What Is Literary Fiction?

What is Literary Fiction?

Literary Fiction is a category that’s often difficult to explain. Often thought of as “serious” fiction (and nearly exclusively novels), it’s easier to identify Literary Fiction by what it’s not. That is, it’s fiction that doesn’t fit in well-defined genres, like Thriller, Science Fiction, or Romance. Here’s how we define Literary Fiction, a look at its origins, and some popular types.

“Literary Fiction” Definition

The category of Literary Fiction is quite fluid and for the last few decades has easily overlapped with any number of genres. Even though its definition is a broad target, Literary Fiction definitely has characteristics of its own.

Whereas genre fiction from Romance to Dystopian Horror is plot-driven, Literary Fiction is character-driven. Any action in the story impacts the main character or characters, and understanding this impact is the whole point of telling the story. The overall tone of the book is introspective. Literary Fiction, then, is always a study of the human condition and often an exploration of difficult social or political issues that control our lives. For this reason, it’s generally considered more “serious” than genre fiction.

Another way to recognize Literary Fiction is by its story structure. Unlike, say, Thrillers or Science Fiction, Literary Fiction doesn’t follow a formula. A story arc may or may not be present, which also means that a satisfying ending is no guarantee. The line between hero and villain is often blurry, as is what they are trying to accomplish. And without a tidy plot to spell out every character’s motive, intangible details — metaphor, symbolism, or imagery, for example — play a larger role in telling the story.

The History of Literary Fiction

In many ways, the origins of Literary Fiction follow the origins of the novel. We can look at one of the earliest examples of a Western novel, Miguel de Cervantes’  The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (1605-1615), and see how a character, not the action, is the focus of the tale. Although adventures abound, the takeaway from the novel is their influence on Don Quixote’s psychological state over time.

Over the next 300 years, the novel emerges as a legitimately intellectual way for authors, readers, and critics to deal with contemporary social issues. Novels are now responsible for influencing politics, and their characters become symbols within a larger social or psychological conversation. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) gives us Ebenezer Scrooge, a name we use to describe someone who’s deeply damaged by their own greed. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s   Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), so inflames American attitudes toward slavery that it’s credited with being one of the sparks of the Civil War.

Modernism’s concerns with society and its effects on us as individuals are a standard of Literary Fiction by the late 1800s. By the early 1900s, Literary Fiction embraces Stream of Consciousness, taking us even deeper into the meditative, human experience. William Faulkner famously opens The Sound and the Fury (1929) by putting readers in the middle of one character, Benjy’s, thoughts. Without context or even a chronological story, we’re left to figure out the plot for ourselves.

After the horrors of WWII, Postmodern novels push the boundaries further. While characters still question the morality of the day, they also challenge the idea that truth or objective reality even exist. Think of Captain Yossarian’s struggle with the absurdity of free will in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), or how the women of Marilynne Robinson’s   Housekeeping (1980) decide what will and will not define them as a family.

Types of Literary Fiction

Character-driven stories, social and political themes, irreverence for storytelling norms — these elements set Literary Fiction apart.

Contemporary Literary Fiction deals with timely social issues or political moments. In Giovanni’s Room (1956), James Baldwin introduces readers to two men as they begin an affair, and their struggles to understand their sexual identities in the heady days of 1950s Paris. Saint X by Alex Schaitkin (2020) tells the story of a search for a murderer, a pursuit that quickly becomes complicated by the characters’ presumptions about race and class.

Realistic Literary Fiction includes coming-of-age stories and biographical novels. In J. D. Salinger’s classic coming-of-age novel, The Catcher in the Rye (1951), young Holden Caulfield grows wise to the hypocrisy of his prep-school life and chases authenticity in the streets of New York City. In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) by Julia Alvarez fictionalizes the lives of the four Mirabal sisters. Called “Las Mariposas,” the sisters plotted to overthrow the corrupt Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic, an act that got three of them assassinated.

Experimental Literary Fiction challenges storytelling conventions. Novels can be a mix of visual art, poetry, and stream-of-consciousness prose. Sometimes, the act of reading itself is a part of the story, making the reader self-conscious of what they’re bringing to the text. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) is essentially a comedic study of what entertains us, but the structure winds through hundreds of sub-plots and even more footnotes, all while never reaching a conclusion.

Philosophical Literary Fiction investigates life’s big questions, such as: What makes us human? What is love? How significant are we? What, if anything, matters? Fyodor Dostoevsky tackles the idea of Goodness in The Idiot (1869). Prince Myshkin is described as a “positively good and beautiful man” who is exposed to some of society’s greediest, most deceitful characters with horrible consequences. The Overstory (2018) by Richard Powers seeks to understand our place in the natural world. As a group of strangers battle to save a virgin forest, each of them questions why they care so much, and why the rest of society seems not to care at all.

Most of these types overlap with each other and with genre fiction, which easily veers out of its lane into Literary Fiction territory (Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic, The Handmaid’s Tale , is a good example). But if one universal theme could be applied, it’s this: No one has figured out the meaning of life, other than to acknowledge that there’s more than one way to live it.

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What is Literary Fiction? The Ultimate Guide in 2023

Literary fiction is a category of novels that emphasize style, character, and theme over plot. Lit fic is often defined in contrast to genre fiction and commercial fiction , which involve certain tropes and expectations for the storyline; literary fiction has no such plot-based hallmarks.

Though it's a tough category to define, you can certainly spot literary fiction once you know what you're looking for. Intrigued? In this short guide, we’ll unpack this elusive category and give you tips for writing with literary readers in mind.

Literary fiction is not a standalone genre

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You will rarely see novels marketed as ‘literary fiction’, or even shelved that way in a bookstore. This is because literary fiction still shares some features with genre and commercial fiction, though they’re presented more subtly in lit fic. But even when it’s shelved alongside commercial fiction, literary fiction has a few telltale signs, as you’ll soon see. 

It’s considered a prestige category

Literary fiction novels are often seen as prestige items in a publisher’s list: cutting-edge works of ‘serious fiction’ by artists of the written word. As a result, literary fiction — even from debut authors — will often get an initial hardback release. If you see a new hardcover on prominent display at the bookstore, it’s almost guaranteed to be literary fiction.

This strategy not only gives it a chance to be seen by plenty of devoted readers, it also increases the book’s chances of being reviewed. According to the editor of The Bookseller in 2018, some literary editors will only review novels launched in hardback .

Books in this category are also privy to publishing’s biggest prizes, such as the Booker Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. So if you see a sticker on the cover boasting that it’s been nominated for a prestigious award, you’re likely looking at a work of literary fiction.

Style and theme take priority

Another key quality of literary fiction is its attention to style, which in turn underscores major themes. Of course, when thinking of literary fiction, people tend to imagine ‘highbrow’ or difficult prose. This has led to generations of aspiring literary authors packing their prose with run-on sentences, florid metaphors, and other rhetorical bells and whistles. 

