What is literary fiction? A personal manifesto!

I was pottering around the Internet last night, as you do, and found myself on a State Library of Victoria page titled Novels: Finding Literary Reviews and Criticism and there I saw this definition of Literary Novel:

Literary fiction focuses on the subjects of the narrative to create introspective, in-depth studies of complex characters. The tone of literary fiction is usually serious, it has layered meanings and the pace is slower than lighter fiction. Much of this literature remains relevant for generations, even centuries.

There’s no source for this definition – though it may have been partly drawn from Wikipedia. This definition is followed by one for Popular or Genre Novel:

Usually the plot is important in the popular novel, the pace is faster and the characterisation is uncomplicated. Action is more important than reflection. Murder/mysteries, thrillers and romances fall into this category.

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Now, I’m particularly interested in this topic at the moment because I’m coordinating the “Literary” category for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. Each month I write a round-up of the previous month’s reviews for literary fiction (and literary non-fiction, but that’s not my topic here). The first thing I do is review the reviews (ha!) to see what has been categorised as “literary” – and each month I change a few, mostly by adding “literary” to some titles that haven’t been so classified.

My challenge is to have some basis for making these decisions. Fortunately, it’s not brain surgery so, while feelings may be hurt at times – though I really hope that doesn’t happen – no-one is going to die if I do or don’t label a book as “literary”. Phew!

I don’t fully agree with the State Library of Victoria’s definition, though it has some validity. Being multi-layered, particularly in terms of meaning, and being universal or likely to have longevity are valid criteria – and they certainly play a role in my categorisation. Characterisation is a bit trickier. Genre fiction can have complex characters, though perhaps not quite so much complex characterisation, if that makes sense.

Risky business …

But, the defining characteristics for me have to do with language and with innovation. Fiction I classify as “literary” uses language that challenges its readers. This isn’t to suggest that “genre” fiction is badly written, but that the focus of “genre” fiction is something else, usually plot or character. It also doesn’t suggest that genre fiction writers can’t have a message or serious intent. They can, but they want to convey that primarily through the story, rather than through linguistic devices.

Fiction I classify as “literary” also tends to be innovative. That is, it may play with voice, narrative structure, grammar and syntax, with imagery, form, tone, and/or expectations. This doesn’t mean that “genre” fiction can’t also be literary. It can, but I would call it literary when the writer manipulates or diverges in some way from the expectations of the genre.

Literary fiction, in other words, tends to take risks. Take some (mostly Australian) examples:

  • Courtney Collins’ The burial (my review) is historical fiction, perhaps even historical crime, but I’d label it literary for a number of reasons, one being its voice. It is told in the voice of a dead baby, who operates mostly as an omniscient narrator but who, occasionally, injects her own feelings.
  • Carrie Tiffany‘s Mateship with birds (my review) could also be labelled historical fiction but I’d label it literary on multiple fronts, one being form. Interspersed with the main narrative are a log book documenting the life cycle of a kookaburra family, a nature journal, various lists, a bit of a diary, to name a few departures from straight story-telling. These are not just there for the sake of it; they enhance the meaning.
  • Martin AmisTime’s arrow (read before blogging) is a Holocaust novel that plays big-time with narrative structure. It’s graphically told in rewind – and, in doing so, manages to increase the horror.
  • Markus Zusak‘s The book thief (my review) is another Holocaust novel. It plays with tone (and related to that, voice). It’s humorous – a Holocaust novel humorous? – and is narrated by Death. Shocking! And therein lies its impact.
  • Peter Carey’s True history of the Kelly Gang (read before blogging) and Louis Nowra’s Into that forest (my review) disobey the rules of grammar and syntax to create unique voices for their protagonists, the uneducated Ned Kelly for Carey, and a feral child for Nowra. Doing this risks alienating readers but, on the other hand, increases the realism.

But, do we want to classify “literary fiction” …

I think we do, mainly because many readers do have reading preferences. If we don’t have a “literary” category, how would readers like me find the sorts of books we like to read? And, where would those books that don’t seem to fit any “genre” go? Bookshops differ of course. Some categorise the main genres – crime, fantasy, etc – and lump the rest as general fiction. Others don’t categorise at all and simply shelve alphabetically, while others do have a literary fiction section. They may not always get it right – by my definition – but I appreciate that they try.

