What is Literary Fiction?

What is literary fiction

What type of fiction do you write?

Depending on who you ask, fiction can be broken into two categories: Genre and literary. However, not everyone supports the idea of literary fiction. For this group, fiction can be separated into two camps: Good fiction and bad fiction which, of course, relies on the reader’s opinion.

You’ll find that’s also the case when it comes to literary fiction. Although we’ll attempt to break down the differences between genre and literary fiction in this post, keep in mind that the lines between the two can and often do blur.

Let’s kick things off by defining the characteristics of genre fiction and then literary fiction.

Download this free resource to go along with this post: How Genre Fiction Writers Can Benefit From Literary Fiction

What are the Characteristics of Genre Fiction?

Genre Fiction Appeals to the Masses

Genre fiction is also known as popular fiction— and that’s for a good reason. Genre fiction is more appealing to a wider audience. It’s written for the mainstream reader, especially those who are already fans of a specific subset of fiction (a.k.a. genre). Many readers gravitate to a particular genre, such as mystery, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, young adult, action, history, and so on. Genre fiction gives the fan access to their favorite type of storytelling.

Genre Fiction Follows a Specific Formula

What is literary fiction

Books that belong to a genre must follow the rules of that specific drama. A sci-fi story must contain advanced technology. Young adult must focus on a coming of age story and often uses a protagonist aged between 12 to 18. Romances must feature a love story.

Of course, as the writer, you can do whatever you choose, but just know that the reader of that genre comes in with basic expectations, and it wouldn’t be the best idea to ignore those expectations. If you do, then congratulations! You’re venturing into literary fiction (but more on that later).

Genre Fiction Uses Conventional Storytelling

Piggybacking off the last point, genre fiction keeps to a loose script. It also follows the predictable ebb and flow of conventional storytelling. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back.

Another way to think about it is to remember the basic plot diagram of a story:

Genre fiction stories start off with exposition that is interrupted by conflict. Rising action follows until the climax of the story followed by falling action and a satisfying resolution.

Genre Fiction is Entertaining

While not all genre fiction stories can be deemed as such, most of them fall into the category of fun escapism. That is, they provide an entertaining adventure that helps the reader forget about their own cares.

Genre Fiction is Plot-Driven

Because they must abide by a certain formula, most genre fiction stories are hopelessly plot-driven. Sure, they contain interesting characters, some of which the reader may fall in love with or hate to the core, but the plot is always in the driver’s seat. That plot, dictated by the genre, might be a love story, or it may be a whodunit, but it’s always the most important factor in the story.

Genre Fiction Often Features a Happy Ending

And they lived happily ever after… Or at least until the next book in the series comes out.

One of the most poignant characteristics of genre fiction is a tidy ending where burning questions are answered and the characters relax into their new normal. Most popular fiction resolves with a happy ending because the readers demand such.

Genre Fiction is Easier to Sell

It’s called popular fiction for a reason. Genre fiction is an easier sell. Fans of a specific genre are often drawn to reading more books that tell the same type of story. They’re always on the lookout for different interpretations of that basic story.

To Sum It Up

In a nutshell, genre fiction is considered popcorn for the soul. It may not be earth-shattering literature, but at the same time, the stories presented in genre fiction can be inventive, spellbinding, and beautifully done.

Does genre fiction have merit? Certainly! However, genre fiction is less likely to win prestigious literary awards or appeal to book snobs.

What are the Characteristics of Literary Fiction

Literary Fiction Doesn’t Follow a Formula

Unlike genre fiction, which follows a loose but predictable narrative, literary fiction doesn’t adhere to any rules. Anything can happen which can be both exciting and unnerving for the reader. Sometimes, literary fiction takes a common theme in genre fiction and turns it on its head. For example, the idea of good overcoming evil is challenged in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

As a side note, Nineteen Eighty-Four walks a fine line between literary fiction and genre fiction as David Barnett points on in this article for the Guardian. What we now consider classic literary fiction was often viewed as genre fiction by its contemporary critics.

Literary Fiction Uses Creative Storytelling

Because literary fiction isn’t bound to the strict standards of a specific sub-genre, every author is free to make up their own rules as they go along. The reader is never quite sure where the adventure will take them.

Free from rules, the literary fiction writer is able to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable and sometimes the results are extraordinary. See Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Written in the second person, this postmodernist metafiction is about your attempt to read a novel. However, you’re constantly prevented from doing so. It’s not very often that you can read a novel about you reading a novel.

Literary Fiction Explores the Human Condition

While genre fiction (as a whole) seeks to distract the reader through light entertainment, literary fiction is much more introspective in its objective. Literary fiction as a whole wants to make sense of the world around us by exploring the human condition.

An example of this is Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, which is a haunting tale of India in the 1970s and 1980s. Through the lives of four principal characters, Mistry explores the simple hopes and palpable misery that we teeter between in this life. Although I read the book years ago, those characters are still with me, and that’s one of the hallmarks of literary fiction— the ability to create memorable characters. Because genre fiction is so focused on plot, it can’t compete with the intense character studies contained within a work of literary fiction.