While this stereotype is certainly true of some novelists (James Joyce, for example, was no stranger to run-on sentences), many literary authors favor concise prose over fancy linguistic flourishes. Take it from George Orwell, who lived by the maxim “never use a complicated word when a simple one will do” — or Hemingway, whose famously lean prose has taught generations of writers that less is more. 

Basically, though you may associate literary fiction with insufferable purple prose , it doesn’t have to be that way. The defining feature of literary fiction isn’t one specific style of prose, but rather its impact on the reader, and its ability to deliver or embody the book’s theme.

literary fiction books meaning


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Themes are explored in depth

Indeed, literary fiction isn’t all style over substance: meaningful themes are just as important in this category. After all, what use is an interesting voice if you don’t have anything to say? 

Literary fiction commonly examines ‘serious’ concepts like politics, social issues, and psychological conflict. But what makes the themes in literary fiction stand apart from those in genre fiction is the level of detail and narrative weight they’re given.

For example, Orwell’s Animal Farm is defined by its commentary on political structures. The plot and characters are just small parts that build the novel’s overarching metaphor for the Russian Revolution, as seen through Orwell’s satirical lens. 

As you can probably guess, the level of nuance required to explore serious themes calls for a great deal of time and effort on the author’s part. After all, it’s not easy to have a strong take on a weighty topic, and (crucially) understand how impacted characters would think, feel, and react — so if you intend to write literary fiction with big themes, make sure you’ve thought deeply about the real-world consequences.

They often drill into a single theme

Now, one might argue that The Hunger Games also tackles serious themes of social inequality — so how come it’s not considered literary fiction? Well, because this dystopian novel more strongly foregrounds elements of romance, coming of age, and an action-packed plot. The social themes, in many ways, are garnishes rather than the main course. 

Literary Fiction | The Hunger Games

In short, genre fiction’s focus on story means that it will rarely explore themes in as much depth as literary fiction. This thematic intensity doesn't make literary fiction “better” than genre fiction, or vice-versa — it just goes to show that there are many different approaches out there to meet the varied needs of different readers.

Character studies are its bread and butter

While authors of genre fiction certainly can’t ignore character development , their equal (or greater) focus on plot gives them less opportunity to drill deep into a character’s inner life. What’s more, most genre fiction has a protagonist who is lovable by design.

Meanwhile, in literary fiction, you’re much more likely to encounter morally gray and flawed characters , and find yourself absorbed by their history and psyche. That’s not to say every character in this category is inherently evil, incredibly flawed, or unlikable — they're just far more likely to be approached in a more complex way that exposes their faults, thus giving you the tools to dissect them.

Take The Catcher in the Rye as an example. J.D. Salinger’s hero is Holden Caulfield, a seventeen-year-old boarding school drop-out. Holden isn’t necessarily likable — in fact, he often alienates others by judging superficial characteristics extremely critically — but readers are intrigued by the book’s psychological insights into his personality. Though Holden is quick to judge others, particularly those he views as “phony”, he’s far from perfect himself; this makes trying to understand his behavior even more compelling. 

Instead of making Holden likable, Salinger makes the reader empathize with him despite his personality and actions — something that’s arguably much harder to do as an author. This challenging, thought-provoking nature is a definite hallmark of literary fiction. 

literary fiction books meaning

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The tone is often realistic and introspective

What do Of Mice and Men, Mrs Dalloway, The Remains of the Day have in common besides their dark elements and focus on longing? While none of these books would be mistaken for nonfiction , they are all grounded in a certain realism — their writers have taken special care in exploring the emotions and reactions of their characters in very specific settings.

Considering this, it won’t surprise you that literary fiction tends to rely on internal conflict of a character to drive the plot. In Of Mice and Men, for example, migrant farm worker George Milton is torn between his survival instincts and his loyalty to his simple (yet dangerous) friend, Lenny. While the novel arguably does have a villain — the landowner’s cruel son — the story’s true conflict takes place in George’s mind.

Literary Fiction | Of Mice and Men

You might also look to Mrs Dalloway as a good example of realistic introspection. In this book, readers follow a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, culminating in her finally reconciling herself with life in the present — despite her strong attachments to the past.

The Remains of the Day creates a similar air of realism by exploring the human psyche: we follow the butler of a grand English estate as he comes to terms with how his unhealthy devotion to his work, subsequent repression, and his fears of intimacy have held him back for years. 

It’s about the journey

But while the resolutions of all these stories may be melancholy and uncertain, sad endings alone don’t make them lit fic — it’s about the characters’ journeys to get there.

Good literary fiction feels so real because there isn’t that certainty of a happily ever after. After this, the characters will continue on their journey, and readers can only imagine where they might go. They want to wonder what will happen to the characters based on what they’ve learned through the story, rather than simply arrive at an ending that’s wrapped up in a bow. 

That literary fiction writers allude to this “to be continued” reality in their novels, makes them that much more believable. 

But it can also be fanciful!

Literary fiction isn’t all dark character studies about people living on the verge of despair, mumbling to each other in a studio apartment. On the contrary, literary fiction can absolutely be fantastical while simultaneously presenting people and themes in a believable way — and what better way to study human nature than by throwing your characters into highly unusual situations? 

Plenty of literary fiction writers actually specialize in playing with genre tropes and devising the most inventive concepts. One recent example of fantasy-infused literary fiction is Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi , which follows Piranesi — a man who seemingly lives alone in a vast, statue-filled labyrinth that periodically floods to dangerous levels. Let’s be honest, not much besides the human insight is realistic in this novel (unless you happen to holiday in similar dangerous labyrinths). But the outlandish premise makes the perfect playground for Clarke to explore themes of personhood and isolation.

You might also point to Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black , a novel which is equal parts literary fiction and Gothic horror. Arthur Kipps is a young lawyer investigating a creepy house on a remote island — one that belonged to his deceased client.

Literary Fiction | The Woman in Black

Through Kipps’s seemingly supernatural experiences at the house, readers are asked to consider bigger questions about sanity and objectivity. While the harrowing events in this novel are hardly realistic in the way that a Sally Rooney novel might be, its rich narration, focus on human psychology, and themes of isolation align it with literary fiction.

Authors are more free to experiment

Writers of literary fiction benefit from the fact that their readers tend to enjoy more challenging works. In genre and commercial fiction, there is an expectation that the writer will always engage the reader, propelling them through the book with quickly mounting tension. In contrast, literary fiction readers are more flexible in their initial expectations — understanding that a slow start can still build to a satisfying reveal later. 

