#LetsDiscuss2021 #13 – About Literary Fiction – #DiscussionSunday.

#LetsDiscuss2021 Landscape

Definitions of the various labels that publishers and authors use with their work, together with their readers, have always been up for discussion. I recall one ‘argument’ I had with someone who told me point blank that if a book had magical elements with a realistic setting, but the author wasn’t Latinx, that it shouldn’t be called a magical realism novel. I’m afraid that while that might have been the origin of the genre, I still disagree that a non-Latinx author’s book can’t be magical realism. Still, I won’t use that label in those cases, in order not to offend. These types of things are always in the back of my mind, so now is time to wonder…

What is Literary Fiction?

Discussion Sunday 2021


These are my personal opinions. I do not expect anyone to agree with anything here, and in fact, I’m certain that many will disagree and/or even hate many of the things I’ve written below. Sorry about that, but you are always welcome to express your own opinions – be they contrary or comparable – in the comments section. So, with that out of the way… let the controversy begin!

What made me think about this topic?

Recently, my friend Roz Morris posted on her blog an article called “Can we reclaim the term ‘literary fiction’? A conversation with Imogen Clark.” I would suggest you jump on over and take a look at it, because it was fascinating, and it inspired this post.

My Thoughts…

I consider myself a reader of almost only literary fiction and I don’t see that as an insult, and in fact is very inclusive in that it can be both contemporary and historical. See, I believe that those two refinements as being settings and not genres. On the other hand, although futuristic novels are set in the future, almost all novels set in the future are either fantasy or science fiction. If there are futuristic novels that are neither of those (and I hope someone can point me in the direction of one of those), then I guess they could be literary as well.

As Roz mentioned in one of her podcasts “one definition of a literary fiction book is that it can go where it pleases without having to hit any expected tropes.” Obviously this means that mystery, romance, fantasy, science fiction, and the like, rely heavily on those familiar tropes in order to be included in any particular genre. That also doesn’t mean that literary fiction can’t have a murder or a romance in the story; it just means that the romance or the murder are not the essence of those literary works. By that I mean that if there’s a murder in the story, we won’t spend the whole book trying to solve the crime; if there’s a romantic interest, in a literary work, we might not find out if the couple lives happily ever after or not. That means that in literary fiction, it is the journey of the protagonists that is at the center of the story.

Obviously, one wonders about the age groups as well. Meaning, adult, new adult, young adult, etc. Well, it seems to me that yet again, all of these can be either literary or genre fiction. So the idea that literary fiction is always high-brow and hard to read is, if you ask me, totally inaccurate. If a children’s book is literary fiction, it is just written with a level of vocabulary and language sophistication that a younger person is able to understand. So, no, there’s nothing snobbish about literary fiction either.

In the end, it seems to me that we shouldn’t put any negative connotations on a book that’s been labeled as literary fiction, no more than we should put negative connotations on genre fiction. That’s why I think the answer to Roz’s question is yes, we really can reclaim the term, and I think that most of the definitions can be applied. Those being, a story that doesn’t follow any specific genre’s tropes, that centers around realistic, human issues and how the characters react/cope with them. I think that’s pretty respectable, and no one should be ashamed to say they read it or write it, if you ask me.

So… there you have it!

What do you think Literary Fiction is? Does the term put you off or turn you on?

This post is my 13th entry in the 2021 Discussion Challenge, hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!


30 thoughts on “#LetsDiscuss2021 #13 – About Literary Fiction – #DiscussionSunday.

  1. I think literary fiction should be literary. My definition of this…as opposed to the dictionary definition…is that it should at least aim for a high standard as literature. In terms of skilled and original use of language, universality of theme, depth of character, having something important to say. It should be more than just a story.

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  2. The term ‘literary fiction’ is one that appeals to me. I use it personally for any fiction that is not genre specific, which has excellent writing, and which is widely applauded.
    Back when I worked for the public library, this term was used only for works that had received some literary acclaim. (won or was in the running for a literary award)

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  3. I don’t like the term “literary fiction” because to me it suggests “non-genre,” and therefore superior and more somehow worthy to be considered “literature”, and I object on behalf of the mystery, romance, SF and fantasy writers whose books can be good or sometimes great literature, even if they contain some tropes. (So what? All narrative is an artificial construct anyway.)