Literary Fiction May Be Difficult to Read

Stories that explore the human condition aren’t exactly fun reads. By nature, they have to deal with a difficult subject matter with unflinching honesty. It can be a tad uncomfortable to think about these issues when you, as the reader, simply want to escape.

Literary fiction may rely on symbolism or allegory to convey a deeper meaning. There’s almost always a deeper takeaway than the story itself reveals.

Literary Fiction is Character-Focused

While genre fiction is inextricably tied to the plot, literary fiction has the same relationship with the character. The characters must be explored and defined and the impetus that moves the story forward. Literary fiction doesn’t just show the characters in action, it also shows how every action changes the character.

Literary Fiction Often Has an Ambiguous Ending

In literary fiction, endings are usually sad, abrupt, or left up to your interpretation. Sometimes, nothing is resolved, which leaves the reader desperate to find meaning in it all.

Literary Fiction is Award-Friendly

You know how those artsy movies (that no one’s ever heard of) end up getting awards and accolades? Then, because it’s so celebrated, you end up seeing the movie, only to realize that you would’ve preferred watching the latest Thor movie?

That describes a lot of literary fiction. Because it often pushes boundaries and employs a unique perspective, works of literary fiction get more awards. Critics love that kind of thing. However, receiving an award doesn’t necessarily mean that the book is worth your time or money. As with all things art, creative genius is in the eye of the beholder.

To Sum it Up

If genre fiction is popcorn, does that make literary fiction more serious and substantive?

Not necessarily. Literary fiction provides a fresh way to tell stories and it ignores standard formulas. It stands alone and is not scared.

Final Thoughts

The term “literary fiction” is controversial and for good reason. As more “literary” writers venture into genre fiction, the lines of distinction have blurred. Sometimes, it’s not always clear. Perhaps, it is genre fiction that’s just pushing its own boundaries.

Or, maybe literary fiction is a genre all its own.

What are your thoughts? Do you write literary fiction? Or do you write genre fiction? Let us know in the comments below!

Even if you don’t have an interest in creating a literary genre, there are a few things you can learn from it. Before you go, be sure to download this additional resource: How Genre Fiction Writers Can Benefit From Literary Fiction.

 

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25 Comments

J.C. Kersh

Interesting read. I didn’t even know there was a difference or even heard of literary fiction.

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Patricia Greene

The fiction description ‘upmarket’ is used a lot these days and seems to be a category somewhere between genre and literary. How about an article about all the descriptions? Are there others we should pay attention to?

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Derek L. Hastings

If your description of the differences between Genre and Literary fiction holds true, then how deep do you need to go in character development and unanticipated plot twists to qualify for Literary? I definitely feel as though I write Genre (Alt/Spec History…with a supernatural Christian overlay). But, I try to be as unpredictable as possible. Life is unpredictable. So shouldn’t a good story be as well? Perhaps it has more to do with who is writing the story. Is the author a tenured English Professor, academic, or English Department Wunderkind? Perhaps the Book Snobs/English Department Snobs have defined the Literary Genre (yes I think there is a separate genre) to fit their idea of the art of writing? I am an ex-theater (theatre for the theatre snobs) major, ex-Coast Guard Officer, and now CFP. I depend heavily upon my editor because I know what I don’t know which is an expert grasp on English. But, I do have an imagination and can tell a story. All this to say I think good Genre writing can be as well put together as Literary writing. Who knows; maybe the next Winston Smith can be as fun to read about as Doc Savage.

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Vinoda Revannasiddaiah

I write literary fiction-I’m clear after I read your classification .Thanks.You’ve helped me like so many times before!

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Turcotte Jean-Pierre

I read lots of genre fiction but I’m in the process of writing a ‘thriller’ outlined by a the archetype trickster’s plan.

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Dennis Fleming

I’m writing my first novel, a police procedural based on characters in my memoir. Most of my favorite novels are literary. I just finished Lincoln in the Bardo. Loved it. My focus is on my character, a woman conflicted over her inability to fully embrace/love her autistic daughter. So, I worry that when my story is finished it won’t be genre enough to be genre fiction and it won’t be literary enough to be literary fiction. I’ve heard the term upmarket fiction as work that lives in this gray zone. I’m 75% to a first draft.

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Ann

Interesting article. The book I’ve just finished writing falls seems to bridge the two genres. The article was well written and I saw clearly how my own book fell into both categories.

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Diana Patterson

What do you do when you write a big idea memoir and people think it’s literary fiction? When you say it’s true, then they wish they didn’t know you. Not because you suddenly become unfavorable but because they cannot connect the dots. Who you were and who you are now…

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Carol Malthaner

Thanks, this will be helpful for my writing group that consists of writers of various “types” – bloggers, short story writers, novelists, memoir, creative non-fiction. We have learned that we, as individual writers, must not critique another’s writing based on the type of writing that we do personally. For example, a novelist who tends to try to expand ideas, explore tangents, etc. needs to set those goals aside when critiquing a blog entry for which there may be a word limit. After reading this post, I realize that even novel writers need to to decide what their goals are and let the rest of us know so that we do not tell a writer of genre fiction that that their story seems too plot driven or tell a literary fiction writer that that their story gets bogged down with character development.