A great example of slow-burn literary fiction is Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin , in which elderly Iris Chase recounts her dramatic life and the events leading up to her sister's death. Though this novel has received wide critical acclaim, a lot of readers have unfortunately placed this challenging book back on the shelf early because of its slow-paced beginning. However, the novel’s unique ‘memory recall’ structure needs that time to build the twisting mysteries which ultimately make it a true page turner. 

Indeed, literary fiction readers often expect some level of experimentation that subverts the formal conventions of storytelling. Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch overturns readers' expectations by telling its story in reverse, moving backwards through the 1940s, starting in 1947. Waters’s unconventional style challenges readers by asking them to forget their curiosity about the future and try to focus solely on unraveling the past. 

Literary Fiction | We Need To Talk About Kevin

Of course, experimental or unusual structures aren’t just used in literary fiction for the sake of challenging readers. Typically, a nuanced structure works towards immersing the reader in the character or world of the book.

For example, a long stream of consciousness narrative (think Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea , in which the narrator’s thoughts gradually become harder to follow) might be a great way to make readers lose themselves in the narrator’s mental decline. Or utilizing an epistolary structure (as in Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin , which is told through a series of letters penned by a grieving mother) can really make the stakes feel tangible as readers dig through years of correspondence. 

Literary fiction is a broad and diverse genre, so it’s pretty difficult to track down an exact definition ― but hopefully, equipped with this field guide to lit fic, you’ll feel more confident identifying it when you come across it in the wild.

If all this literary talk has you feeling inspired, make sure to head over to the next part of our guide, where you can learn 10 insightful tips for writing your own literary fiction!

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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.

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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.

What is literary fiction

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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!

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Literary Fiction Definition

In general, literary fiction describes work that aims to resemble real life. (Of course, genre fiction can do this too, but we’ll get there in a moment.)

Literary fiction aims to resemble real life.

In order to transcribe real life, lit fic authors rely on the use of realistic characters , real-life settings , and complex themes , as well as the use of literary devices and experimental writing techniques.

Now, if you ask 100 different writers about what makes literary fiction “literary,” you could easily get 100 different answers. You might hear that, opposed to genre fiction, lit fic is:

These distinctions are all well and good—except, genre fiction can be those things, too. Additionally, some examples of lit fic involve scenarios that would never happen in real life. For example, time travel and visions of the future occur in Kurt Vonnegut’s  Slaughterhouse-Five , but the novel is distinctly literary in its focus on war.

Perhaps the best way to think about literary fiction is that it’s uncategorizable . Unlike genre fiction, which can be broken down even further into different types of fiction genres, lit fic doesn’t fall neatly into any of the genre boxes. Some literary fiction examples include To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

Unlike genre fiction, literary fiction can’t be subcategorized; it doesn’t break down further into genres.

Genre fiction, by contrast, provides us with neat categories that we can assign to different literary works. Let’s take a closer look at some of those categories.

Genre Fiction Definition

The primary feature of genre fiction is that it follows certain formulas and tropes. There are rules in genre fiction that don’t apply to literary fiction: tropes, structures, and archetypes that make for successful genre work.

There are rules in genre fiction that don’t apply to literary fiction: tropes, structures, and archetypes that make for successful genre work.

So, genre fiction is any piece of literature that follows a certain formula to advance the story. It’s important for genre writers to immerse themselves in the genre they’re writing, because even if they don’t want to follow a precise formula, they need to know how to break the rules . We’ll take a look at some of those conventions when we explore the types of fiction genres.

If literary fiction started borrowing from genre tropes, it would then become genre fiction. However, both categories can share similar themes and ideas, without being in the same camp.

Take, for example, the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita falls firmly in the category of lit fic, even though the novel centers around love, lust, and relationships.

If Lolita is about love, then why is it not considered a romance novel, which falls under genre fiction? Because Lolita doesn’t use any of the romance genre’s tropes. For starters, the novel is about a professor (Humbert Humbert) who falls in love with the adolescent Dolores, makes Dolores his step-daughter, and then molests her. Thankfully, you don’t see that often in romance novels.

More to the point, Lolita doesn’t use any of the romance genre’s conventions. There’s no exciting first encounter—no meet cute, no chance interaction, no love at first sight (though there is lust at first sight).

Neither does anything complicate the relationship between Humbert and Dolores—there’s no relationship to be had. The novel charts the power imbalance between a middle aged man and a girl who’s barely old enough to understand consent, much less old enough to enforce it. Romance genre conventions—like love triangles or meeting at the wrong time—simply don’t apply. Yes, many plot points do make it harder for Humbert to pursue Dolores, but those plot points aren’t conventions of the romance genre.

Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction: A Summary

To summarize, each category abides by the following definitions:

Literary Fiction : Fiction that cannot be categorized by any specific genre conventions, and which seeks to describe real-life reactions to complex events using well-developed characters, themes, literary devices, and experimentations in prose.

Genre Fiction : Fiction that follows specific genre conventions, using tropes, structures, plot points, and archetypes to tell a story.

Additionally, literary fiction may borrow from certain genre tropes, but never enough to fall into a specific genre camp. Genre fiction can also have complex characters, themes, and literary devices, and it can certainly reproduce real life situations, as long as it also follows genre conventions.

The differences between literary fiction vs. genre fiction have been mapped out below.

Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction Venn Diagram

Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction Venn Diagram

More About Literary Fiction

Without the use of genre conventions, lit fic writers often struggle to tell a complete, compelling story. So, how do they do it?

Let’s take a look at some contemporary literary fiction books. We’ll briefly explore each example, taking a look at its themes and what makes the work “literary”.

Literary Fiction Books

All of the literary fiction examples below were published in the 21st century, to reflect the type of work that contemporary novelists write.

1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko follows three generations of a Korean family that moves to Japan, during and after Japan’s occupation of Korea. The novel examines this family’s culture shock, their experiences with oppression and poverty, the enduring legacy of occupation.

Core Themes

The core theme of Pachinko is family: the value of family, the struggle to protect it, and the lengths one will go to make their family survive. These struggles are magnified in their juxtaposition to colonization, the other core theme of this novel. How did the Japanese occupation permanently affect the lives of Koreans?

What Makes This “Literary”?

Pachinko attempts to tell realistic stories, based on the lived experiences of many Korean families that endured Japan’s occupation. Additionally, the novel doesn’t follow a specific formula or set of plot points. Pachinko is organized in three parts, with each part focusing on the next generation of the same family, as well as their reaction to a different global event.

2. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Kafka on the Shore follows two separate, yet metaphysically intertwined narratives. One story is about Kafka, a 15-year old boy who runs away from home after (unwittingly) murdering his father. In search of his lost mother and sister, Kafka ends up living in a library, where he meets the intelligent Oshima and begins his journey of healing.