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    1. See? This is my point. Literary fiction is neither superior or inferior to genre fiction. In fact, I would say that literary is a genre that is equal to all the other genres out there, all of which are literature!

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      1. But what defines the “literary” genre then? I think it needs a different name — all genres can be “literary.” The current terminology is snobby.

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      2. True… which is sad, I think, because it turns people off, and it shouldn’t. I’d say it is stories that examine the human condition, focusing more on the characters and how they evolve, and less on the plots.

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      3. I think a different word should be used then. Plot is just as literary an element as character after all. With poetry we have epic, lyric, and dramatic poems, and nobody would say epic poetry is not literary, even though it’s more plot focused.

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  4. I also think that literary fiction, as a term, is divisive. I prefer to use “general fiction” for my own posts, although I get that just because something doesn’t fit into a genre doesn’t mean that it should be lumped in with literary works.

    I read an interview this week with Jean Hanff Korelitz in which she said “I wanted to be a literary novelist. But then I realized I liked plot.” Now, I do think it’s a little reductive to say that literary fiction is plot-free…but it’s certainly plot-light. And, like, Korelitz, I’m a plot girl, so I don’t read all that much general, or literary, fiction. But I really appreciate these perspectives. Good post, great discussion.

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  5. I agree that just because a book is considered literary fiction doesn’t mean it’s hard to read. As a matter of fact, many were written for the masses of their time. Interesting post, Davida!

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  6. The term “literary fiction” has become a turn-off for me, because I the usage these days connotes “serious” fiction, often with a writing approach that’s much more about style than plot (or at least, that’s how it’s felt to me on my last few ventures into the genre). On the magical realism subject, I don’t think it’s fair to say that only Latinx literature can be called magical realism. That may have been the creative origin, but certainly plenty of other authors use that approach. (Alice Hoffman comes to mind). Interesting topics!

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  7. I have to say that the term literary fiction is really off-putting for me, because over the years I have met many lovers of literary fiction that were terrible book snobs and looked down on anything they didn‘t consider worthy. It often seems to be considered „serious“ fiction and superior to genre fiction, which I find insulting to so called genre fiction.

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    1. Yes… that’s the bad rap that literary fiction has gotten over the years. As if literary fiction can’t be silly, or humorous. And some book snobs do tend to think less of genre fiction, but I think that’s starting to change.

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  8. I think of literary fiction as a story that has the meaning of life as it’s main theme and focus …..mostly character driven it seems…with exceptional writing. The definition is certainly elusive and difficult to define, but I think I know it when I’ve experienced it!

    I’ve never heard of magical realism defined like that!

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      1. And yet, I was practically smacked down for calling the Chocolat series by Joanne Harris magical realism because Harris isn’t Latinx! But I looked it up and apparently, there is something to that since even Wikipedia notes that the genre is mostly associated with Latin-American writers, since apparently they founded the genre and were the earliest authors to use magical elements in a realistic world in their stories. I’m guessing that the ire I got from that blogger was due to today’s problems with cultural appropriation in literature.

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      2. cultural appropriation in literature — difficult topic! I understand the reason, why it‘s frowned upon. And it has led to some truly ridiculous novels by people not bothering to even attempt a realistic approach. However, in the ultimate consequence it would mean that I am only allowed to write about middle aged white women from Germany. That would make for some pretty odd novels. I am being OTT on purpose here, but still…

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      3. Agreed! Mind you, some topics can be very problematic but as long as the author writes with enough sensitivity (and does REAL research, not just Google searches), I think they can tackle those topics with no personal background or experience.

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  9. I am not turned off by the literary fiction label, nor am I especially turned on. Here’s the thing: I need it to be good, better than genre, not simply the leftovers after genre labels don’t apply. You know? I compare it to free verse poetry. Any pile of words that don’t fit into a poetry form CAN be called free verse, even if there isn’t anything poetic about them. No one can stop a writer from labeling it as such, same as lit-fic, but, for me, there has to be heightened language in the poetry or something interesting, just as I would expect “literary fiction” to be something more than rambling on. The story still needs an arc, as well as a denouement, and the protag’s actions must be coherent for the character traits she’s been assigned. Labels can be useful (to steer me away from horror, historical fiction, YA, etc.), but sometimes I think there’s too much emphasis on them, especially when we drill down to the subgenres…

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