What is ‘literary fiction’ anyway?

Of all the book genres, this one puzzles me. Literary fiction. What is it? And do I like it or not?

In the publishing world, there are two kinds of fiction. The ‘commercial’ and the ‘literary’. The suggestion is that commercial fiction may be low on ‘literary merit’ but that it aims for crowd-pleasing, while literary fiction requires more intelligence to appreciate and is of a higher quality. Very broadly, commercial fiction is about the plot, genre conventions and accessible storytelling, while literary fiction tends to have in-depth characterisation, studies of the human condition and/or experimentation with form. Literary fiction is also the kind that wins prestigious prizes. So we can define literary fiction in the context of the market.

Then there is literary fiction as a genre. I see it listed with other genres such as romance, crime/thrillers, historical fiction and classics (which is another problem of definition but quite often they are considered a genre). This is what I’m not keen on. Literary fiction could be about absolutely anything, so it’s not a helpful label. When a book is described as literary fiction, this tends to refer to the style and perspective of the book, rather than the content. It could be a romance, or a thriller, or a historical novel, or contemporary fiction – but if it’s considered high quality, then it’s literary fiction. Moreover, it ends up being such a broad category that it probably covers half of everything published.

I think the majority of fiction I read would be considered commercial, rather than literary, from the market point of view. I like books which have more action than philosophy, lively dialogue, short paragraphs and decent plots. From the genre point of view, I don’t know. I think I can tell when a book is well-written, but I don’t like too much pretension (ignoring the rules of grammar, for example) and I can’t stand slow-paced novels unless the style is extremely engaging. Here I am, talking about style again, which shows that literary fiction is a market, not a genre.

Literary fiction has a less highbrow cousin – ‘book club’ fiction, sometimes called ‘upmarket’ fiction or even ‘women’s fiction’. From what I can gather, this is commercial fiction with enough literary merit to appeal to book clubs, the majority of whom are likely to be women. Being chosen as a book club read is certainly a coup for publishers and authors, as everyone in the club is going to buy a copy. Yet I don’t think ‘book club’ should be a genre, either. As with ‘literary fiction,’ a whole genre simply called ‘book club’ is too broad, as it could be about anything. One would hope that book clubs choose fiction from a variety of genres, therefore making a ‘book club’ genre meaningless. Again, it’s a market, not a genre.

That’s all I’ve got to say on the subject. Over to you – what does ‘literary fiction’ mean to you? Do you think it’s a genre?Β 

28 thoughts on “What is ‘literary fiction’ anyway?”

  1. Never really thought about it but that’s a really good question! I’ve seen it used as genre, but I would agree with you that it isn’t.

    1. I’m glad we agree πŸ™‚ I kept thinking about it – partly because I was looking for agents to submit my manuscript to and they always talk about genre – and decided it could be an interesting discussion post.

      1. I always feel genre gets too much attention, the best books are those that are hard to slot into just one genre πŸ€·β€β™€οΈ

        1. I think you are right πŸ™‚ For example How To Stop Time, which I recently read, is not any one genre.

    1. Indeed yes πŸ™‚ I tend to be put off a book if it’s described as literary fiction as I generally don’t have good experiences when I try it, but I’m still attempting to keep an open mind – some authors considered literary, such as Maggie O’Farrell and Margaret Atwood, have an accessible style.

  2. I absolutely agree with your sentiments here! It’s such a loose definition of genre and you’ve hit the nail on the head in every way in your post. Great stuff! Very interesting read πŸ‘πŸ»πŸ˜Š

    1. Thanks! It was a subject that was going around my head a lot lately, so I thought it should be a blog post πŸ˜€

  3. Well, a few hours have gone by and I am still thinking!! I like your blog post. I agree with your points. I think it interesting to note that much classic fiction was the popular, commercial fiction of the day rather than what we now call literary fiction. I think a lot of literary fiction is about people wanting to be seen to clever by writing, being read by people wanting to be seen to be clever by reading them. (terrible sentence LOL!!) So there is a lot of ego and self-image involved here. Now I am going to bad mouth an author I have never read. This is something I don’t normally do, so…. Back in 2012(?) Eleanor Catton wrote and got published her debut literary fiction novel The Rehearsal. It won prizes. It got her a fellowship to teach at the Iowa Writers Academy. And yet even the critics agreed the novel was basically unreadable. She went on to write The Luminaries which brought her further fame and fortune. (I have no idea whether that is good or bad). I guess the point I am trying to make is – like in all walks of life – if your face fits, or if you are on trend, you can get away with anything. There is also the issue of literary fiction authors going on to reinvent the wheel – Kazuo Ishiguro, Isabel Allende – by taking on scifi or crime fiction themes and getting lauded for their efforts by important people who would never deign to lower themselves to read scifi or crime fiction in the first instance. I can’t say I have enjoyed much literary fiction but I have enjoyed many novels that literary agents say that are at the sweet spot, the point where high quality genre fiction and literary fiction merge. All this being said, I wonder at my own limitations. I have a book on writing by the acclaimed American novelist Eudora Welty. I find it hard to follow. I also have a collection of short stories written for adults by Tove Jansson, who wrote the Moomin books. Now I love the Moomin books but her short stories I can’t fathom. It’s like they are written from a place my mind cannot go. So, it might well be that I don’t like a lot of literary fiction because I do not have the literary sensibility to appreciate it. We all have limitations. I soon found mine studying physics at university. I was sitting in a lecture and I suddenly realised I had no clue what was going on and I also realised there was going to be no scientific career LOL!! So, to return to literary fiction, I often cannot figure out whether I am reading complete rubbish or whether it is beyond my literary sensibilities to comprehend. Being a usually confident sort of guy I often opt for the former rather than the latter LOL! But who really knows…???? (BTW, I think anyone who reads a lot can pick up a book and decide very quickly an author can really write or not, regardless of genre….) But to get back to your basic point, I think literary fiction claims to be something more than commercial fiction, something that sits above all genres, something very important, something that we must read if we are to properly comprehend the human condition. All I would say to that is, maybe, occasionally, but most often not….LOL!!

