Goodreads says that literary fiction is “a term that has come into common usage in the early 1960s. The term is principally used to distinguish “serious fiction” which is a work that claims to hold literary merit, in comparison from genre fiction and popular fiction.”
But what defines ‘serious fiction’ and ‘literary merit’?
Wikipedia says that the characteristics of literary fiction generally include one or more of the following:
- A concern with social commentary, political criticism or reflection on the human condition.
- A focus on “introspective, in-depth character studies” of “interesting, complex and developed” characters, whose “inner stories” drive the plot, with detailed motivations to elicit “emotional involvement” in the reader.
- A slower pace than popular fiction. As Terrence Rafferty notes, “literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way”.
- A concern with the style and complexity of the writing: Saricks describes literary fiction as “elegantly written, lyrical, and … layered”.
- Unlike genre fiction plot is not the central concern.
- The tone of literary fiction can be darker than genre fiction.
The Now Novel website says, “Literary fiction explores subtleties and complexities of language, theme and symbolism and tends to be character-driven rather than plot driven. ” and “Often, literary fiction makes more demands on its readers than genre fiction. This is because it merits a higher level of intellectual engagement. The themes and subjects of the text and its social or political and/or historical context are important to how you read literary fiction. This is especially true since a lot of books seen as literary were written in past centuries and societal taboos and beliefs aren’t static.” and “Literary fiction is also arguably defined by a kind of elitism. Although literary novelists may come from any number of backgrounds, literary fiction is mostly written and read by a privileged class. By and large, literary fiction is seen as work that is created and read by an educated middle and upper class while genre fiction, with its populist roots, is often seen as more working class.” and “‘Theme’ and ‘allusion’ can’t be forgotten when defining literary fiction. There are plenty of well-written thrillers, romance and science fiction novels with developed characters and page-turning plots, but in the end, the primary purpose of those books is to entertain the reader. They may have a message as well, but the message is usually secondary or is not particularly difficult to grapple with or tease out. Literary fiction often presents more difficult or complex truths than genre fiction. It may offer few answers but instead simply make observations about human nature. Its purpose is seldom escapism, more often engagement with big ideas.”
This is, of course, a subjective question, but to my mind, the distinguishing features of literary fiction are:
- the grappling with important, intellectually complex concerns: the functioning of society, politics, religion, philosophy and governance.
- distinctive, well defined characters who struggle with internally generated problems
- a less rapid pace than genre fiction, but without suffering a loss of tension; this slower pace enables more in-depth exploration of characters and their environment
- considerable emphasis on the creative use of language to affect shades of meaning, tone and emotion
- plot being a tertiary emphasis behind theme/message and characters
- a strong sense of originality