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I keep hearing about literary fiction, and how it is so much better than genre fiction. What exactly is literary fiction?

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Could you edit the title to make it more specific? "What is literary fiction?" would be much better! –  jmfsg Nov 18 '10 at 20:47

8 Answers 8

up vote 5 down vote accepted

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?)

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So lots of metaphors make fiction less or more literary? Look at any romance novel for metaphors and similes up the... ahem. –  Neil Fein Nov 19 '10 at 0:17
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@neilfein: Hmmm...I see your point. It seems this problem needs more research to rate metaphors for literary value. I predict the final formula will have logarithms ;) –  Ash Nov 19 '10 at 0:28
    
Following your link "Literary fiction" sounds pretty boring ... –  John Smithers Nov 22 '10 at 12:35
    
So if it's not entertainment, then why are you reading it? :-P –  Nick Bedford Dec 16 '10 at 5:37
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@Nick Bedord To build character. –  Ethan Dec 17 '10 at 3:06

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.)

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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).

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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.

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-1. "Literary fiction" is not the same as "literature." –  Standback Jul 4 '11 at 11:56
    
@standback: I haven't been to this site in months. Thank you for reminding me why. Nice to see things are so exciting that you have time to be pedantic on an 8 month old question. –  Satanicpuppy Jul 4 '11 at 14:51
    
Heh :) There's actually some really good questions a few months back, that I think could do with better answers then they've got. I didn't mean to be pedantic; defining litfic (and by extension, its distinction from literature, which is basically "books that are good") is the topic of the question. But before I'd had my answer posted with my own contributions, I could see how the offhand disagreement might have seemed... unhelpful. –  Standback Jul 4 '11 at 18:06

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.

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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:

Cormac Macarthy
Chuck Palahniuk
Don DeLillo
Alice Walker

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BAHAHAHA!!!!! This is actually the definition I've always used! I'm not alone! –  kitukwfyer Jul 6 '11 at 13:57

Here's the money quote from a good article on the subject:

In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character and tends to be multilayered stories which wrestle with universal dilemmas rather than with plot. They usually provoke the readers beliefs and thoughts, often with an outcome of changing or altering their audiences outlook on life. More often than not, literary fiction addresses what might be considered more serious issues to uncover a truth bringing its audience; by the way of the main character; to a deeper understanding about life.

(...) Most of these books are character centred rather than plot oriented; looking at the human condition and provoking the reader into some sort of change.

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:

  • Literary fiction often eschews dramatic plot, viewing it as unrealistic, contrived (even if brilliantly so...), and/or as being a "cheap" way of generating excitement. It's less that nothing exciting happens, and more that events don't all occur along a clear dramatic structure; the events don't tie together neatly and with clear purpose, except to advance the more subtle theme and character examination.
  • Focus is generally on examination of a theme, powerful portrayal, and offering new insight.
  • Literary fiction generally makes little attempt to entertain. It relies strongly on the reader's active interest in the theme, the portrayal, the insights, etc., and his willingness to bear with the author in order to understand what the author is trying to convey. The reader's interest in the story is aided primarily by the strength and power of the writing, and by very little else.
  • Literary fiction generally is difficult to attribute to a particular genere - that is, they (almost always) aren't romances, or mysteries, or sitcoms. Science fiction has seen some interesting interplay with literary fiction - e.g. Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveller's Wife, which applies a literary-fiction approach to a classic SF trope. I suspect many other genres are more clearly distanced from it, because romances, mystery, horror, and other genres generally imply something about the plot of the story, suggesting a narrative structure that lit-fic would work poorly with.

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?

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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.

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