What is literary fiction? - The Wiki
If you’ve never written lit. fic. (the abbreviated term), don’t worry. Chances are you’ve read it!
Lit. fic. and genre fic. both face stereotypes.
General Stereotypes of Genre Fiction:
- Silly, overly lighthearted, unrealistic, ‘wishful thinking’
- Lacks in artistic quality, unrefined
- More juvenile than lit. fic.
- Doesn’t address/solve real world issues
General Stereotypes of Literary Fiction:
- Must be thoroughly serious, not funny, not ‘fun’ to read
- Is pretentious, exclusive to MFA grads
- Can’t be enjoyed by ordinary audiences, book written for critics
- No real story. Just a soapbox for political/artistic agendas.
However, these stereotypes typically only reflect the worst of both types of fiction.
More often than not, these are the realities of genre fic. and lit. fic…
Realities of Genre Fiction:
- Can be sad, serious and contain very realistic characters
- Can be cutting edge in terms of artistic quality, poetic
- Read as often by educated adults as young teens
- Frequently questions/explores real world issues
Realities of Literary Fiction:
- Can easily contain good comedy/entertaining material
- Writers of lit. fic. come from all backgrounds
- Most often published by small independent presses, make less money than genre
- Good lit. fic. books don’t rely solely on theme but value narrative
Lived Problems vs Raised Problems
If the stereotypes listed above aren’t the real differences between genre and lit. fic., what are? There are many debates about this, but I have my own ideas.
A wise film professor of mine once told me the key difference between mainstream blockbusters and art-house film are lived problems versus raised problems. I believe this difference also applies to genre and lit. fic.
To illustrate his idea to me, he used the Ingmar Bergman art house film, The Seventh Seal, as an example.
For those unfamiliar with this movie (watch it - it’s good, plus you’ll have the pop culture reference up your sleeve), the plot follows a knight who returns to his home in Sweden from fighting the crusades, but the bubonic plague has infested the area. This premise could theoretically appear in a blockbuster or art-house film.
My professor proposed that if The Seventh Seal were…
- The main conflict that the knight faces is his journey back home, while the other conflicts, such as his wondering if God exists, are made to support this conflict.
An art-house film…
- The main conflict that the knight faces is his journey to discover whether or not there is a God, while the other conflicts, such as whether he’ll make it back to his home, are made to support this conflict.
Lived Problems are issues that people face in ordinary life, such as marriage, warfare, courting, education, so on. They may be things we face all the time, or represent literal struggles/conflict.
- Will the MC end up with his love interest?
- Can the knight slay the griffin who killed her brother?
- How many pranks can the nerds play on the schoolyard bully?
Raised Problems are issues that most people don’t think about on a day to day basis, and are often abstract, conceptual, existential and philosophical in nature.
- Will the MC be able to cope with the implications of free will?
- Can the knight learn the difference between love and duty?
- How does the cycle of violence and bullying work?
Both genre fic. and lit. fic. can include both of these types of problems. However, genre fic. typically focuses on lived problems and lit. fic. typically focuses on raised problems. The Harry Potter series, a beloved example of genre fic., does address many philosophical questions, but it primarily focuses on the tangible obstacles of being a wizard and growing up, particularly in the earlier books of the series (lived problems). The Catcher in the Rye, another book loved by many, is about a teenage boy who goes to school and runs away. However, it is primarily about his philosophical quest to find the meaning of youth while the physical obstacles he faces are rather secondary (raised problems). Ultimately, both examples contain philosophy and adventure, but Harry Potter drew most of its readers and commercial success through its adventure, while The Catcher in the Rye gained its traction from its philosophical quandaries.
To put this distinction very simply:
- A genre fic. writer would write a story about dragons partly for the sake of the coolness of dragons and also to parallel the real world and its day to day issues. Confronting the dragon may be synonymous with confronting a stern parent, to the reader.
- A lit. fic. writer might write a story about dragons to create an original metaphor for existential thought, philosophy, psychology, ethics, or other theoretical threads in the humanities/other schools. Confronting the dragon may be synonymous with confronting the meaning of death, to the reader.
It’s all about the question, “Where is the main emphasis?”
Again- success, age, and popularity do not determine which category a novel falls into. A genre fic. can be considered a classic, while a lit. fic. might only have a slim audience, and vice versa.
The line between lit. fic. and genre fic. can also get blurred at times, if the novel juggles between raised and lived problems equally.
Other notable differences one might often see between lit. fic. and genre fic. (but not always) include:
- Uses conventional storytelling formulas
- Often has a happy ending
- Relies on well-liked tropes/methods, easier to sell
- No formula/experimental
- As such, more difficult to read
- Often has an edgy ending
- Usually ‘out of the box’ and difficult to sell
- Genre Sci-fi:
- Ready Player One, The Hunger Games, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
- Literary Sci-fi:
- The Road, 1984, Slaughterhouse Five
- Genre Realistic Fiction:
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Holes, The Fault in Our Stars
- Literary Realistic Fiction:
- The Catcher in the Rye, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Color Purple
CRIME AND MYSTERY
- Genre Crime and Mystery:
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Snowman, Gone Girl
- Literary Crime and Mystery:
- The Crying of Lot 49, The Brothers Karamazov, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle
- Genre Adventure:
- The Swiss Family Robinson, The 39 Steps, Treasure Island
- Literary Adventure:
- Moby Dick, The Life of Pi, White Fang
- Genre Erotica:
- Fifty Shades of Grey… Most books sporting Chippendale-esque men and/or Playboy-ish women on them, tbh.
- Literary Erotica:
- Lolita, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Ulysses
- Genre Fantasy:
- The Hobbit, Discworld, Eragon
- Literary Fantasy (also often known as ‘Magical Realism’):
- One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Buried Giant, The Tin Drum
- Genre Romance:
- To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Confessions of a Shopaholic, P.S. I Love You
- Literary Romance:
- Like Water for Chocolate, Pride and Prejudice, The Age of Innocence
- Genre Historical Fiction:
- Outlander, Water for Elephants, Poldark
- Literary Historical Fiction:
- The Book Thief, Beloved, Lincoln in the Bardo
- Genre Horror
- World War Z, The Woman in Black, The Terror
- Literary Horror
- Frankenstein, American Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs
- Genre Comedy/Satire
- Literary Horror
- Gulliver’s Travels, A Confederacy of Dunces, pending
These classifications are ultimately debatable, but most who are familiar with lit. fic. and genre fic. will probably agree with the list. If you do not agree with this list, leave a comment below, start a discussion, and a level 3 discord editor can make changes.