The other narrative follows Nakata, an old man who became intellectually disabled in his youth following a mysterious accident. Nakata lost his ability to read and think abstractly, but he gained an ability to talk to cats. Nakata rescues a cat, and in doing so, begins his own path, which involves hitchhiking with a random truck driver and assassinating a cat killer.

On a metaphysical realm, Nakata’s actions are essential for Kafka to complete his own journey of spiritual healing. Though they never meet in person, their fates intertwine through spiritual means.

A recurring theme in Kafka on the Shore is the communicative power of music, which accompanies both Kafka and Nakata on their journeys. Additionally, questions of self-reliance, dreams versus reality, Shintoism, and the power of fate permeate the novel.

Murakami borrows from many different genres, including magical realism, absurdism, and fantasy. Yet the novel never leans too far into one genre. By combining these elements with his own brand of wit, mundanity, pop culture, spiritualism, and sexuality, Murakami creates an interconnected narrative about two equally unique protagonists. While Kafka on the Shore’s plot points are baffling and mysterious, it is the protagonists’ spiritual journeys which the novel focuses on.

3. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of five individuals before, during, and after the Nigerian Civil War. The short-lived state of Biafra forces each character to make impossible decisions. A village boy is forcibly conscripted in the army; a university professor follows a dark path of alcoholism; the daughter of a war profiteer becomes the runner of a refugee camp, and her twin sister adopts her husband’s child, who was born out of wedlock. Finally, a British writer becomes obsessed with telling Biafra’s story, only to realize it isn’t his story to tell.

War, and everything about war, colors this novel’s thematic landscape. The novel dwells on the relationship between power and the people, especially since all of Biafra’s supporters—including its powerful supporters—are squashed under occupation. War also makes the novel’s characters contend with ideas of Socialism, Tribalism, Nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and Capitalism, among others. Other themes of this novel include family, power & corruption, and survival.

Although Half of a Yellow Sun centers around war, it’s not a “war story”. The novel is wholly unconcerned with war’s genre conventions, dwelling little on things like battle strategies or building suspense. Rather, the novel focuses on the human impact of war. The Nigerian Civil War displaces each main character, forcing them to confront awful truths and make heart-wrenching decisions as a result. Half of a Yellow Sun concerns itself with the consequences of war and political strife, especially given the ideal nature of the Biafran nation.

More About Genre Fiction

In many ways, genre fiction is no easier to summarize than literary fiction. Each genre has its own rules, tropes , character types, plot structures, and goals.

Mystery novels, for example, should present an uncrackable whodunnit that builds suspense and intrigue, whereas Romance novels should create tension between two characters who are meant for each other, but keep encountering setbacks in their relationship. Since each novel has different goals, they take drastically different paths to achieve those goals.

Below, we’ve summarized the rules, tropes, and goals for 8 popular fiction genres. Links and further readings are provided for writers who want to dive deeper into a specific type of genre fiction.

Types of Fiction Genres

Science Fiction, or Sci-Fi, explores fictional societies that are shaped by new and different technologies. Aliens might visit Earth, wars might take place across galaxies, humans might have bionic arms, or scientists might discover human immortality. The goal of most Sci-Fi is to explore man’s relationship to technology, as well as technology’s relationship to society, power, and reality.

Many of the technological innovations in Sci-Fi can double as themes. For example, the gene-editing technology in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake represents man’s hubris in trying to command nature, the result of which is a dystopian society that hastens its own apocalypse.

Prominent Science Fiction writers include Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, H. G. Wells, Margaret Atwood, Ted Chiang, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Octavia E. Butler. Here’s a list of common tropes in Science Fiction .

Thriller novels attempt to tell engaging, suspenseful stories, often based on a complex protagonist undergoing a Hero’s Journey . A spy might chase down an international assassin, a boy might fake his own death, or a lawyer might have to prove she’s been framed for murder. In thriller novels, the protagonist faces a journey that’s long, dark, and arduous.

Thrillers often blend into other types of fiction genres. It’s common for a thriller to also be categorized as mystery, Sci-Fi, or horror, and even some romance thrillers exist. While the best thrillers have complicated protagonists, authors of thriller novels prioritize making each plot point juicy, compelling, and suspenseful.

Prominent thriller novelists include John Grisham, Stieg Larsson, Gillian Flynn, Dean Koontz, Megan Abbott, and Lisa Under. This article explains the key elements of thrillers .

The mystery genre typically revolves around murder. (If not murder, then some other high-profile and complicated crime.) Usually told from the perspective of a detective or medical examiner, mystery novels present a host of clues, suspects, and possibilities—including red herrings and misleading info.

Because mystery revolves around crime, many novels delve deep into their characters’ psyches. A mystery novel might string you along with clues and plot points, but it’s the complicated characters and their unknown desires that make a mystery juicy.

Prominent mystery novelists include Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Walter Mosley, Patricia Highsmith, Anthony Horowitz, and Louise Penny. Here are some considerations for writing mystery novels , and here are 5 mistakes to avoid when writing mystery .

Ah, l’amour. Romance novels follow the complicated relationships of lovers who, despite everything, are meant to be together. As they explore their relationship, each lover must embark on their own journey of growth and self-discovery.

The relationships in romance novels are never simple, but always satisfying. Lovers often meet under unique circumstances, they may be forbidden from loving each other, and they always mess things up a few times before they get it right. Alongside thriller, romance is often the bestselling genre, though it has its humble roots in the Gothic fiction of the 19th century.

Prominent romance novelists include Carolyn Brown, Nicholas Sparks, Catherine Bybee, Alyssa Cole, Beverly Jenkins, and Julia Quinn. Here’s a list of common tropes in the romance genre .

Fantasy novels require tons of worldbuilding and imagination. Wizards might go to battle, a man might chase after a unicorn, men and Gods might go to war with each other, or a hero might go on a mystical quest. What is impossible in real life is quotidian in fantasy.

Many works of fantasy borrow from mythology, folklore, and urban legend. Like Sci-Fi, many of the magical elements in fantasy novels can double as symbols or themes. The line between Sci-Fi and fantasy is often unclear: for example, an alien invasion is categorized as Sci-Fi, but the journey to defeat those aliens can easily resemble a fantasy novel.

Prominent fantasy novelists include J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, Andre Norton, Rick Riordan, C. S. Lewis, Zen Cho, and Erin Morgenstern. Here are some tropes in the fantasy genre , as well as our exploration of urban fantasy .

Magical Realism

Magical Realism blends the fantastical with the everyday. There won’t be grandwizards, alternate universes, or potions with unicorn tears, but there might be a man whose head is tied to his body, or a woman who cries tears of fabric.

In other words, fantasy slips into everyday life, but the characters don’t have magic at their disposal—they react as only mortals know how to react to magic. Because it is a relatively young genre, and because it often focuses on characters instead of plot points, magical realism is often seen as a more “literary” genre of genre fiction. Magical realism has its roots in the storytelling of Central and South American novelists.

