I keep hearing about literary fiction, and how it is so much better than genre fiction. What exactly is literary fiction?
There's always the good old wikipedia definition: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_fiction
My take on it that it is often used to mean "serious" fiction (whatever that is), as opposed to fiction that is merely "entertainment". It often seems to be thrown about in the context of snobbery (that is, someone may not "read that airport bookshop rubbish" because they like literary fiction), but I don't know if people really say those sorts of things, or if it's just the impression that the other side ("genre" people) think they might say.
It's just one of those terms that means different things to different people (as @neilfein's answer suggests).
(For a quantitative answer, how about: the average number of metaphors per paragraph?)
Here's the money quote from a good article on the subject:
This is a good summary, though I think it covers lit-fic's goals better than its commonplace achievements.
Though, like other genres and streams, there isn't a one-size-fits-all definition for literary fiction, here are some other common distinguishing characteristics:
At its worst, literary fiction can feel pretentious, deliberately oblique, and ultimately pointless. At its best, it can be subtle, deep, and provoking, in ways that most popular fiction simply can't reach.
And as a parting shot, here's another good article: What Is Literary Fiction?
In the sense you mean, it probably stands for general fiction, i.e. not romances, science-fiction, or mysteries. (Fiction that is "literary".) There's a lot of genre fiction that has excellent character development, but like anything else, the vast majority of anything is usually pretty bad. It may have other meanings as well. An agent I know uses this term "literary fiction" to refer to anything she handles that's not non-fiction. (Including graphic novels.)
To me, LitFic is fiction that is not a "page turner" (i.e. a story with only very direct surface themes, that gets you to the next page via suspense, but doesn't make you think about anything outside the context of the book itself), and is written to have serious shelf life (i.e. is both relevant and understandable to future generations).
LitFic can also be genre fiction (some of Heinlein's work comes to mind, scifi but definitely LitFic), but isn't usually (it's harder for genre fiction to remain relevant to a wide audience over time).
In addition to +1ing a couple other answers, I'd add:
It seems to me that the breakdown of fiction into genres (including "literary") is an imperfect system that mostly serves commercial needs. Someone might read Twilight and go into a bookstore looking for something similar. The booksellers want to make that process as easy as possible, and to do that they need to make bets on what "similar" means.
So they might stick it with other books intended for a similar age group ("young adult fiction"), or books that have similar worlds, imagery, or themes ("fantasy/horror"), or even books that have a similar emotional tone ("romance").
When an author says they work within a specific genre, I interpret that as: "My work has deliberate commonalities with other books in this genre. Provided my writing is good enough, consumers who've read and enjoyed other works in this genre are also likely to enjoy my work. And by being explicit about the genre, it will be easier for booksellers to categorize and for consumers to locate."
All of that said, here's my joke about "genre" vs. "literary" fiction, based on an actual event:
Me: Where do you keep your horror?
Shopkeeper: It's with "fantasy/sci-fi".
Me: That's where I was looking, but I can't find the book. It's called House of Leaves.
Shopkeeper: Oh, good horror is under "literature".
Me: [blank stare]
It's an imperfect system, like any broad approach to categorization of complex works, but it seems to be the best we've got. As others have observed, many books considered "literary fiction" could also fall into other genre categories, and it's generally the style that overrides those other categories.
That, again, is the bookseller's bet: That the quality of House of Leaves* which engaged me was the style, and not the haunted house theme or the mood of suspense/mystery/horror.
*Just an example. If you hated House of Leaves, feel free to substitute your favorite genre-spanning book.
I would say that it is fiction written in an elevated style. Note, by "elevated" I do not mean necessarily superiour. Heinlein was mentioned above, and he falls into a second category: books that transcend their time period. If you write crappy genre fiction, and people are still reading it 200 years later, it magically becomes literature (just ask Alexandre Dumas).