The point is, this is not about snobbery. It’s not about good-versus-bad. That’s a completely different judgement, one that can occur as much within as between genres/categories – and is why there are genre-based awards, as well as literary awards. No, it’s simply about making it easy for readers to find the sort of books they like – and surely, that’s a good thing?

Do you have thoughts on the subject?

43 thoughts on “What is literary fiction? A personal manifesto!

  1. They used to say “big book” – genre fiction and “small book” – literary fiction but that’s too simplistic: where would an excellent novel such as Michelle de Kretser’s “Questions of Travel” (some 700 pages) fit in? You’re perfectly right, one form of literature is not superior to the other, there are simply well-written and poorly written books. I think bookshops do a pretty good job, splitting works into “crime”, “romance”, “sci-fi” etc. And of course, we also categorise internally ourselves: by experience, I don’t have to read a work to know that a Matthew Reilly will be different to a Salman Rushdie: the writer has developed a “brand” or style that aids personal categorisation. Even for first novels, if the blurb tells us that the writer edits a literary journal or lectures in creative writing, we’ll be able to categorise pretty astutely and predict what kind of fiction we’ll be reading. From: Dina – Books Now!

    • Welcome Dina … it’s hard to discuss the topic without being simplistic, isn’t it? But big versus small rather takes the cake! I’m about to read Questions of travel … well, next month anyhow. I’m looking forward to it as I like de Kretser.

      And yes, you’re right about our inner classifying radars. We usually get it right don’t we?

    • Thanks for the link Amanda … I will go read it. Yes, I think it is a good thing about the AWWC too, though we’ve made the decision there that “literary” would not be a main category but a sub-category. This means that every book categorised as literary fiction has to be allocated something else first. A lot of them tend to be “Contemporary fiction” as a result, with a smattering of “Historical” and the occasional other genre. It’s an uncomfortable thing but it seems to be working ok.

      Re language … I think with “literary” there’s a sense of greater primacy of interest in language, but it is subjective isn’t it?

      • Yes, it’s certainly subjective. (Some years back, I heard another definition, although I can’t remember the source. Something along the lines of: ‘Oh, literary fiction? That’s the category agents aren’t interested in!’ 🙂 )

        • Amanda, I’m so glad to see that the comment about literary fiction and agents didn’t deter you from writing your beautiful books.
          I am disappointed to see the term literary fiction being dismissed as snobbery here. I don’t think that labelling in a derogatory way is necessary, or helpful.
          What is now called literary fiction is what used to be called literature which was clearly understood by all to be something different to general fiction, and nobody was defensive about it. But now that word has been taken over to mean almost anything that is written, including non-fiction, journalism, and genres of all kinds. Since we need a term that signals complexity and innovation in fiction, ‘literary fiction’ has been adopted. It seems harmless enough to me.
          I think Becky’s analogy is helpful. I have eaten high quality hamburgers, but I would rather have meals with complex sophisticated flavours – and would prefer to go without, than eat bland predictable pap at McDonalds. Of course if popular culture rebrands McDonalds as ‘gourmet’ food, we will have to find a new term to describe complex sophisticated flavours – but it won’t change what they are.

  2. I know they say that you can’t tell a book by its cover, but I reckon you often can. By avoiding books with glitter fonts, huge author names and head-and-shoulder shots of women facing a distant landscape, and choosing books with quiet, tasteful covers, I manage to do pretty well at finding books I like LOL.
    But yes, classifying books is a tricky thing to do – I do like it when booksellers try a bit because I lose patience with scanning through shelves and shelves of fiction that doesn’t interest me. That Big American Online Bookseller That Shall be Nameless is a classic example of making it impossible to find LitFic, unless you actually know what you want, you can’t find anything by browsing because all fiction is lumped in together. (Or was last time I looked which was a long time ago because I haven’t been back).
    What I like about the indie bookshops I patronise is that they usually face the LitFic outwards and paste mini reviews of them to the shelf underneath. The popular fiction will be over on the Bestsellers shelves which I tend to avoid, but it doesn’t pay to be too hard-and-fast about that because a book like The Book Thief was a bestseller, and so of course is anything by Jane Austen!

    • Oh good point, Lisa … covers can be very useful if you are browsing. It can work both ways too – I find them useful when I AM looking for genre for gifts for people who like certain genres but I know nothing about them. Covers can help me identify what’s what!

      I must say, I haven’t really tried to browse the online stores … usually when I go to an online store it’s to look for something specific. I’ve been wondering how easy it will be to browse when I get to the point that I want to. Currently, my browsing is pretty much limited to independent stores, among which I include the wonderful National Library Bookshop.