Prominent authors of magical realism include Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carmen Maria Machado, Haruki Murakami, Samanta Schweblin, Jorge Louis Borges, and Salman Rushdie. Learn more about magical realism here .

Horror writers are masters of invoking fear in the reader. Through a combination of tone , atmosphere, plotting, the introduction of ambiguous (and unambiguous) threats, and the author’s own imagination, horror novels push their characters to the brink of survival.

Most horror novels involve supernatural elements, including monsters, ghosts, god-like figures, satanic rituals, or Sci-Fi creatures. Sometimes the protagonists are armed and ready, but usually, the protagonists are trapped and trying to escape some unfathomable danger.

Prominents horror writers include Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, Clive Barker, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, and Ray Bradbury. Here are some common tropes for horror writers .

“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” —Madeleine L’Engle

Children’s fiction is technically its own category of fiction, but the genre does have its own tropes and conventions. With many similarities to the fable, children’s fiction teaches important life lessons through the journeys of memorable characters, who are often the same age as the novel’s intended reader.

Writing for children is much harder than commonly believed. Whether you’re writing a picture book or a YA novel, you have to balance your book’s core themes and ideas with the reading level of your audience—without “talking down to” the reader.

Prominent children’s writers include A. A. Milne, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, Madeleine L’Engle, Diana Wynne Jones, Anne Fine, and Peggy Parish. Here are 10 tips for picture book writers , and here is advice for YA novelists .

Explore Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction at Writers.com

With so many works being published in both literary fiction and genre fiction, it helps to have people read your work before you submit it somewhere . That’s what Writers.com is here for. From our upcoming fiction courses to our Facebook group , we help writers of all stripes master the conventions of their genre.

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Sean Glatch

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Great example using Lolita for why the book doesn’t fall under the ‘romance’ category (due to the way it does not use romance tropes – indeed, it is almost an ‘anti-romance’). There’s a great line where Nabokov was asked about its inspirations and he said he read a story about a chimpanzee that was taught to paint and it’s great masterwork turned out to be a painting of the bars of its cage (perhaps he was implying that his protagonist similarly represents the limits of his own awareness, since he doesn’t seem able to empathize with or consider Lolita’s subjective experience).

I wasn’t sure about the definition of literary fiction (as being that which resembles real life), since so much literary fiction is surreal (e.g. Kafka) or upends realist modes (e.g. when an author uses second person to make the reader an active participant in the story, e.g. Italo Calvino in ‘If on a winter’s night a traveler’). So I’m curious about that definition.

Thank you for mentioning Now Novel, too.

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Hi Jordan, thanks for your comment!

You make a good point, and I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve emended our definition to say that literary fiction describes “real-life reactions to complex events.” When magic and sci-fi are out of the question, what can people do in their limited power against terrible things–like, say, waking up as a bug?

As for Calvino’s experimentations with prose and POV, it’s hard to summarize that into any meaningful definition–he is, in several ways, his own category. That said, I think his ability to cast the reader as the protagonist helps build the type of empathy that lit fic is best suited for, and experimentations in prose are one of the many tools at the disposal of both literary and genre novelists.

Nabokov’s anecdote about the chimpanzee fascinates me–I haven’t heard that story, but it reveals so much about Nabokov’s psyche. His empathy for the chimpanzee in a cage is striking.

I loved Now Novel’s advice for writing YA! Thanks for sharing it, and thanks again for your comment!

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literary fiction books meaning

What is literary fiction? How to develop a literary voice

What is literary fiction? Literary fiction explores subtleties and complexities of language, theme and symbolism and tends to be character-driven rather than plot driven. Read a definition plus tips on how to develop literary writing style:

What is literary fiction

What is literary fiction? Literary fiction explores subtleties and complexities of language, theme and symbolism. It tends to be character-driven rather than plot driven. Read a definition plus tips on how to develop literary writing style:

How do you define literary fiction?

If you read the definition from Oxford Languages and the Cambridge Dictionary , combined with other definitions from around the web, it becomes clear that literary fiction is:

Examples of literary fiction include the modernist author Virginia Woolf’s book To the Lighthouse  and the novels of Nobel-winning authors such as Toni Morrison and J.M. Coetzee.

Common features of literary fiction

Demanding subject matter, themes, or interpretive framework

Often, literary fiction is more ‘demanding’ than genre fiction. Like genre fiction, it may use tropes such as the Hero’s Journey , yet may depart more from expected conventions, too.

This is one reason why many describe literary fiction as cerebral or ‘difficult’. It tends to require the reader to be more active in the act of making meaning and interpreting. It doesn’t always hand a decisive, singular interpretation to the reader , wrapped in a neat bow.

Emphasis on context and milieu (in reception)

The themes and subtexts or references of the text (often serious rather than comedic) in literary fiction are often important.

Writing happens in a context, after all. It happens in place and time. A story’s social and historical context (aspects of reading that change over time) shapes (and shifts) how readers approach it.

Part of this is due to the way literary texts are given as set works and studied in educational contexts. Critical thinking requires learners to read more broadly, compare texts, situate them in their contexts (or create interesting new conversations between them).

A story’s literary status is not static Many books classified literary were written in past centuries. The so-called classics.

Societal beliefs and values change. Vocabularies do, too. Charles Dickens, now found on ‘Classics’ shelves, was the Stephen King of his Victorian times . The way he serialized popular stories such as The Pickwick Papers (1836) predates Kindle Vella.

H.G. Wells quote - nothing leads so straight to futility as literary ambitions without systematic knowledge.

Literary vs popular fiction: Blurring the line

Before we discuss ways to develop your literary style , we’ll briefly examine the ‘literature vs genre’ debate, and the idea of genre snobbery.

Literary is a bookstore category, not a genre

A lot has been written debating the merits of literary fiction versus genre fiction (genres such as fantasy, romance, crime, thriller).

Elizabeth Edmonson, writing for The Guardian , for example, argues that Jane Austen wasn’t writing ‘literature’ and that posterity made that decision for her. In some respects it’s true that ‘literary fiction is just clever marketing’, as her article’s title suggests.

But what are some useful differences?

Literary fiction may combine genres or create its own

Many novels classified as literary are simply tough to categorize. Experimentation, subverting tropes or narrative conventions, might weaken argument a story fits this or that genre, for example.

Sui generis (Latin for ‘of its own kind’) stories might mix fictive elements with non-fiction.

Genre fiction tends to require of writers that you know your genre and deliver on its promises. For example, the reader knows they’ll find the meet cute and happily ever after in feel-good romance.

