What is Literary Fiction?


When a person decides to become a writer, one of the things they have to do is decide what kind of writer they will be. That is, in what genre will they write. And pick you must. You must be able to tell a prospective agent what genre your novel is. (And whatever you do, don’t tell them that your great work defies genre. You will look like an amateur and a fool.) I’ve decided to write literary fiction. Why? Because that’s how I am and what I read. And as they say, always write what you know, and read widely in your chosen genre.

As easy as it sounds, though, it is not all that simple to choose the right genre for your book. But you really must know before you start; each genre has its own structure. Certain things are supposed to happen at certain times in a story, depending on its genre. Oh, you’re an artist, you say. You are not bound by these rules. It stifles your creativity. Wrong. Ignore the genre and its structure, and you will never publish.

There are two types of fiction: genre and literary. So, what makes a novel literary? There’re a lot of opinions about that, and a lot of disagreement. Some say that genre is plot-driven, and literary is character-driven. (Whatever that means) People who read genre expect an exciting plot, while literary fiction can explore character, and delve into philosophical questions. So, does literary fiction lack a plot? No.

Maybe literary fiction comes about with the use of fancy words and flowery language. No. Please. 

The cynical will say that literary fiction is fiction that doesn’t sell. Well, if that were true, why are we talking about it? Why are there hundreds of agents who represent literary fiction? Sure, it sells less than genre, but that’s okay. Pop music sells more than classical, but that doesn’t mean that pop is better. Most of it is pure, unadulterated crap. 

I believe that the only material difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is that in literary fiction there is a meaning under the surface. Maybe symbolism, metaphor, or irony. The story has subtlety and nuance. In horror, for example, the story is meant to scare you. What happens is what happens, and that’s it. There’s no hidden meaning. 

Ever take a lit class? I still remember one of my favorite teachers in high school, Mr. Kent, who taught a series of such classes, saying, “Yes, but what does it mean?” When you read a horror novel, or a romance novel, you are not sitting around afterward asking yourself what it means. It’s right there. They may have decent characters, and they must have a driving plot, but there’s no nuance. No deep philosophical meaning.

For example, when a guy is stuck to a door with a knife in a horror flick, it’s just a guy stuck to the door. In a literary work, it could represent the crucifixion of Christ.

Back to plot-driven and character-driven. Some people interpret this to mean that a literary novel has no plot. This is not true, and it cannot be true. A lot of new writers who fancy themselves to be literary authors, just write pretty words about things. They describe events in flowery language. “Purple prose.” But nothing is really happening in the story. It lacks plot. If nothing happens, then there is no story. So, even a literary novel must have a plot.

Consider the works of Cormac McCarthy. These are without a doubt literary works. I’ve read that he’s being considered for a Nobel Prize. It don’t get more literary than that. Yet his books are full of violence. They contain many horrible, bloody, and terrifying moments. But they are not genre. Why not? Why are they not “thrillers?” The reason is, there’s more to the novel than what you see on the surface. (By the way, if you want to know how to write, read his books. His prose is as lean as prose can be. You will learn from it.)

A literary fiction novel must have a plot. The main character must start at point A and go to point B, and be changed in some way. It must still have a story arc. A climax. Resolution. It doesn’t have to hit you in the face, and any decent writer will be able to do it without it being obvious, but it must be there. It’s not necessary for there to be violence, a shootout, or a chase, but there has to be conflict, even if within the character’s mind. Without conflict there is no story.

One question that has haunted me is whether literary fiction can have supernatural elements. Can a vampire novel be a literary novel with vampires in it? Or does the presence of vampires mean that it is not literary, but horror by definition. Certainly the writing of a horror novel can be quite literary. That’s why I’ve seen the term “literary horror” being tossed around. But I’m not sure it’s a bona fide genre. I’ve been told by a professional in the industry that the mere presence of ghouls in my story means that it’s horror. By definition. (And since it doesn’t follow the structure of the genre, is unpublishable).

After giving that question careful consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that she’s right. Just as there’s no crying in baseball, there’re no ghouls in literary fiction.

Literary fiction can be violent, scary, funny, moving, just about anything you want, but not supernatural, unless it’s something imagined by the character.

So, what is a literary novel? 

  • A character-driven story (meaning it has a plot) that has meaning greater than the action on the surface
  • Grounded in realism. 
  • No supernatural or paranormal.
  • Clean writing, not flowery, no exaggerated gestures of facial expressions (“His mouth slowly curled into a half smile”)
  • Can be funny or scary

   What do you think?