Literary Thoughts

In the world of fiction, there are two categories. Literary fiction, and everything else.

Literary fiction confuses me.

There. I’ve said it. I, your hostess, an English Major, am confused by literary fiction. It’s not necessarily the books themselves I find confounding (although, hello! James Joyce anyone?). It’s the definition. What exactly IS literary fiction anyway?

Here’s the definition of literary fiction from Wikipedia:

Literary fiction is a term that came into common usage during the early 1960s. The term is principally used to distinguish “serious fiction” which is a work that claims to hold literary merit, in comparison from genre fiction and popular fiction (i.e., paraliterature). In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more upon style, psychological depth, and character.[1][2] This is in contrast to Mainstream commercial fiction, which focuses more on narrative and plot. Literary fiction may also be characterized as lasting fiction — literature which continues to be read and in-demand many decades and perhaps centuries after the author has died.

Well, that puts me in my place. Apparently only works classified as literary fiction can be “serious” and have “literary merit” and be read long after the author is dead. Okay. So, who exactly decides what “serious” and “literary merit” means?

You may think it’s silly to wonder about this, but the fact of the matter is that, for the most part, only fiction classified as literary fiction gets reviewed in the big newspapers. Only literary fiction is spotlighted on NPR or other “serious” media outlets. You’d better be considered literary fiction if you want to win a prestigious award. Literary fiction is respected.

Genre and popular fiction are not.

This is why authors who are considered “literary”, like Margaret Atwood, argue vehemently when their fiction is considered to be genre. They can’t afford to be ghettoized.

On the other hand, genre and popular fiction are what sells. Hence the name “popular”. So let’s hope there actually is psychological depth and character in at least some of those books.

Here are my thoughts on the matter. Because I know you care.

I don’t give a darn if a book is considered literary fiction or genre fiction or popular fiction. If the book is entertaining, if it’s thought provoking, if it pulls me into the world of the author and transports me to a different place, I like it. So I liked Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, even though she insists it is “speculative fiction”, not science fiction. I love Jane Eyre and The Shipping News and Weird Sisters and a hundred other literary and “serious” books. But if the book is literary and serious because the author graduated from an MFA program and wants to prove how literary and serious they are, well, I just don’t have the time. I’ll let the New York Times Book Review editor read that one.

In other words, literary fiction still has to tell a story, and that story has to be interesting.

I also think that genre and popular fiction should be judged on their own merits. It shouldn’t matter how the critics decide to label a book. The worth and “literary merit” of a novel should be based on how well it is written, not by how it is tagged and marketed.

Because to some degree or other, aren’t all books literary?

Why, yes.  I would say they are.




  1. I think I just might have to agree 🙂
    Seriously I do agree 100% 🙂 not that my vote counts for much LOL

    • Betsy Horvath says

      @Doris: I get annoyed when an author who has clearly written a genre novel goes out of their way to disavow all knowledge. And I get equally annoyed when a perfectly wonderful genre novel is passed over for recognition just because it’s been labeled. It’s all a racket. 😀

  2. Literary fiction is what people with MFAs write, as opposed to what people without them write. It should also contain a lot of literary allusions to make it obscure enough for the experts in university classrooms to lord their superior knowledge over their charges. That’s about all it is.

    It’s also supposed to be better written and less formulaic than other genre and, by and large, it is, but sometimes it is just so obtuse that only intellectual snobs will lay claim to having read it, to lord it over the rest of us, Finnegan’s Wake and Molloy come to mind.

  3. I tell myself that serious literary fiction is written by those who can’t plot and/or tell a good story. 😉

  4. Great post on a challenging topic! The characters tend to define the difference for me. In popular fiction, they seem like people I would like or be friends with or knew. Literary characters seem removed, like people I may have heard about, either for good or for bad, but not folks I would encounter regularly (or even ever).

    And I so agree — I really don’t like books that try to be deeply literary, like the are showing off how literary they can be over any other elements.

    • Betsy Horvath says

      @Lynda K: I know what you mean about the characters seeming removed, Lynda. You know, now that I think about it, relating to the characters is probably one of the key things I look for in a book.

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