literary fiction

How is literary fiction different from other genres?

In creative writing, we talk about form and genre. Form is what we write: fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction. Genre is how we further classify each of these forms.

In fiction writing, there’s literary fiction and everything else.

In fact, literary fiction and all the other genres are so at odds with each other that some writers simply say they are either literary fiction writers or genre writers.

But what does that mean? Isn’t all fiction considered literary? Yes and no.

What is Literary Fiction Anyway?

Let’s start with a simple definition of the word literary. Dictionary.com offers several definitions, including the following:

  1. pertaining to or of the nature of books and writings, especially those classed as literature: literary history.
  2. pertaining to authorship: literary style.
  3. versed in or acquainted with literature; well-read.
  4. engaged in or having the profession of literature or writing: a literary man.
  5. characterized by an excessive or affected display of learning; stilted; pedantic.

So we can use the word literary whenever we’re talking about writing or authorship in general, but it can also mean an excessive or affected display of learning. That’s a nice way of referring to intellectual or academic snobbery.

Wikipedia offers a more specific definition of literary fiction: “fictional works that are claimed to hold literary merit.” The article goes on to say that “to be considered literary, a work usually must be ‘critically acclaimed’ and ‘serious’. In practice, works of literary fiction often are ‘complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas.'”

In other words, literary fiction has meaning and significance. I’ve also heard literary fiction defined as paying diligence to the craft of writing (or the art of stringing words together), exploring the human condition, and making bold commentary or criticism of society and culture.

Literary Fiction vs. Everything Else

I love literary fiction. Some of my favorite novels are The Grapes of Wrath, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird, all of which would be classified as literary fiction. These are the kind of books that people study and analyze. They’re taught in schools. People read them for decades, even centuries, after they’re published. They win prestigious awards and are beloved and celebrated by bookworms and scholars alike.

As much as I love literary fiction, I’d have to say that my heart belongs to science fiction. From A Wrinkle in Time to Snow Crash, the science fiction that I love best has done everything that literary fiction can do and then some.

In an interview with the Paris Review (which I highly recommend), the great Ray Bradbury said, “Science fiction is the fiction of ideas.” He also observed that science fiction often goes unrecognized for having literary merit and expressed his chagrin:

“As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible…The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery.”

Some of the other genres have it even worse. When was the last time a romance novel or horror story won critical acclaim or took home the highest literary honors? Science fiction and fantasy writers have enjoyed more critical and commercial success in recent years: J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyers, and Suzanne Collins have dominated book sales, and they are all genre writers. Ray Bradbury himself won several prestigious literary awards. Sometimes it seems like the literary academics (the literati) are coming around and slowly opening their minds to genre fiction.

Yet there is still a stigma attached to genre fiction in certain literary circles. Just recently, I heard someone say they refused to read The Hunger Games because it was about kids killing kids and was therefore garbage. Yet kids are killing kids all over the planet: in gangs, in wars, and in school shootings. It’s not garbage; it’s truth, and that is the purest form of literature.

Looking for Merit in Creative Writing

Of course there is an argument to made about the merit of a work of fiction. I’ve read plenty of literary and genre fiction that said absolutely nothing about humanity or the world in which we live. Some of the literary novels I’ve picked up recently have been so abstract, obtuse, and erudite that after a few chapters, I gave up and moved on to the next book. And I’ve read plenty of genre fiction that is good fun but will never change the world.

Ultimately, each of us decides for ourselves which stories hold the most merit. We get to ask ourselves whether we want a gripping story or a story that makes us think, feel, and question. Do we read to be entertained and to escape, or do we read to broaden our perspectives and enlighten ourselves?

Have you ever watched a film or read a book that you thought had a lot of artistic or intellectual merit only to learn that the critics shot it down? Have you ever experienced a story that you thought was just awful and learned that it won awards and prestige? What are your thoughts on the divide between literary fiction and genre fiction? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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