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Stephen

I’ve never known exactly where my writing falls. How would you classify Maeve Binchy’s novels? They are literary by your definition but considered genre. My writing is quite similar to Binchy’s in terms of character and themes.

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Robert Brink

“Young adult must focus on a coming of age story and often uses a protagonist aged between 12 to 18.”
Puh-leeze!. This is bad from anyone, but a writing expert? I ordinarily go through the roof when I read that grammatical faux pas, but head to the moon when a literary expert does it. You can’t have “between … to.” It doesn’t make sense. Doesn’t it hit your ears like a thumbnail dragged across a chalkboard? It’s “between … and,” obviously.
Oy oy oy (and I’m not even Jewish).

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Gene Brignola

Thanks for the information. I wasn’t sure which avenue my books fit, but now I have a better idea.
Literary fiction, seem to be where my books best fit.
“RIGHT UNDER YOUR NOSE”, Sex Drugs Rock and Roll.

A truly must read book.
It will “BLOW ONES MIND.” — Richard Atkins
Graduate of the University Of Pennsylvania Law School (J.D.), maintaining a law practice in Philadelphia
for the last forty years. Co-founded International Legal Defense Counsel (“ILDC”).

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Pearl Rodgers

I just complete my second novel to me it’s SCI-FI i didn’t realize there was a difference gen-for fiction novel thanks for the info .What GEN consider a thriller novel

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Andrew Sorenson

This is a fantastic article. As an author in both camps, this topic never ceases to pique my interests. When we set out to write something new, we want to be hailed as “genre-defying” by critics. In my experience, genre fiction is written to entertain, whereas literary fiction is written to enrich.

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Cara

I am a Genre writer that is required to abandon any and all genre in order to write literary fiction for a class. I am at a loss as to what I should do I could really use some pointers on how to write literary fiction or come up with a subject for literary fiction as I am unsure of what to write about in the absence of anything genre.

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batmansbestfriend

I usually look at it this way:

If there is a clearly defined character X must sole problem Z and the book is focused on how character X does that more than anything else then it’s genre fiction. If you can clearly define what the character does to solve or achieve something then it’s genre. Otherwise it’s either literary or just poorly written genre. Sometimes you have a genre novel so poorly written you have no idea what’s going on, that’s a thing. But if it’s not genre fiction it’s literary. Are you reading about people solving a problem or are you reading about people changing and growing. True, you could be reading about both, but…if you cannot remove the objective based plot without the entire story falling apart then it’s genre fiction…if you cannot remove the character growth without the entire thing falling apart then it’s genre fiction. Sure, some genre fiction has character growth that without which the story would be less enjoyable or entrtaining that it is, but if the plot is largely unaffected and can still be told (although slightly differently) then it’s genre fiction. If there is an objective based plot and it can be removed and the character growth can still stand up on it’s own (although slightly differently) then it’s literary fiction. If the objective based plot is just a mechanism for character growth and any plot could do the same thing then it’s literary. If the character growth is just a side effect of the objective based plot then it’s genre.

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WHICH BOOK BOX? – Reading In Heels

[…] Reading in Heels focuses on modern literary fiction. What do we mean by that? Here’s a helpful article all about the difference between literary fiction and genre […]

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Sarah

If I may extend the food analogy: only badly written literary fiction explores purely what makes you uncomfortable. What I prefer is a kind of middle between genre and literary:

If genre fiction is popcorn, I don’t want to give my readers a charred hamburger: I want them to have a taste of Chicken Tikki Masala, and Penang Curry.

This delicate approach to flavor, is what I look for as both a reader and a writer.

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Don Edwards

After reading the descriptions in the article, I’d have to say that at least 80% of the fiction I’ve read is literary fiction. You know, from critically-well-regarded but otherwise-never-heard-of authors like Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Joel Roberson, Piers Anthony, J.R.R.Tolkien, James Michener, Cornelius Ryan…

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Don Edwards

Correction: Joel Rosenberg, not Roberson

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Marilyn Lanier

Your points that LF “often has an ambiguous ending..endings are usually sad, abrupt, or left up to your interpretation..and sometimes nothing is resolved.” resonates strongly with my own experience in writing my first novel, Hardpan. Some readers complained about how I ended my story in this way, and yet, that’s what I intended. I’m happy to learn my approach is an acceptable one after all!

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K.N.

I didn’t know I was a literary writer until I actually spoke with some publishers who reviewed my work. I wasn’t following the rules of the genre and they kept trying to shove me into a formula that wasn’t authentic to my writing. I am more interested in getting literary work publish than learning how to apply in to genre writing.

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Marilyn Linn

Marilyn Lanier, I completely understand your comment. Thank you for posting. My recently published novel, ‘Brianna and Kitty – Life is a bouncy Castle’, hangs on the edges of both Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction. I had trouble trying to classify the story.

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Enrique Casarrubia G.

Thanks for helping clarify my doubts!

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Enrique Casarrubia Gómez

Thanks for helping clarify my doubts! I can see now that the novel I’m working on is genre fiction.

Reply

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