What is Literary Fiction? : Wiki

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!


The Stereotypes

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.


The Realities

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…

A blockbuster…

  • 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?”


Overall

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:

Genre fic.

  • Uses conventional storytelling formulas
  • Plot-driven
  • Often has a happy ending
  • Relies on well-liked tropes/methods, easier to sell

Lit. fic.

  • No formula/experimental
  • As such, more difficult to read
  • Often has an edgy ending
  • Usually ‘out of the box’ and difficult to sell

List

:alien: SCI-FI :alien:

  • Genre Sci-fi:
    • Ready Player One, The Hunger Games, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • Literary Sci-fi:
    • The Road, 1984, Slaughterhouse Five

:house_with_garden: REALISTIC FICTION :house_with_garden:

  • 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

:male_detective: CRIME AND MYSTERY :male_detective:

  • 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

:dagger: ADVENTURE :dagger:

  • Genre Adventure:
    • The Swiss Family Robinson, The 39 Steps, Treasure Island
  • Literary Adventure:
    • Moby Dick, The Life of Pi, White Fang

:lips: EROTICA :lips:

  • 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

:star2: FANTASY :star2:

  • 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

:two_hearts: ROMANCE :two_hearts:

  • 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

:earth_americas: HISTORICAL FICTION :earth_americas:

  • Genre Historical Fiction:
    • Outlander, Water for Elephants, Poldark
  • Literary Historical Fiction:
    • The Book Thief, Beloved, Lincoln in the Bardo

:vampire: HORROR :vampire:

  • Genre Horror
    • World War Z, The Woman in Black, The Terror
  • Literary Horror
    • Frankenstein, American Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs

:clown_face: COMEDY/SATIRE :clown_face:

  • Genre Comedy/Satire
    • pending
  • 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.

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I really loved this post. This was an excellent summation of the differences between literary verses genre fiction. I think this needs to be broadcast along with the differences between High Tea and Afternoon Tea. Thanks for this post!

The only thing I have slight qualms with is the romance category in the example section. Romance, as a genre, is not things like The Notebook (which ends sadly? Bittersweet?) or Wuthering Heights (which is more Romantic Era than Romance Genre.)

a side tangent about Moby Dick and Wuthering Heights

And apparently the Romantic Era also contains Moby Dick which makes me sad since that book is as boring as whale bone. Found out the hard way in an undergrad class I took that the Romantic Era and Romance are different. So different. Am sad. sad whale noise

Romance generally is those HEA things, from frothy Hallmark and Love Inspired to steamier Harlequin things. Feel free to debate or add on to my definition of romance.

If I was to give my own examples, I’d provide Debbie Macomber and Danielle Steel romances for genre books and perhaps Jane Austen for more literary ones.

But that’s just my opinion based off my research of the romance genre. :slight_smile:

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You know, for the most part, I agree with your analysis! Personally though, I do think of Wuthering Heights as a romance novel in a romantic (lower case romantic) sense as the story is primarily about romantic infatuation. In other words, I do think of it mainly as a love story, it’s just a really messed up/edgy one. But I do see your point about The Notebook, which does actually have solid literary qualities to it, and it isn’t the best example of genre romance. I’ll make an edit to my post later and think of a new title to replace it with as an example.

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What is this generally? Every definition I have ever seen of romance that doesn’t immediately get romance fans up in arms includes either Happy Ever After or Happy For Now. If the story ends in neither manner and it’s still filed in the romance genre, romance fans feel cheated.

I don’t know how I’d file The Notebook–I mean, didn’t they have their happy ever after? it’s just the story usually ends before the romantic leads are white-haired–but Wuthering Heights is…not romance genre.

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Maybe you could argue my use of the word generally, but what I meant to say is that if it isn’t HEA it’s HFN.

The Notebook doesn’t follow the same formula as romance novels do. I think I’d call it a love story more than a romance novel.
In my opinion, romance novels aren’t supposed to make you weep uncontrollably. Maybe it’s like a subsection of the romance novel type of thing. I wouldn’t call it the face of the romance novel.
That’s just my opinion of that book though.

Genres (and marketing ranges) are tricky beasties!

Maybe The Notebook is more literary romance, and that’s why it’s kinda weird to see it as a genre romance. Wikipedia (and basic search) does classify it as romance, so something must be right. :slight_smile:

Also, I want to now see an “edgy” retelling of Wuthering Heights with like, leather jackets, smoking and etc.

Given the thoughtful debate on ‘The Notebook’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’ (still romance/love story, IMO) I’ve replaced them as examples.