    1. Thank you, I have been looking forward to your essay – top marks πŸ˜‰ I do think the term ‘literary fiction’ links to elitism, because it’s what the critics review, it potentially makes big money (prizes, book club reads, prominence in bookshop displays, prestigious agents/publishers) and the suggestion that it’s ‘proper literature’ as opposed to the pulp that is commercial fiction. There is a lot of pretension about it and I must say, I have encountered very few contemporary ‘literary’ authors I’ve enjoyed. Also, maybe whether someone likes literary fiction depends on what they want from their reading experience – I read for escapism, rather than to contemplate the great truths of the human condition. A difficult style, playing with grammar or a slow plot tend to get in the way of my enjoyment. I do admire people who seem to get a lot out of literary fiction, because I can never be one of them!

  4. You’re so right. “Literary” doesn’t give readers any hope of knowing what the book’s genre might be. An agent corrected me, after reading my manuscript, which I’d slotted as upmarket. He said he felt it was literary fiction. I relayed this to my husband and my kids, who asked, what’s literary fiction? My husband’s answer: that means mom’s book won’t make any money. Would be funnier if it wasn’t true!

    1. Thanks! I don’t think most people would have a clear idea of what literary fiction is, other than being not particularly accessible.

  5. I almost identified a book as literary fiction a couple of weeks ago, because I couldn’t decide what genre to put it under. It was a cop out, not a conscious decision. I didn’t do it though, because I really didn’t know what Literary Fiction is. It does seem like a marketing ploy though.

    1. I think you are right, it does seem like a sort of ‘misc’ file for something that doesn’t fit genre. I’m not sure when literary fiction as a term first started to be used, but I agree it is about marketing – and it could backfire, as the term puts some readers off.

  6. I don’t think of it as a genre really – more a style which can have genres within it. So for example, I would put Wolf Hall in the genre of historical fiction, but would also categorise it as literary fiction in style. For me, it’s about the quality of the writing – not “creative writing”, just excellent use of language, grammar, structure and so on – and it should be saying something relatively profound, either about the human condition in general, or perhaps about social or political conditions and how they impact on people. It’s one of these things that’s hard to define but that I feel we all recognise when we read it. For me, Flaubert’s famous quote sums it up: “Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.” If I see bears dancing, it’s not literary, but if the stars weep for the beauty of it, then it is… πŸ˜‰

    1. Thanks, very interesting points! That quote seems very apt – I probably encounter a lot more dancing bears than weeping stars… I’m glad you agree that literary fiction isn’t a genre as such. The writing quality is a very subjective thing however, especially when an author decides to be a bit experimental or edgy in their style.

  7. Really interesting post, and very well written! I agree completely that it isn’t a genre, and I also echo your sentiment of wanting a clear idea of what a book is about which of course is where we look to genre in the first place. Much like others have said it seems to be a convenient marketing ploy, and also another label to suggest what is ‘proper’ to read which doesn’t sit too well with me, I say we should all just read what we want to.

    1. Thanks very much! πŸ™‚ I’m glad you agree – everyone has, so far! We should all read what we want to – you are right πŸ˜€

  8. Interesting post! I agree that it isn’t really a genre although it tends to be perceived as one more and more. If a book is tagged as literary fiction it’s usually done so by the publishers to try and attract more readers but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is higher quality. You have certainly made me think and I’ll be looking out more for this term whenever I browse books!

    1. Thank you! πŸ™‚ I think you’re right, it is more of a publisher/agent/retailer label, more than the consumers might use.

  9. Great post! I agree literary fiction isn’t a genre, since you can find genre fiction which is also classified as literary fiction. However, after having thought about it, I decided that I don’t like that label and have stopped completely using it on my blog. First of all, it does have some sort of “elite” ring to it and secondly, I don’t think there is a clear definition and I certainly don’t want to judge whether a specific book is literary fiction or not.

    1. Thank you! πŸ™‚ I think your comments make a lot of sense! Genre is a problem by itself, because we expect certain kinds of book when they are labelled as such, yet if there were no labels at all then it wouldn’t be helpful either. I agree about the elitism, it is suggesting that some books are more worthy than others and that only people of certain backgrounds/iintellects would enjoy them. I think everything written is literature but I am still confused as to not everything being ‘literary’.

  10. I have never noticed a Literary Fiction section in my local library so it’s not a particularly useful category. I guess if it ends up in the Booker longlist then it qualifies as Literature πŸ˜‰

    1. Yes, literary fiction would end up in the general fiction section. Aha yes, everything on the longlist must be literature or it is not worth reading πŸ˜€

  11. Oh I love this discussion! I consider literary fiction as more of a sub-genre, second to the actual content of the book (e.g. whether it is a mystery or historical etc). While these books are thought-provoking and there are many that I really like, I struggle to buy in to the theory that they contain more literary merit than commercial fiction. It instead suggests a potential degree of snobbery within the industry.

    1. Thanks! Ha ha. Everyone has an opinion on this. Interesting that it could be a sub-genre. I agree that the content is the main thing, otherwise literary fiction is a meaningless label. You are right, the snobbery is a factor – and judging a book’s literary merit is really subjective.

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