What Is Literary Fiction?

Literary fiction is a term we often hear about but doesn’t have a solid definition. Wikipedia defines it as “Literary fiction, also known as serious fiction, is a term principally used for fictional works that hold literary merit, that is to say, they are works that offer deliberate social commentary, political criticism, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition.”

While accurate, it is also more nuanced than that. Here are some other things that help make the literary fiction genre.

It can’t be too accessible, especially when it’s about women, which rules out writers like Caitlin Moran, J. Courtney Sullivan, and Jo Baker. It can’t have to many fantastical things like magic, elves/goblins, ghosts, zombies, parallel dimensions, or space travel so that rules out Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Patrick Rothfuss. It can’t cater to the masses and easily translate into a blockbuster film omitting Dan Brown, John Grisham, and James Patterson. Other common qualifications include:

  • Abstract, artful cover
  • Cannot be too short
  • Must frequently use polysyllabic words
  • Often overly descriptive, vaguely poetic, but rarely sensual
  • NEVER available as a mass market paperback.
  • The convergence of people, places, and emotions must be complicated
  • Nominated for or won a Pulitzer Prize
  • Reviewed favorably by the New York Times
  • Hailed by at least one critic as a ‘new classic’
  • Would never, under any circumstance, be described as a ‘fun romp’
  • One or no fantastical/genre elements
  • The title is never short and/or simple.
  • Occasionally makes you wonder what the point of this story is
  • Anything by David Foster Wallace, Don Delillo, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Jonathan Franzen, Haruki Murakami

Delillo gets one genre aspect in White NoiseThe Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan has the various narratives tie together in a complicated way but the stories themselves are not needlessly complicated nor heavy on exposition.

Despite the overwhelming numbers supporting white men as writers and protagonists, literary fiction does have some diversity.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah would one of the rare few that has a character that isn’t white or from American/Europe. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón and The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson center on young men that lack privilege and Caucasian complexion. Among the consistent female authors of literary fiction are Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Ann Beattie. I suspect Meg Wolitzer would qualify as well.

While I respect the need to have more than one sort of ‘general’ fiction available to us, literary fiction to stop being praised as the be-all-end-all of writing. Cameron Diaz isn’t a crappy actress for not making Oscar nominated films and genre writing isn’t inherently bad for existing within a genre. Literary fiction can be pretentious and tedious just as often as it can be amazing.

If you gave me a choice between Tortures of the Damned by Hunter Shea and the infamous Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, I’m going with the apocalypse. I’d rather enjoy myself than fulfill some hipster obligation.

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