One of the trickiest parts of being a writer, at least at first, is trying to decide where in the world of publishing you ‘fit’. Trying to figure out what genre you’re writing can be one of the most difficult parts of solidifying your pitch to agents.
In this article, I will be explaining what literary fiction is, how it’s different to commercial and genre fiction, and why it’s important that as writers we know the difference.
What Is Literary Fiction?
One of the questions that crops up time and time again is ‘What is the difference between commercial fiction, genre fiction, and literary fiction?’
Before writing this article, I asked a few people that very question. I didn’t ask writers, because we have answers for everything, I asked readers. Could they tell the difference?
Other than knowing that many literary fiction books find their way into the Booker Prize list, and some readers saying, ‘well literary fiction books are those high brow ones that get featured in the Sunday Times’ it’s clear most people haven’t a clue what it takes for a book to go from genre fiction to being classed as ‘literary.’ The truth is, genres in fiction can be tricky to define, and literary fiction tends to be one of the most difficult for readers and new writers to wrap their heads around.
So let’s delve deeper…
Literary Fiction: Definition
Let’s start with the basics, how do you define literary fiction?
Although for most people, literary fiction may be described as ‘those classic books they make you study at college and university’ – while that may be true in some aspects, literary fiction is so much more than long painful prose, convoluted metaphors, slow narrative and a slathering of symbolism.
If you are looking for a clear-cut definition, the closest you will get is ‘literary fiction is a category of novels that put emphasis on style, character and theme over plot.’ Whereas commercial fiction is generally ‘the easy-to-read stuff that sells’ (think of the kind of books you see in a supermarket or airport); and genre fiction is heavy on style (think romance, sci-fi, horror etc); literary fiction tends to focus on bigger themes, a more serious prose style, and deeper characterisation.
But is that all there is to it?
What Are The Characteristics Of Literary Fiction?
With an ever-changing publishing industry, the definition of literary fiction can change year on year.
Overall, if your work falls within the bullet points below, you may find your book fits somewhere within the literary fiction genre. Does this sound like your novel?
- Exploration of deeper themes
- Exploration of social, political or emotional situations
- Potential ambiguous ending / not necessarily a ‘Happy Ever After’
- No strict adherence to a structured plot formula
- No strict adherence to standard formatting or prose style (ie no speech marks)
- Rooted in reality
However, to really understand what literary fiction is we must get a better understanding of what it is not.
Literary Fiction Vs Genre Fiction
Genre fiction by definition is popular or commercial fiction rooted in a specific genre. The reason it’s important to define the difference between literary and genre fiction is that literary fiction can also be seen as genre fiction. Each literary book can be classed into a genre, but how the book is written is what defines it as literary rather than commercial. To understand fully, we need to break down a few of these characteristics into more detail.
Literary fiction puts an emphasis on character, style, and theme, whereas genre and commercial fiction will almost always prioritise plot. That seems simple enough, right? Ok. So we have a broad understanding, now to get to the nitty-gritty of the detail.
Expected Tropes Vs Character Development Through Social Exploration
Commercial fiction tends to work with accepted and expected tropes, whereas literary fiction digs deep and often asks uncomfortable questions surrounding moral, social or even political situations, and how those, in turn, create or affect complex and intricate characters. Those characters then become how we see the world in a different way, through their eyes, exploring themes determined by the author. The characters are the catalyst and mechanism with which we explore complex situations.
Character development is key to any great work of fiction, but as genre fiction relies on being heavily plot-driven and more of a focus is heaped on moving the story forward, it leaves little room to delve deep into the character’s mindset. With literary fiction, much more emphasis is put on the character’s motivation…even if not a lot actually happens.
Morally Questionable Characters
Essentially what we are exploring here is the difference between likeable protagonists and morally grey characters.
In commercial or genre fiction, the protagonist is almost always someone you can relate to, love, and cheer on throughout the book. Even if they are a little flawed, you ultimately want them to get their happy ever after.