  3. I don’t know what literary is but I know it when I see it? (heh)

    I’ve been thinking that in some ways food is like literature. You can have a generic hamburger or a gourmet one, a box mix cake or an epicurean delight. You can have a genre western or a literary one. I think it depends mostly on the ingredients and process?

    To me, literary fiction is where the literary ingredients, from character development and structure to interesting tropes, themes and language, assume equal or higher importance than plot.

    I think almost all fiction has a genre – romance (from Jane Eyre and Harlequin to Wallace Stegner) is very broad as is adventure (from Moby Dick to Hardy boys) and western (from Zane Grey to Sisters Brothers) or sci-fi (from Frank Herbert to Margaret Atwood) and crime novels (from James Patterson to Umberto Eco). The difference within the genre is the emphasis on the elements of literature. These are not strictly plot-driven works, they avoid formula, and they do usually not attract the same readers.

    If you make a list (or shelves or menu) of literary works, (and I certainly applaud the effort!) I think it would cross most all the genres. Whether or not a specific work would go on the literary shelf-list or not might be tricky in some cases – how strict do you want to be?

    This is very similar to your first quote: “Literary fiction focuses on the subjects of the narrative to create introspective, in-depth studies of complex characters…” except that it broadens it to include complex narrative structures and themes, etc.

    • Thanks for all this Bekah. I agree that emphasis on plot is probably one of the deciding (mostly) issues. I was wondering about whether all books have genre. I think there are some that are very loose fits at best. For example, there are books set in the past that I suspect most readers of historical fiction would barely recognise as part of their genre. And there seem to be a lot of books written about contemporary life/relationships, say Franzen’s Freedom to take an American example, or Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap to take just one Aussie one? What identifiable genre are they? In the AWW challenge, they are simple categorised as “Contemporary”. But, I don’t think that’s really a genre. I’d love to know what people think … I’m thinking that maybe not everything is a “genre” (in the formal sense of the word)?

  4. I really hate the term “literary fiction” because “literary” in the context is a loaded word. Means “real” or “good” or “worthy of my attention”. It seems to have been coined by snobs who believed themselves “above” genre fiction, what used to be called “pulp fiction” (because it was published in mags that used cheap paper so they quite literally wouldn’t last).

    On the other hand I understand the need to categorize (i.e., tool for managing large amounts of anything) fiction and do appreciate that terminology like this can help me find something I might like. But just because terminology helps you navigate the bookstore or Amazon, it need not imply anything about the quality of the fiction. It’s all very well to talk about attributes of fiction that go beyond subject matter (I.e., plot and character and maybe even just the fact that the main character is a pathologist, a financier or a knitter or that the action plays out in an Interesting place) but I think the difference between what we call genre fiction and what we call literary fiction lies in what the reader expects. Writers of the former seek to meet readers expectations—with a twist or two. Readers of the latter want the writer to take them on a new journey, to defeat their expectations in a major way.

    • Yes, I agree Susan regarding the “term” and the snobbery that can be associated with it. And that’s a shame because it can force people into positions that get in the way of discussing individual works.

      I also agree that one of defining elements of what we call “literary” is “expectations”. You’ve said it really clearly. Some people love to have their expectations met – it makes them feel good, satisfied – and some don’t. They like to be surprised, made uncomfortable, challenged. Neither type of work guarantees good writing – there are many great genre writers as we all know. I suspect though that there might be more bad writing in genre areas simply because it’s easier to churn out something that meets expectations? Is that a fair thing to say I wonder? Regardless, it’s probably irrelevant to the discussion!

    • The snobbery issue is the bother Guy … but how do we manage to differentiate different types of books/writing for those who want to read in particular areas. Would crime readers like to go to a book shop where the crime books were sorted alphabetically among the sci fi, fantasy, romance, classics, “literary”, etc? Ditto, for all the other specialist readers? Nothing is perfect of course because books so crossover but some categorisation does help readers I think? Hmm … traditionally libraries have shelved fiction alphabetically by title (though sometimes they categorise their less managed paperbacks) and then try to provide help (reference desk, readers guides/booklists etc) to readers who want to focus their reading on a particular genre.