Now Novel writing coach Romy Sommer shares more on knowing your genre in the writing webinar extract below:

Literary writers have explored hybrid genre often. Several of Margaret Atwood’s books explore science fiction or speculative themes, as did Kazuo Ishiguro’s  Never Let Me Go .

Graham Greene famously alternated between writing literary fiction and genre thrillers while the Scottish literary writer Iain Banks published science fiction novels as Iain M. Banks.

Other literary books mash up multiple genres ( David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas , for example, which mixes historical, detective, dystopian and sci-fi elements).

Now Novel writer

Get a literary critique partner

Work one-on-one with a writing coach who understands literary style.

Genre fiction has many of literary fiction’s hallmarks

Although some may say literary fiction is ‘art’ while genre fiction is ‘mass market’, can one say this about the epic historical quality of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings cycle?

Many essays and even whole books argue that Tolkien deserves ‘serious’ study in literary and critical establishments.

Some genre fiction also concerns itself with elements such as language and is not necessarily plot-driven (a common but false distinction used to separate genre from the literary – plot-driven equals genre, while character-driven equals literary).

Examples of writers who write or wrote genre fiction but who are literary in the breadth and depth of their work include Ursula K. Le Guin, John le Carré and Neil Gaiman.

What is literary fiction? 5 features - infographic

Literary fiction and the genre snob debate

Some argue that literary fiction goes hand in hand with snobbery or elitism.

Literary novelists may come from any number of backgrounds. Literary fiction is, however, mostly written and read by a more privileged class (people who have access to things like libraries or tertiary education). Genre fiction, with its more mass-market roots, is often seen as more working class.

Whether or not you see it as rarified, complex or overwrought, literary fiction has a great deal to offer. If you usually write genre fiction, reading literary fiction can show you ways to use language and form playfully – though not reinventing the wheel entirely does ensure the accessibility that helps genre fiction sell.

Whether your focus is primarily genre or literary fiction, here are some of the ways that you can develop your own literary style:

How to develop literary style in writing:

1. Avoid or subvert genre clichés

In some genre fiction, heroines are always beautiful, heroes always brave. The detective always solves the crime. People live happily ever after, and good prevails over evil. Bad guys are bad through and through.

There is nothing wrong with these clichés (or rather, tropes – story elements that recur and are recycled). Authors repeat tropes because:

How to make stories literary – undercut genre tropes

Genre fiction often gives us tropes such as ‘innocent orphan boy must save the world’ ( Star Wars , Harry Potter ). Literary fiction often turns these commonly recycled ideas upside down.

What happens if a crime is never solved? David Lynch famously ended Twin Peaks (a very postmodern – some would say ‘difficult’ – TV show often requiring the viewer to draw their own conclusions) on a detective becoming a possible antagonist. The story thus opens out into disturbing possibility rather than providing the comfort of closure .

What if two people move mountains to be together and then discover they don’t actually like one another very much? In literary fiction this might be the premise for a tragic or comedic story.

The bleak, violent, morally ambiguous world of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is a far cry from high fantasy fiction in which good prevails. Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley crime novels are not about a cranky detective catching a criminal. Instead, they’re narrated by a sociopath.

Think of ways you could subvert or undercut what is expected of genre elements in your story. This is a common literary device, including parody (which sends up or pokes fun at typical genre ploys).

2. Read literary writers

You need to read the kind of fiction you want to write. Answering the question ‘what is literary fiction?’ is easier the more you read.

Make an effort to read some of the classic writers (such as Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Chinua Achebe and William Faulkner, for example) as well as contemporary writers.

Magazines such as The New Yorker ,  The Paris Review   and  Granta   publish short fiction by the top literary writers of today.

Prizes such as the Booker and the Nobel Prize for Literature can point you towards critically acclaimed literary novels, too.

As you read, notice the many different types of literary writers and how writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Helen Oyeyemi experiment with genre or the fantastical. On the other hand, writers such as Alice Munro and Jonathan Franzen work in a more realist storytelling – yet still literary – vein.

Reading literary fiction avidly will help you understand its conventions well. When you try to write it, start by imitating authors you love because this will help you develop your style:

3. Copy out passages from literary works you like

Copy out sentences by famous literary authors often. This is how Bach (considered one of the greatest masters of western classical music) learned musical composition .

In addition to copying passages word for word from the writers you admire, you might also try to write some passages of your own or even an entire story mimicking an author’s style. John Banville wrote Mrs. Osmond as a kind of literary-pastiche-meets-sequel after Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady .

Copying writers you love helps because you pay closer attention to the mechanics. You peel back the skin to see the bones that knit together an author’s specific writing style and voice. This helps you assimilate the elements you like, and filter them through your own voice.

4. Play with form and narrative conventions

One thing you’ll notice as you read literary fiction is how freely literary writers depart from narrative convention.

This is nothing new; many consider the 18th Century novel  Tristram Shandy  by Laurence Sterne an early forerunner of 20th Century postmodern playfulness.

In the early 20th Century, modernist writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf play with language and modify traditional narrative structures. Decades later, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest told much of its story via footnotes. In literary writing, we don’t have to reproduce traditional ideas about storytelling or ‘given’ forms.

Genre has its experimental writers as well such as science fiction Samuel Delany. Mark Z. Danielewski, while not necessarily a horror writer, wrote a haunted house novel,   The House of Leaves , that upends both narrative and typographical expectations.

5. Go deeper with allusion and intertexts

Intertext – literally ‘between text’ – is a literary theory term coined by theorist Julia Kristeva . It refers to the way writing exists in conversation with other writing.

A hallmark of literary fiction is that it often draws on other writing. One way it does this is through allusion (for example, the way Aslan being resurrected in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series calls to mind Jesus Christ). A character hesitating or looking back and losing everything by doing so would immediately call to mind (for those familiar with it) the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice .

Some literary texts literally rewrite or retell prior stories, from different or novel vantage points. As an example, Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) tells the story of Bertha, a secondary character in Bronté’s classic Jane Eyre (1847), from a more feminist perspective.

How can you hide easter eggs or allusions for the astute or well-read reader to discover? Or how how might you ‘write back’ to a previous story, questioning some of its blind spots, the failings or follies of its times? These are literary questions.

If you want to start and finish writing a literary novel, get writing feedback and help developing your book on Now Novel .

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Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

16 replies on “What is literary fiction? How to develop a literary voice”

Overly obsessed with patting the bottom of genre fiction.

This is a great phrase (though I’m not sure who is overly obsessed with patting bottoms here) – as long as it’s consensual! 🙂 Thanks for reading.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this essay on literary fiction! Such great points and no, I don’t think it is condescending to genre writers at all.

I’m writing my first Literary Fiction novel after attending the Iowa Writers Workshop 26 years ago.

I read/listen to mostly thriller And detective fiction. But I read/listen to James Lee Burke, Greg Iles, and other authors who really like to use language in form and meaning. I find there are many great works in genre fiction that cross the lines.

