What is literary fiction? This question is nearly as old as fiction itself, which has been around for centuries. Yet the answer is still somewhat uncertain, even after all this time. We usually know it when we see it, but we’re hard-pressed to define it.
It is generally agreed that fiction falls under one of two categories: genre fiction or literary fiction. Genre fiction includes subcategories such as romance, mystery, thriller, young adult, and science fiction. It is usually driven by an engrossing and fast-moving plot, and the authors often tend to write one book after the other. Sometimes in quick succession.
Literary fiction, on the other hand, is more nebulous and difficult to further categorize. It is easier to describe what happens in literary fiction, rather than what it is. But we will start by trying to define it.
Wikipedia defines literary fiction as “a category of fiction that explores any facet of the human condition, and may involve social commentary.” To take that definition a little deeper—in literary fiction, the author uses the core elements of fiction writing, such as theme and character arc, to explore or understand the world and the people in it. She does this through the development of the main characters.
If you think you’re beginning to gain clarity on exactly which is what when it comes to literary and genre fiction, HOLD ON.
Genre fiction can also have a theme or well-rounded characters. It can also explore human behavior and include social commentary. On the flip side, literary fiction can have an engaging plot. Still, what distinguishes the two is the EMPHASIS OR FOCUS placed on these elements in each of them. We will dig into this in greater detail later in this article.
But first, here’s a little more to confuse you. Both types of fiction have books that appear on the bestseller lists, although this happens far more frequently with genre fiction.
Both types are also awarded prizes, yet the most prestigious awards are generally given to literary fiction.
To further muddy the waters between the two, some authors of literary fiction have also explored genre fiction and vice versa. And some authors of literary fiction reject or even resent being considered that way, as they prefer not to be labeled or to feel confined in their writing styles.
Finally, there are certain scholarly readers who will turn their noses up at genre fiction, believing it has no value. Then again, there are also many readers who prefer genre fiction, feeling that all literary fiction is boring and difficult to understand.
Having said all this, I personally believe that we should be able to write or read whichever appeals to us and not be made to feel that one is better than the other. Neither literary fiction nor genre fiction is better; they are just different.
Now, let’s get back to the topic at hand and continue to explore exactly what literary fiction is and what it means in more detail. Hopefully, this will give you a more clear picture. We will cover each of the following topics.
- Genre Fiction
- Emphasis on Theme, Philosophical Meaning, and Complex Characters in Literary Fiction
- Finely Crafted Style and Prose in Literary Fiction
- Literary Fiction Does Not Follow A Formula and Pushes Boundaries
- Story Endings in Literary Fiction
- What Publishers Expect in Literary and Genre Fiction
- Examples of Literary and Genre Fiction Authors
Literary fiction is easier to understand by taking a look at the other subcategories of fiction that generally fall under the umbrella of genre fiction.
The word genre is defined as “a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.” So then, genre fiction is fiction that is similar in form, style, and subject matter.
As mentioned earlier, there are several categories of genre fiction, including romance, mystery, young adult, thriller, western, and science fiction. Each of these categories has its own conventions and follows a formula.
Mystery fiction, for example, generally includes one or more murder victims with a dead body being discovered by chapter two or three. Lots of clues are planted along the way for the reader. And there is a wise detective who ALWAYS solves the crimes.
Romance novels generally involve a protagonist who is searching for love and usually finds it. These novels almost always have a happy ending.
The stories in genre fiction are driven by dramatic, although often predictable, plots with lots of ups and downs and twists and turns. They follow the traditional plot pattern of exposition, rising action, climax or crisis, falling action, and a happy ending. For a closer look at plot patterns, including the Three-Act Structure, see “How to Plot a Novel” here on Writer Imagine.
Genre fiction may have a theme but it serves as a backdrop to the fast-moving plot. A huge premium is placed on entertaining the reader in these novels, and fans would likely get bored if the author slowed the novel down by spending a lot of time developing a theme or deeper meaning. These readers want action and drama, and lots of it.