      • I have no problem with books being sorted–although that sometimes presents difficulties, but when it comes to the term literary fiction is seems to be over used to imply a quality that simply isn’t there. At least that’s true over here……

        • I understand what you’re saying Guy. There is an implication of “quality” in the term … But we should really accept that like any category the quality is going to vary. Another issue is that the category itself is loosely defined and sometimes self-defined so, unlike, Crime or Fantasy where there are clear conventions, with maybe blurred edges, the whole definition of literary is a little blurred. I’m finding this discussion helpful … If only to reassure me that it IS tricky!

  5. I like beckylindroos’ analogy of food and literature! I think of literary in a similar way, it’s really its own genre or even sub-genre. Literary to me implies a certain attention to character development, theme, metaphor. It makes attempts toward art and tries to stretch itself beyond the limits of plot and effortless, passive entertainment. Literary means I as a reader am expected to make an effort, to bring something to the table and work with the author to create an experience larger than the both of us.

    • Thanks Stefanie. Sub-genre is how the AWW challenge is managing it this year. That works ok in a list because a book can appear in multiple lists. It’s a bit harder for for physical libraries and bookshops though isn’t it?

      Interesting idea, Stefanie, that “Literary means I as a reader am expected to make an effort, to bring something to the table and work with the author to create an experience larger than the both of us.” That can cross all types of writing – novels, poetry, plays, etc – can’t it?

  6. Excellent post and excellent comments. You have done a fine job, Sue, of spelling out how you and AWW define literary fiction. I find it useful to create my own categories of literary and popular/genre fiction. I enjoy both but in different ways and at different times. Some kind of label helps me evaluate what I read when. Eva @ astripedarmchair identifies “comfort” books, good to read when a reader wants something lighter that demands less reader attention and focus. That said I have read several mystery novels recently that somehow manage to be both “comfort” and to have deep meaning. I too like AWW’s choice to allow multiple categories for books. Crossovers can be very important.

    • Thanks Marilyn … “comfort” books is a great idea, alongside “comfort” food. I think your point re mystery books is valid – genre doesn’t mean lack of deep meaning. I think “genre” writers like Val McDiarmid make that point. As I recollect, she wants to explore social issues/the big issues but she wants to do it with the focus on “story”. That doesn’t mean boring writing and boring characters, but it does mean that story/plot are the driving force for exploring the ideas. I certainly have in my head “genre” books that I would define as “literary”.

  7. I’m not sure, Lisa, that the commenters here are dismissing “literary fiction” as snobbish but are commenting on the fact that there is a perceived divide between “literary” and “genre” fiction and that some feel that readers of the former are snobbish towards readers of the latter. Hmm … I think that’s what they’re saying.

    As for the term, my recollection was that studying “literature” meant studying novels, drama, poetry, essays – the whole gamut. It was probably a bit ambiguous then to label a group of novels as “literature” but I think you are right that there used to be sections in bookshops called “literature” and it often did include other forms like poetry. Like you, I don’t mind the term “literary fiction” because it helps me when I go looking for books to read. But I don’t like it so much when I’m needing to make decisions about what is or isn’t beause I fear hurting people’s feelings if I do or don’t include their books or their reviews of certain books.

    • Yes, I think that’s exactly what they’re saying too: they are imputing snobbery by readers of literary fiction on the basis of the books they choose to read. It’s a kind of inverted snobbery, and it’s just as bad as the other kind because it means judging people and labelling them.
      I don’t envy you the classification problem, this discussion here shows just how fraught it can be!

      • LOL Lisa … And in a way it’s helpful. If we all agree it’s fraught it’s easier to discuss when people disagree, because there are no hard and fast rules anyone can cling to! I’m comfortable with that murkiness…

  8. Great job you’re doing here, WG. I know, despite the misguided effect of sounding snobbish, as you mentioned, I think there’s a need to categorize literary fiction, if only to have readers be aware of the particular style and literary offering. I know the line may be blurred, and arbitrary, and even intuitive, but good that somebody is trying to do that. I can immediately think of the parallel in movies… the more ‘artsy’ ones are usually called… ah … films. 😉

    • Thanks Arti … Glad you agree re classification. I was thinking about films a little as I wrote this … Wondering about parallels. There is a category called “arthouse” films which could equate a bit but it may also be a bit tighter in meaning – or maybe they both do “mean” the same thing but it is applied more tightly in film? What do you think?

