to the movies for social commentary, or for education. I read/go for entertainment.

    Er…I’m rambling. I do admire the people who can write lit fic, because I cannot. No way, no how. I don’t think they’re more intellectual, smarter, or better than I am. But then, I’m not looking to change the literary world. I’m looking to entertain, and I can do that better through genre fiction.

    • hahahaha, the professor I was talking with, he had the same reasoning. Literary fiction DOES tend to put some people to sleep, but I guess that’s attributed to style 😉

      I have no problem watching artsy movies or whatever, except I’ll watch it as a movie..for ENTERTAINMENT. So, I’d probably miss the director’s whole point lol which isn’t good, but it’s not going to bother me.

      Totally agree with you 🙂 Which is why I think I’m having some difficulties with my CW class. The prof wants “serious literature” whereas I’m more prone to “entertaining literature”.

      For some reason, there doesn’t seem to be a mid ground :/

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  7. Maybe literary and genre fiction is just a form of classifying works. Though, I agree many works that could be classified in the genre category can also explore an abundance of ideas too in depth.

    Terms like ‘literary fiction’ and ‘genre fiction’ do carry certain associations which reflect how people value them differently.

    I almost look at recent literary work as I would art. I think thats where the stylistic differences come into play as people examine these works to see how far people have developed from traditional writing through experimenting with language and the host of literary devices that were created to help convey ideas. Though, you could also argue that the creation of the popular novel is pretty interesting and experimental compared to how things used to be.

    What determines ‘literary fiction’ also has to do with time – as many works by people like Jane Austen, Mary Shelley and Virginia Woolf – weren’t regarded as highly upon their initial release (which also might have to do with patriarchal tradition). It took decades for people to value such works that challenged writing/genre/social ideas. Maybe the criteria that determines what literary fiction can change over time.

    *Btw, this is Glaiza, (I don’t use my wordpress account as often except to comment lol)

    • Actually, I think it’s BECAUSE people view Literary Fiction as Art there is a difference. I’m not saying that it’s not art…but then that leads to ‘genre fiction’ NOT being art and technically, all forms of writing are art. o.O

      I know it took decades for their work to be recognized and that makes sense because it means over time people read their novels, were provoked to deeper thought, and elevated the importance of the novel. But, what makes a contemporary novel classified as “Literary Fiction” when it hasn’t had the benefit of time? (if this makes sense..)

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