The particular subject doesn't really matter very much. Most people would place obvious sci-fi like Farenheit 451 and 1984 in the category of literature. Likewise more modern and geeky literary fiction like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are classed as literature solely because of style, not subject. A good number of postmodernists write novels that would fit into scifi or fantasy (like David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest or Thomas Pynchon with Gravities Rainbow or Mason and Dixon(1)) but you won't ever find them there because the style doesn't fit.
Like it or not, most genre fiction, be it romance, or thrillers, or scifi, or fantasy...It's written plainly, without a lot of embellishment. There are exceptions, of course, like when Steven Brust got stuck in French Romance mode for 10 years, but other than that...
1) Psychics and talking dogs respectively, are fantasy. Even if the dogs speak poetry.
Literary fiction is fiction you read so you can brag about having read it. If it ain't raining, you ain't training. If you aren't getting flak, you aren't over the target. And if you're enjoying a book, it isn't literary fiction.
Some famous literary fictionists who are actually terrible writers:
I think the wikipedia definition gets quite close to the essence. Additionally, you might think about the type of fiction meant to have an aesthetic value/quality, that is what literary fiction hopes to achieve in my view.
I think it is a mistake to try to define literary fiction in terms of themes, language, or the primacy of plot vs character. I would suggest that it can be better understood in terms of the pleasure it gives.
Stories can give different kinds of pleasure. Some provide vicarious adventure (you want to pretend you are a spy or a mountain climber). Some provide wish fulfilment (you want to get the girl or win the battle). Some provide immersion in a subject of interest (you will read anything about horses). Some provide confirmation of our biases and prejudices. Some flatter our egos and make us think we are insightful or cool or wise. Some provide genuine insight into the human condition.
There is nothing wrong with any of these pleasures (given reasonable proportion). But they are very different pleasures and we may seek each of them at different times. Works that, in addition to whatever other pleasures they provide, give genuine insight into the human condition tend to last a long time and we call them literature. (Insight here does not mean the statement of a psychological truth or diagnosis, but rather a recognition of something genuinely human in the circumstances of the story itself. It is an experience, not a proposition.)
Some works of literature can also be rip snorting adventures or taut thrillers. (Think of Dickens or Joseph Conrad.) There is no limit on either the subject matter or the use of language for a work of literature. It is the type of pleasure and the type of insight it provides that defines it as such.
As a commercial genre, literary fiction refers to works that attempt or claim to provide this kind of insight. Since works of genuine literature are rare, most literary fiction does not provide the pleasure of genuine insight. It may, however, provide the pleasure of confirming prejudices or flattering our belief in our own insightfulness or sophistication.
What makes genre fiction genre is similarly not its subject matter but the class of pleasure it intends to provide. A genre is defined not only by subject matter but by a specific formula designed to reliably provide a certain kind of pleasure to the reader. Many stories involve romance, but a romance novel promises a much more specific formula calibrated to provide a very specific type of pleasure. Not all stories set in the west are westerns. Not all stories set in the past are genre historical fiction. Not all stories set in space are sci fi.
It is possible (though rare) for a work to transcend its genre and also qualify as literature. (Raymond Chandler might qualify here.)
Works of general fiction are those that do not attempt to follow the conventions of a genre, no matter their subject matter. (In some sense, literary fiction is also a genre, in that it follows a formula designed to deliver a particular kind of pleasure.) Some small part of general fiction rises to the level of genuine literature.
If it is bound in hardcover, reviewed in a respected publication, written by someone with an MFA in English, or assigned as required reading in a college course, it's literary fiction. Literary fiction is prestigious, and generally assumed to be read by a wealthier, more highly educated audience, as opposed to genre fiction, which is issued in mass market paperbacks, and is assumed to follow the formulaic conventions of a genre such as romance, science fiction, horror or mystery. Literary fiction is aimed at posterity, while genre fiction is disposable and interchangeable --at least in theory.
In practice, some of the best respected classics began life as genre fiction, while many celebrated or uncelebrated works of literary fiction are quickly forgotten. It's perhaps best to conceive it, therefore, as primarily a marketing designation, aimed at helping books reach their most receptive audience.