      • The medium has changed so much in recent years that there’s going to be re-definitions and re-inventions along the way. Even Spielberg recently acknowledged there’s going to be an ‘implosion’ soon, whatever that means. Like, studio pics would become much more spectacular, blockbustering, effects and plot driven, while the indies… O, I don’t know, hopefully there are still those who are interested in film art to sustain them. But I feel the good old days of cinema like in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s where style and meaning are created as a fusion, have long gone. Nowadays, it’s all about what the audience like and willing to pay. I’m not too optimistic about our present audience being keen on movies that are ‘artsy’ and meaning-driven.

        • I reckon never say never. I’m an optimist and I think that while there is always change and that’s good, there is also always those who like interestingly/artistically told stories that require time to build and provide time to think. We are still seeing them don’t you think? Did you see the German film Barbara? Stunning. It was a Best Foreign Film nomination at the Oscars (this year I think).

        • Yes! I saw Barbara and I liked it! I’m sure with our generation, there are still those seeking for more artistic expressions and meaning in films, but I’m not so sure about the much younger generations coming up who will be the future. I’m not saying they are not artistic or not seek meaning as much, it’s just 1. definition of ‘art’ may change, or have changed, and 2. they could seek ‘meaning’ and expressions in other formats. Younger gen. tend to use their computer screens for these functions, and, if they do go to see movies, it would have to be as huge as Iron Man or as spectacular as the new Star Trek.

          I look forward to a few smaller and quieter summer movies. I’ve a list here which I highly anticipate.

  9. Love your list Arti … thanks for that. I hadn’t got to reading it yet.

    I’m not sure about the younger generation … and their likes. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were as diverse as we are in our interests … it’s interesting to see more films being made for the “senior” generation though, which seems to be a recognition that we are still going to the movies! Great for older actors, and great for older people to see ourselves on the screen. Not that we only want to see older people but it’s nice that older people are not invisible as protagonists in life!

  10. I once wrote an essay for ABR called ‘Female Sleuths and Family Matters – can genre and literary fiction coalesce?’ At the time I thought a kind of merger might be possible, but I don’t think that any more. I was interested, and still am, in how much domestic detail crime fiction could accommodate; not so much general domestic detail, but that which has to do with the ‘female sleuth’ also being a mother. The books and authors I talk about in the essay rarely, if ever, allow parenting to intrude on the business of detection, and the stereotype of the solitary investigator remains a powerful one. Needless to say, literary fiction carries with it no such prohibitions.

    • Oh I should track that essay down, Dorothy. I guess what you’re saying is that literary fiction defies – or at least doesn’t have – expectations? It might have elements of a certain genre but the breaking of the genre’s expectations turn it into something else?

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  12. There is a part of me that would always prefer a “good bad” book to a so-so literary novel but a sort of inverted snobbery is pretty silly. There was a big fuss in UK a couple of years back where the Booker prize panel clearly went for a list that put the emphasis on “readability” as being their priority which seemed to defeat the object of what the prize was supposed to be about.

    • Welcome Ian and thanks for adding to the conversation. I remember that fuss about “readability”. I think there was a similar fuss back in 1987 when Penelope Lively won. The point should be whether the book is effective — does it move, inspire, excite. It shouldn’t matter whether it is easy or challenging to read.

  13. Stefanie’s blog has featured Gissing’s 1891 New Grub Street recently and so many of the concerns about the future of literary fiction were just as evident then. Gissing seems to imply that the novel will be story driven pap for the vast majority of readers with serious work marginal to the culture. In the 125 years or so since New Grub Street it seems fair to say that the form has done better than that – fiction of all sorts has thrived and, I hope, will continue to.

    • Ah Ian, thanks for reminding me of Gissing. That was a wonderful book …. But I think you’re right. For all the fears about the death of the novel, the end of reading over the years, literature is thriving I agree …

  14. Much of this literature remains relevant for generations, even centuries.

    Ha ha ha ha ha! Good one, a good joke by the librarians, who surely know better. Replace “Much” with “Almost none” and we approach accuracy.

    That the tone is “usually serious” – this must be another sly joke. Or else a grotesque misreading of most lasting fiction.

    You, Gums, make the single best argument for the term – that you find it useful. You need a classification to organize a certain set of books. If it were not this imperfect term, it would be another.

    • Thanks Tom for joining the conversation! I guess the relevant for generations argument is looking to those that will become our classics, our Dickens and Austens. Where do they come from? Can we identify them now?

      In the meantime, it’s useful to have a term.

      I enjoyed your response, btw!

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