Great piece! I’m bookmarking this!

Hi Iowashorts, thank you for sharing that! It’s true, many works do blur the lines between the literary and the popular. Thank you for reading our blog and sharing your thoughts, and good luck with your novel.

This was very informative. Thank you for writing this. I want to write children’s books. Does this information apply to that genre and if it does, could you recommend some examples?

Hi Angela, it’s a pleasure, I’m glad you found this helpful. I would say it does not entirely, as literary fiction is quite far from children’s books in terms of style, format, tone and reading level typically. Children’s author Alan Durant has a good article on writing for younger readers for Penguin UK here .

What about literary faction?

What about it, DF? Please share your thoughts.

Fiction, fiction, fiction … why are so many historical and in particular espionage novels thus? It is a real shame more historical and espionage thrillers aren’t truly fact based. Courtesy of being fictional the readers’ experience is narrowed and the extra dimensions available from reading fact based books are lost. Factual novels enable the reader to research more about what’s in the novel in press cuttings, history books etc and such research can be as rewarding and compelling as reading an enthralling novel. Furthermore, if even just marginally autobiographical, the author has the opportunity to convey the protagonist’s genuine hopes and fears as opposed to hypothetical drivel about say what it feels like to avoid capture. A good example of such a “real” espionage thriller is Beyond Enkription, the first spy novel in The Burlington Files series by Bill Fairclough. Its protagonist was of course a real as opposed to a celluloid spy and has even been likened to a “posh and sophisticated Harry Palmer”. The first novel in the series is indisputably noir, maybe even a tad Deightonesque. If anyone ever makes a film based on Beyond Enkription they’ll only have themselves to blame if it doesn’t go down in history as a classic espionage thriller.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about fiction vs historical/factual books, Daniel. A very interesting read.

One thing it made me think of is how theorists of historical writing have posited that history is also written with agendas, points of view, and other imaginative or ‘invention-oriented’ (for want of a better word) principles, so that history texts presented as non-fiction do not necessarily give us ‘non-diluted’ truths (or avoid hypothetical drivel!). In some instances, history has been written by technologized victors, for example, while the side of the story in oral cultures goes untold – at least in books.

So I agree with some of what you say, but I also like how reading fiction can help a person to arrive at a sense of ‘truth and lie in an extra-moral sense’ (to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche), through the cracked mirror of invention.

to the question of why aren’t more historical/espionage books fact based? well other than the huge question of whose version of events to base the story on, I prefer to write made up worlds that are *very* similar to real places and events because of the zeitgeist, i.e. the fear of being torn down not on the merit of the story but on the ‘authenticity’ of the voice and location.

Hi Jen, thank you for sharing your perspective and contributing to the discussion. That’s true about factual writing, that it becomes a question of perspective and how one deals with multiple versions of events or possibly contradictory sources. This is one of the reasons why some authors prefer to blend factual and fictive elements (and give a caveat that a story is partially factual).

I remember a history textbook from my schooling days that had a single, ‘grand narrative’, but then used text boxes with micro histories throughout (individual people’s stories). This worked well as you got a sense of the broad sweep of history, plus a chorus-like sense of multiple perspectives and the different experiences across class and ethnicity. Alternating viewpoints would be one way to incorporate different sources like this in a narrative-only format.

Following the advice to read what you want to write, can you recommend any contemporary literary fiction written in third-person omniscient POV? I’m new and having difficulty finding that combination with my poor search abilities.

Hi James, thank you for your question. What genre are you writing? Third-person omniscient isn’t nearly as popular today as it was in previous eras as it’s fallen out of favor to a large extent as more writers adopt either limited third person, first person or multi-POV fixed viewpoints (for example, a novel with three first-person narrators whose viewpoints alternate). A contemporary example that comes to mind (though not that recent) is Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief which is narrated by Death personified. What confuses matters is I’ve seen many lists proclaiming books to be third-person omniscient when they are actually multi-viewpoint third person. For it to be omniscient, a single character or non-involved narrator must be able to know what is happening to (or has happened to) multiple characters; changing viewpoint alone does not make the POV omniscient.

Hello, James! I am newish, too. I’m not too keen on the modern trend of writing in the first person, either. Two years ago, when I began my Mediocre American Novel, I thought I was writing in third-person omniscient. I soon realized that I was using third-person limited. The POV sometimes changed rapidly, but the reader never received information hidden from the characters.

Thank you for joining the conversation, Kathy! I love ‘Mediocre American Novel’, haha. I’m guessing it’s a riposte to the idea of the ‘Great American Novel’.

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What is Literary Fiction Header Image

Literary fiction describes books with non-conventional structures in plot, which often contain allegory or symbolism. This type of fiction can take the form of novels, novellas, or short stories. It’s also used as a way to refer to the “more serious” fiction books. 

These books tend to invite criticism and reviews from major journals, are also the ones that tend to be awarded prizes like the Nobel Price for Literature or Pulitzer Prize.

Characteristics of Literary Fiction

Although literary fiction may not have a black-and-white definition, most works that fall under this category share the following characteristics: 

1. Strong emphasis on character development

Literary fiction focuses on how a character develops from start to finish, making it more introspective than its genre counterparts. One way of putting it is that literary fiction wants to make sense of our world by taking a close look at human emotions.

2. Use of allegory, metaphor, or symbolism

Literary fiction works usually use allegory and symbolism to convey its deeper meaning, which is more than what we see on the surface.

3. Higher-level vocabulary and ample use of imagery

Because of its high literary standard, these types of books tend to use higher-level vocabulary and rely on plenty of imagery to get their point across. 

4 . Plot points aren’t clear-cut

Literary fiction often challenges readers to think differently about certain issues, so the ending may be abrupt, ambiguous, or left to the reader’s interpretation. 

It also does not follow a fixed formula for plot structure, and usually takes you on a journey into a person’s heart and soul instead. 

5 . Philosophical themes such as human nature or free will

Because literary fiction deals with deep subjects, they can be challenging to read. The good news is that they tend to delve into these issues with unparalleled honesty. 

What Is the Difference Between Literary Fiction and Fiction? 

“Genre fiction” is the term used for commercial novels written in a certain genre (such as romance, fantasy, or horror), usually targeted to a mass audience. Common examples include books by bestselling authors Danielle Steele , Dan Brown, John Grisham , James Patterson , and Anne Rice.   

Some genre fiction writers create works that are somewhere in between literary fiction and genre commercial fiction. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien is known for his expertise in the fantasy genre, but his Lord of the Rings trilogy also contains intricate allegorical elements, exploring important themes, such as man’s relationship to the natural world. 

The table below shows the primary differences between literary fiction and genre fiction: 

What Are Examples of Literary Fiction?