Genre fiction appeals to the masses. The novels are often hugely popular, and publishers expect to sell lots of copies. That’s why they are also referred to as commercial or popular fiction.
Now that we’ve further explored genre fiction, let’s take a closer look at what literary fiction is and what it means.
Emphasis on Theme, Philosophical Meaning, and Complex Characters
Whereas genre fiction is driven by a fast-moving plot, such as boy meets girl, they fall in love, break up, and then get back together again; or the detective searching for the murderer before he kills again, in literary fiction, there is no plot formula to follow. Instead, literary fiction is more free-flowing. Pretty much anything goes.
This type of fiction is driven by the inner development of the main characters as the meaning of life and the human condition are explored. The author spends a lot of time considering the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and actions of the main characters, and thus the characters are more complex than they are in genre fiction.
For these reasons, the pace of literary fiction is usually slower than it is in genre fiction, as the author takes the time needed to explore and develop the main character(s).
Finely Crafted Style and Prose
In literary fiction, the author’s voice is often distinguishable and notable since the language used takes a greater part in expressing thoughts and ideas. The language is very finely crafted, with the author devoting lots of time and attention to creating prose that is visually descriptive and makes great use of the following:
- Symbolism—the use of symbols to depict ideas, emotions, or qualities.
- Allegory—a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one
- Metaphor—a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable
- Imagery—visually descriptive or figurative language, especially in a literary work.
Literary Fiction Does Not Follow A Formula and Pushes Boundaries
As stated earlier, this type of fiction does not follow a plot structure or formula. The authors often attempt to break the rules and to push the boundaries of fiction. It isn’t unheard of for writers to take a common theme or plot form in genre fiction and then break all the rules and conventions of the form.
Story Endings in Literary Fiction
Genre fiction almost always has a happy ending because authors and publishers believe that is what readers prefer. They want to sell many copies so they make a lot of effort to give readers what they want.
This is another convention that literary fiction turns upside down: often the stories will not have a happy ending or even a satisfactory one. Sometimes the endings are intentionally ambiguous and left to the reader’s imagination or interpretation.
What Publishers Expect in Literary and Genre Fiction
As stated often here, when it comes to genre fiction, publishers expect to sell lots of copies. This is reflected in the cover choices, which are usually bold and designed to appeal to the masses. The covers of romance novels are especially distinguishable. In contrast, the covers for literary novels tend to be more subdued or “artsy.”
Authors of literary fiction often have a harder time finding a publisher because the books usually sell far fewer copies than genre fiction. However, publishers like literary works for the prestige they bring when they win awards, as well as the contributions these books make to literature.
Since they realize that these books will not sell as well as genre or commercial works of fiction, they depend on books written by their commercial authors, such as Stephen King or George R.R. Martin (if they’re so lucky), to make up for what they might lose by publishing a literary book. Then again, sometimes a literary author crosses over into the mainstream and regularly hits the bestseller lists. An example is Toni Morrison.
So what does all of this mean for you as a fiction writer?
I always encourage writers to just write from the heart and not worry about whether their style is literary or commercial. This is especially relevant when a writer is first starting out and hasn’t really developed a style. Most likely, a new writer’s style will take shape based on what she or he most often reads. If you tend toward literary fiction, that is probably the direction in which your style will develop. If you’re into reading genre fiction, that’s most likely what you will write best.
Once you realize which fiction category your writing falls under then you may go on to consider the parameters and conventions (or lack thereof) of that style of writing. Just remember that the best of both categories—both genre fiction and literary fiction—are well written and deliver great stories to the reader.
Examples of Literary and Genre Fiction Authors
Here are several examples of well-known literary authors.
- Toni Morrison
- Colson Whitehead
- James Baldwin
- Margaret Atwood
- Kurt Vonnegut
- Zadie Smith
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Here are examples of popular commercial or genre authors who have had huge success.
- Stephen King
- Dan Brown
- Terry McMillan
- Agatha Christie
- Danielle Steele
- Tom Clancy
- Walter Mosley