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Also, I want to now see an “edgy” retelling of Wuthering Heights with like, leather jackets, smoking and etc.

Dude, yes!

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Great write-up! I’m endeavouring into Literary Crime this year and it’s nice to have references to keep in mind.

Feeling sorta ballsy, leaving this here for disgruntled Potterheads who stumble this way, lol @AlexSeanchai who sorta let me have it in the ‘Out of the Box’ Harry Potter thread (also, this reply isn’t to say that you didn’t make a good point, I believe I’ll rephrase my original post later):

This isn’t to indicate that ‘Harry Potter’ has no literary merit and does not explore societal ills (in retrospect I could’ve included ‘fascism’ alongside the mentions to ‘death’ and ‘prophecy’) but it is genre fiction. I’m saying this as a smug Slytherin who has read these books countless times and memorized the creatures and spells as a kid. In my unprofessional, and again, highly debatable opinion, yes, the series is primarily about growing up (granted, into a problematic and troubled world). And that isn’t a bad thing! Neither genre fic nor lit fic is better from one over the other. (There is a LOT of really bad lit fic out there that HP can outshine any day.)

Also, this page will soon be converted into a wiki, I’ve been informed - so anyone at trust level 3 will be able to make edits anyway. Lastly, if anyone disagrees with the list, leave a comment here with the specifics. I’m willing to go in and make changes following thoughtful debate. Already did that for the Romance category.

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Nominating Gulliver’s Travels for Literary Humor/Satire.

Perhaps one reason literary fiction is expected to be serious is that it often is equated with “old” books, those that have “stood the test of time” and yet still are considered worth reading…But the jokes tend to not be recognized after enough time has passed because the references are no longer topical, and because the slang no longer makes any sense. Shakespeare is a well-known example of this conundrum. People tell me Chaucer can also be very salty and very, very funny, but I’ve not read enough of him to know.

A humor/satire section would be neat. I’m thinking ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ would be a good lit. fic. to add to that list - perhaps something by David Sedaris as well (his short stories maybe?). I’d need some ideas for genre comedy examples. I’m not as much of a comedy/satire reader as I’d like to be.

Oh, and Chaucer is pretty hilarious with enough context to get the jokes (much like Shakespeare). If you haven’t tried reading him yet, do!

And I do agree that people do tend to think of literary fiction as ‘old,’ but again this is a misconception more than anything. There are many wonderful classics which I’d consider genre fic.

Here’s a superb list from Penguin Random House of the best literary fiction novels to have come out in 2018, if you’d like to see newer examples:

‘There There’ and ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ are both particularly excellent.

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I feel like my story is somewhat literary fiction. It deals more with the philosophical ideas of the story rather than just the character needing to survive- The thing is I didn’t know this existed, so it wasn’t intentional.

Just a note: with @Chaplin_s_Hat’s permission, I’ve made the top post a Wiki so people with the appropriate trust level can edit and modify as the conversation continues., if needed!

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Well, the nice thing is that you don’t wholly have to write either. Genre and lit fic is sorta like a spectrum which any book can fall anywhere on, even if it only leans one way or another just a little bit.

Yes, but Harry Potter is genre fiction because it has magic and that means filing it in SFF is kinda inescapable. Also, this?

Also genre fic, because dragons are another thing that make filing it in SFF inescapable!

It may be cross-filed under the literary genre, books belonging to multiple genres is a thing (like, Nora Roberts is a romance writer, but her Keys, Gallagher, and Three Mile Island trilogies are also unambiguously fantasy), but it’s still under one or another of the subgenres of speculative fiction. Which subgenre, I couldn’t tell you without knowing more about the story (like, Temeraire is alt-history and Pern is sci-fi), but that’s kinda beside my point.

giphy

I get what you’re getting at - I don’t wholly agree - but each to their own.

Also “genre fiction” as a term does not refer to individual genres such as SSF but “comercial” or “pulp” fiction. A book being SSF, or having ‘dragons’ in it, does not inherently make it literary or genre fic. For example, one lit. fic. fantasy example in the list in the top post, One Hundred Years of Solitude, includes a flying carpet, levitation, fortune tellers, a baby with a pig tail and many other SSF elements. The Tin Drum tells a story about an immortal child, and ‘The Buried Giant’ definitely has a giant in it. Fantastic elements alone do not determine whether a novel is lit. fic. or not, but to what purpose they serve.

For the sake of enlightenment though, and so that I can better understand your perspective, tell me how you would define literary fiction.