Here are a few examples of literary fiction, with excerpts so you can get a feel for how they’re written. 

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce 

With a bit of an autobiographical feel, this literary work revolves around a very realistic and complex hero named Stephen. Throughout the book, Stephen struggles through important questions surrounding politics, faith, and his life as an artist. 

To get an idea of how literary fiction sounds, here is an excerpt from the first chapter of the book: 

The wide playgrounds were swarming with boys. All were shouting and the prefects urged them on with strong cries. The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light. He kept on the fringe of his line, out of sight of his prefect, out of the reach of the rude feet, feigning to run now and then. He felt his body small and weak amid the throng of the players and his eyes weak and watery. Rody Kickman was not like that: he would be captain of the third line all the fellows said. 

Even from the very first chapter, we can see the emphasis on the main character’s thoughts and inner turmoil. This is one of the most common distinguishing marks of literary fiction, in addition to the more frequent use of imagery and symbolism. 

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

Back in 1972, three keepers disappeared from a lighthouse, whose door was found locked from the inside. The story, inspired by events that actually happened, opens twenty years later, as the women struggle to move on with their lives. 

Here is an excerpt from the first chapter: 

The sea is quiet, with the glass-like quality that comes after bad weather. Jory unlatches the window and the fresh air is very nearly solid, an edible thing clinking between the trawler cottages like an ice cube in a drink. There’s nothing like the smell of the sea, nothing close: briny, clean, like vinegar kept in the fridge. Today it’s soundless. Jory knows loud seas and silent seas, heaving seas and mirror seas, seas where your boat feels like the last blink of humankind on a roll so determined and angry that you believe in what you don’t believe in, such as the sea being that halfway thing between heaven and hell, or whatever lies up there and whatever lurks down deep. A fisherman told him once about the sea having two faces. You have to take the both, he said, the good and the bad, and never turn your back on either one of them. 

Like the previous example, here you can see the high literary quality of the passage, with beginning hints at the characters thoughts and feelings. 

Writing Literary Fiction 

If you want to write literary fiction, it might help you to know that it’s harder to sell than genre fiction. Actually, another name for genre fiction is popular fiction, and those books are easier to sell because fans of a given genre are usually attracted to other books in the same genre. 

Literary fiction tends to have more artsy titles and more creative storytelling. You have the liberty to push past boundaries of what’s commonly acceptable, hopefully for extraordinary results! 

Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!

If you enjoyed this post, then you might also like:

Yen Cabag

Yen Cabag is the Blog Writer of TCK Publishing. She is also a homeschooling mom, family coach, and speaker for the Charlotte Mason method, an educational philosophy that places great emphasis on classic literature and the masterpieces in art and music. She has also written several books, both fiction and nonfiction. Her passion is to see the next generation of children become lovers of reading and learning in the midst of short attention spans.

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What Is a Literary Novel?

The definition of literary

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Sanjida O’Connell, a literary author based in the UK. Her latest book is out in paperback, Sugar Island .

The Literary Novel. We all know one when we see it, although deciphering what it is or telling someone else how to spot one is problematic.

In a tautological definition, literary works are often defined as those that win literary awards, such as the Booker Prize for Fiction. Which would rule out any novels written before 1969 being classed as literary. Another definition is that this type of fiction is “writerly”—clearly nonsense since every book is, by definition, writerly—someone wrote it, after all!

Recently a number of critics, publishers and publicists have suggested that literary fiction is simply a genre, like crime or chick lit and should be marketed as such (to ever decreasing readers, according to April Line in her guest post here, Why Isn’t Literary Fiction Getting More Attention .

I am defined and marketed as a literary author, although I have never won the Booker. I didn’t set out to be in this genre, but now 15 years since the first of my four novels was published, I’ve been wondering exactly what it is that makes a book literary.

First, for me, is that it should be Intellectual . A literary novel is about ideas. It has an overarching theme distinct from the narrative and a leitmotif running through it. The theme of my first novel, Theory of Mind  (perhaps too densely cluttered with ideas), was on the nature of empathy viewed through the prism of a young boy with Asperger’s syndrome, a sociopathic boyfriend, a robotics expert and the emotional life of a bunch of chimpanzees.

A.S. Byatt, who famously won the Booker for Possession and who “wept and wept” when her publishers asked her to remove chunks of Victorian prose and poetry, said that she had accepted her novel would only be read by academics and that she imagined she would certainly “fall into the intellectually challenging box.”

Linked to their intellectual side, I think literary works have Depth . Of course, novels with great plots usually have sub-plots too, but I’m talking about the interweaving of ideas, themes, plot, and sub-plots. My third novel, The Naked Name of Love , took me ten years from concept to publication and that, plus the Big Ideas (God, evolution and love), helped give it depth. My fourth, Sugar Island  (out in paperback this March), was written much more quickly and I believe it has less depth. It wasn’t just the time it took to write but also the themes. Sugar Island deals with slavery, with freedom and free will, and because as a society we find slavery abhorrent, there is perhaps less to explore since the issues are so much more black and white for us than they were at the start of the American Civil War.

Critics often say that literary novels are about Character and commercial “mainstream” fiction is about plot. This seems a bit of a simplification. I do think literary novels should have fantastic characters, but the best books all have fantastic plots too. For me, in a literary work, the plot stems from the characters. The main character behaves in a particular way because that is who he or she is and it is their key character traits that drive the plot. Thrillers, for instance, can often have a plot that is external to the character. I’m exaggerating, but in this genre almost anyone could be the “hero” and go through the same process. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a classic example of a pulse-quickening, page-turner, but would seeing into Robert Langdon’s soul help move the plot along?

And last but not least is Style . I think we all expect a classic novel to be written in such beautiful prose it makes you want to weep, pause and stare at the sky or feel the words rolling through your mind like pebbles smoothed by the sea. Again, this is not to say that novels in other genres do not need to think about style but the prose can be more workman-like if plot is the driver. Take Stephanie Myers’ Twilight Saga. Supremely popular, these books do not fit into the literary fiction category. They do have interesting characters, they contain ideas (about the nature of vampires and vampire-human hybrids), they reference literature (Tennyson, Wuthering Heights , Romeo and Juliet ), but they are predominantly plot-driven, the prose is on the workman-like side, the characters are not deep and the books lack depth. They’re still a great read.

So what I’m saying is literary books are not better than any other type of book and elements of what makes literary fiction literary are found in most novels. But if literary fiction is what rocks your world, then go for Wuthering Heights .

How do you define literary fiction?

Sanjida O'Connell

Dr. Sanjida O’Connell is a writer based in Bristol in the UK. She’s had four works of non-fiction and four novels published: Theory of Mind, Angel Bird (by Black Swan), The Naked Name of Love, and Sugar Island (John Murray).


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