The Moving Word

Writer, Preacher, Bookworm, Student of the Word

What is Literary Fiction?

My reading tastes have changed through the years. In elementary school I voraciously read biographies. The school library had these biographies with orange covers and I read every one they had.

As I grew older, I began reading horror. In high school, I would get my work done quickly and sit and read the remainder of the class period. I read countless novels in the genre through the years. In time, though, I moved on and stopped reading horror completely.

Then I moved to mysteries/thrillers and read hundreds of them until I became fairly well-versed in the genre. They read quickly and I enjoyed the puzzles.

When I finally decided I had wasted enough time dreaming about writing a novel, I began work on a manuscript. Accordingly, as the plot developed, my reading tastes changed again. I needed to broaden my horizons to fill in the gap.

I began reading more books by women and more romance so I could do a better job understanding female characters. As I began studying writing in earnest, the mystery stories I was reading began to look stale and drab.

I began to seek out better books with higher quality writing. That led me to literary fiction, a genre I had little knowledge of. When people asked me what genre I primarily read, it was hard to give them a firm answer. So I went in search of one.

I found a website that defined literary fiction in a way that resonated with me. It proved to me that this is my new reading home because this is what I am writing and what I love to read. The author wrote:

Most genre fiction involves a character propelling themselves through a world. The character is an active protagonist who goes out into a world, experiences the challenges of that world, and emerges either triumphant or defeated. Think about every genre novel you’ve ever read: sci-fi, westerns, romances chick lit, thrillers…. They are all about a character with a certain level of mastery over the world in which they are in bumping up against the challenges of that world and trying to achieve their goal. Sure, the character might have an inner struggle and be a richly rendered character, but for the most part genre novels are about the exterior — they are about how a character navigates a unique world.

So the plot in a genre novel usually involves things happening — action sequences, love sequences, chases, shootouts…. The best genre novels fold these action sequences with the inner life of a character, but make no mistake: genre novels are really about how a character interacts with the outer world. The things that happen are pretty much on the surface, and thus the reader can sit back and watch and see what happens.

Now consider literary fiction. In literary fiction the plot usually happens beneath the surface, in the minds and hearts of the characters. Things may happen on the surface, but what is really important are the thoughts, desires, and motivations of the characters as well as the underlying social and cultural threads that act upon them. The plot may be buried to such a degree that if you have to describe the book in a short sentence it seems plotless — an old man writes a letter to his young son and reflects on his life. There doesn’t seem to be a plot there. But there is a plot. It is about how the protagonist comes to terms with his life and how he reconciles his desire to leave something behind for his son with his impending mortality. [The story] has all the ups and downs of a genre novel, but the plot points all relate to the inner mind, and the climaxes and nadirs are almost hidden in quiet moments and small-but-powerful revelations.

Even when the prose is straightforward, literary fiction is more challenging to read than genre fiction because it requires the reader to infer a great deal of the plot rather than simply sitting back and watching the plot unfold. It requires empathy to relate to characters as humans and to deduce the hidden motivations and desires that lurk beneath their actions. The reader has to recognize the small turning points and the low points and the high points based on what they know of the character and about human nature. And there’s a reason very few literary novels end with a shootout. What happens out in the world isn’t as important in literary novels as what happens within the minds of the characters, and thus the climax might be something as small as a decision or a new conviction.

I love this definition because it describes what I am trying to write perfectly. Psychological fiction and movies have always intrigued me. The human mind has been a fascination of mine for much of my life. So, why not explore a reading genre that fosters that interest?

Literary fiction is a rich vein that I can mine. However, it is more nebulous and does not have a category at the book store or on webpages. Finding literary fiction is more difficult than I imagined it would be. Hopefully that will change as I become more knowledgeable of the genre.

What do you think of literary fiction and this definition?

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7 thoughts on “What is Literary Fiction?

  1. Great post…as a matter of taste, you grow up to yearn for ‘literary fiction’ after crossing the road more traveled of popular fiction

  2. That’s a pretty good definition. To me, literary fiction has always been about the character underneath the story and conflict, i.e. the person within. On a lighter note, I define literary fiction as any book where I can’t guess the ending after 50 pages. 😉

  3. photojaq on said:

    I would like to see several examples of books you consider Literary Fiction. Have you enjoyed any recently?

    • I’m still learning the classifications and I’m looking for clearer parameters and listings. Hopefully I can find them. 🙂

      I would list the following that I enjoyed very much.

      “Before I Go to Sleep” by SJ Watson
      “Turn of Mind” by Alice LaPlante
      “In Search of the Rose Notes” by Emily Arsenault
      “Room” by Emma Donoghue

  4. photojaq on said:

    Thanks! I will check them out.

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