In literary fiction, you are much more likely to come across characters that challenge your preconceptions. Morally grey characters allow you to get absorbed in their inner thoughts and motivations. Take, for instance, Normal People by Sally Rooney. As a contemporary example of literary fiction, in this novel Rooney focuses less on the twists and turns that the plot could have taken her in, and instead digs into the relationships within the novel, exploring motivation and flaws as central themes.
Loving the main characters in this novel is not what Rooney needs from you. She wants you to question them, be angry and frustrated with them in the same way we would be in real life.
With young protagonists Marianne and Connell at its heart, you would expect this novel to sit on the shelves next to other YA novels. But the themes, tone and style of it mean that this complex novel about two young teenagers embarking on an emotional relationship is much more than a simple coming of age novel. Rooney expertly picks apart the fundamentals of relationships, examines darker themes such as depression, and does so in a style that is certainly not suited to the average 14-year-old reader. This is a book about being a teenager, but it is very much for the teenagers inside of us adults. While exploring themes such as sexuality and identity is often a main staple of the YA genre, exploring it in the way Rooney does with such complexity requires a deeper understanding of the human mind. She has taken a traditionally YA theme (coming of age) and delved deeper, written grittier, and explored the darkness of those themes to create a strong representation of literary fiction.
Focus On Style And Theme
Style and theme are prominent characteristics of literary fiction. It’s widely accepted that literary fiction tends to inspire longer, flowery, and complicated prose, such as in the works of James Joyce. Others may determine literary fiction as heavily themed, for example, in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Both examples are, of course, correct. Both fall under the literary fiction genre, but many paint literary fiction with the tag ‘highbrow’ or ‘complicated to follow’. Flowery prose is not the dominating definition for modern literary fiction. Instead, its defining feature tends to be the impact the story and its characters have on the reader and the ability it has to translate a complicated or sensitive subject to a reader. After all, in this genre, themes are explored in depth.
The conversation surrounding themes often creates controversy when trying to define a book in this genre. Take, for instance, the example of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Widely regarded as a dystopian novel, many questioned why The Hunger Games was not considered literary, after all, the trilogy really focused on themes such as social inequality. However, younger protagonists gave the story a coming of age theme, which complicated matters, as did the incredibly well-drawn dystopian world. Therefore, it was categorised as genre fiction – namely YA dystopian.
Tone And Internal Conflict
Tone is the next aspect of literary fiction that sets it apart. Most literary fiction novels tend to be much more introspective in the way they deliver tone, and it is almost always realistic. For that reason, internal conflict drives the plot. Again, it’s the characters driving the plot rather than the plot revealing the character.
Take Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Her debut is a great example of a novel that puts tone and character ahead of plot. Essentially, the novel is about Kya, the ‘Marsh Girl’ from a small town in North Carolina. The whole story revolves around the mystery that surrounds her and how she raised herself when her family abandoned her at a young age. The plot itself is basic, but the themes are anything but. Owens explores the impact of trauma, isolation and the lasting damage of abandonment, but she does this using the most beautifully written characters and by exploring setting in a way that truly draws the reader in. Her observations of loneliness have found a home with readers who relate, and the tone with which she writes creates a space for the novel to breathe and be explored with space and understanding.
Take this quote for example:
“The marsh did not confine them but defined them and, like any sacred ground, kept their secrets deep.”Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Simple words, short sentence structure but packed with emotion. This is literary fiction; simplicity and complexity can be just as powerful as long flowery prose.
The Happy Ever After…
As mentioned already, literary fiction tends to be more realistic, so it would follow that a happy ever after is not always the outcome in the same way that we tend to expect in genre fiction. Authors of literary fiction want you to have more questions at the end of the book than answers. They want you to think long and hard about the themes explored.
So, nine times out of ten you will not find the story wrapped up neatly with a bow, instead, you may find yourself left hanging and therefore contemplating these characters for weeks to come.
Take, for example, Life Of Pi by Yann Martel. Mr Okamoto and Mr Chiba ask Pi to tell them what happened to him and ask for as much detail as possible. Pi does exactly that, but when he is not believed he begrudgingly tells a shorter version. The reader is forced to decide what version they themselves believe. Martel is forcing us to consider the difference between knowledge and belief. To really evaluate the difference between, and the importance of, both faith and doubt, facts and fiction, and what we believe vs what we expect to hear. It’s not tied up with a pretty little bow at the end, instead, we are forced to decide for ourselves which version we want to believe.
The Exceptions To The ‘Rules’
Of course, not all literary fiction follows the rules. We are writers after all, and we like nothing more than finding barriers and tearing them down. Not all literary fiction has to follow a flawed, sad and introspective character. Not every person on the page has long rambling inner monologues that question every aspect of life. Literary fiction can be fantastical, magical, even incredibly romantic, just like real life. It just needs to explore aspects of human nature and the world around us in a way that makes us question, think deeper, and look harder at those around us.
My favourite example of a recently published literary fiction novel that absolutely hits the nail on the head in this regard is Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. There is very little about the book itself that is ‘realistic’ in the traditional sense, but Clarke uses the setting to deeply explore themes that hit right at the centre of our human consciousness.
Readers Of Literary Fiction Expect To Be Surprised
Authors of this genre embrace the fact that readers of literary fiction like to be challenged. They know the readers aren’t looking to pick up an ‘easy read’, so the authors of this genre push those boundaries. It allows them to take themes that would be explored at the surface level in more traditional commercial fiction and really dig deep. Also, because literary fiction is generally a slower pace, the expectation for authors to hit the ground running is eliminated. They can take their time, paint the detail, explore the flaws and cracks along the way, in a way that commercial fiction can’t. Readers of literary fiction are ‘slow burner’ readers, and authors of this genre embrace that fully.
Examples Of Literary Fiction
Now we know what literary fiction is, and the difference between literary and genre fiction, here are some examples of more literary fiction (from both the past and present-day).
To Kill A Mockingbird By Harper Lee
The plot of this groundbreaking novel is really quite simple. Atticus is asked to defend Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. It’s a very simple plot that allows Harper Lee to explore some of the deepest themes in literary fiction. Racial prejudice, loss of innocence, the fight between good and evil, justice vs the law, and even the lack of trust in institutions. This incredibly deep and affecting novel explores these themes, not through the drive of the plot, but through the depth of character.
The Kite Runner By Khaled Hosseini
In this novel, Amir, a Sunni Muslim, struggles to find his place in a complicated new world following traumatic childhood events. Some of the main themes explored are betrayal, violence and rape, politics, violent regimes, and religion.
The Colour Purple By Alice Walker
In The Colour Purple, Celie, an African American teenager, born and raised in Georgia, narrates her life through painfully honest letters to God as she navigates a difficult and often abusive life in the early 1900s. The main themes explored here are race, religion, gender roles, violence and suffering, and self-discovery.
Atonement By Ian McEwan
Atonement is about young lovers Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner, who are torn apart by a lie told by Cecilia’s younger sister. The novel explores the fallout for all involved. The main themes explored are guilt, perspective (and how each person’s individual views can shape their own reality), class, and loss of innocence.
White Teeth By Zadie Smith
In White Teeth, Archie Jones is attempting to take his own life, but a chance interruption causes him to change his mind. The main themes are racism, female independence, and the importance of family ties and identity.
The Great Gatsby By Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby is narrated by Nick Carraway, and from his perspective, we follow events as Jay Gatsby, a self-made millionaire pursues the love of his youth, Daisy Buchanan. The main themes explored here are love, power, class, and the great ‘American Dream’.
Writing Literary Fiction
Would you have classed these examples as literary fiction? Are there any books you have read recently that you feel fit snugly into the literary fiction bracket? Or, more controversially, are there any that you have recently read that you think should be described as literary fiction and weren’t?
Although often thought of as ‘serious’ fiction, and often discussed as the ‘snobby side of publishing’, literary fiction is a genre much like any other. It follows its own rules, has its own readership and knows how to satisfy the needs of those readers.
I hope this article has helped you define your own work. Perhaps it has even encouraged you to adjust your plot and themes or go deeper with your characters – all of which will help you create a clearer distinction between genres. Because without knowing what you are writing, it’s a lot harder to know who you are writing it for and communicate that with any future agent or readers. So choose wisely and enjoy!
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