What is literary fiction anyway?

It’s always good to start the writing week with a lively discussion, and the topic of literary fiction, its definition and purpose, is guaranteed to engage the minds of indie authors everywhere. Ann Richardson, whose non-fiction books marshall opinions and research on various topics, kindly volunteered to summarise a vigorous debate between ALLi authors on our closed Facebook forum (an exclusive benefit for ALLi members).
No attribution is given to individual thoughts or even direct quotations, primarily for brevity but also to preserve anonymity. Necessary apologies to anyone who feels their contribution was ignored or misrepresented.

Who Writes Literary Fiction?

The discussion began with the seemingly innocent question from one member asking which others identified themselves as writers of literary fiction. Surprisingly few put themselves wholeheartedly in this camp.

Many members suggested that their books were difficult to classify (“I know what they’re not, but struggle to give them a label”). A considerable number claimed that their writing displayed key elements of literary fiction (“I’m a lit-ficish writer”), particularly good writing (“I like to think of my work as “literary” in the best sense”).

Some felt their writing, although potentially literary fiction, was more usefully described as historical or contemporary fiction. Others created their own dual categories: literary horror, literary fantasy. literary suspense and even “litfic with a touch of magical realism and a dusting of horror”. One offered literary fiction with a plot.

Nonetheless, a few ALLi members were mentioned by others as belonging firmly in the realm of writers of literary fiction: Jane Davis, Dan Holloway, Roz Morris, Rohan Quine, Philippa Rees and Orna Ross (alphabetising intentional).

What is Literary Fiction?

This led to the much more troubling question of what literary fiction is. There was some interest in finding an intrinsic definition, but also a focus on comparing it to more traditional genre fiction.

Some saw literary fiction as writing with great attention to language and style. Sentences would be expected to be carefully crafted, metaphors fresh and clichés avoided, striving for precision. It might also involve experimentation.

Others stressed that literary fiction is more character-driven, with an interest in character development, motivation and complex relationships: “I’m enthralled by the inner worlds and hinterlands of my character’s personalities”. Additionally, one might expect less focus on plot, and certainly less reliance on formulaic plotting.

Yet others focused on the impact of literary fiction on the reader. Its pages may not turn quickly, but the writing makes readers look inward and recognise something in themselves:

“reflect depths beyond itself to reach echoes in the mind, reflections in the heart”.

Or it might challenge the reader in some fundamental way: “books that give me something I have never seen before…it turns the world on its head”.

A number of contributors aimed to define literary fiction in relation to well-known writers, naming too many to be repeated here, from classics to many modern writers.

In the final analysis, many argued that a clear definition was both impossible and inappropriate:

‘the taxonomy of ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction is misleading”

Any definition was likely to ignore or diminish the many accomplishments of the best genre writers,. for instance, a note of the “wonderful prose, dynamic plots and superb characterisation” of some crime novels. If the aim was to tell a good story, many books were both literary and genre, and some of the latter might one day prove to be classics.

Indeed, the label was unhelpful, set up for marketing purposes, and most readers were unlikely to care.

Very little attention was given to the concept of literary non-fiction, aside from noting that some narrative non-fiction books might be included here.

Some Reflections

Overall, there was a considerable dislike for the term literary fiction.  It was seen to have pejorative overtones, too often implying a boring and/or pretentious work (“doorstep-long triumphs of the beautiful sentence and painstaking research over ideas and innovation”), with a poor or non-existent plot and little good reason to read it (“low or negative payoff”). Indeed, a few saw the broad label as a warning: “if a book is described as literary, I’m inclined to look elsewhere”. Moreover, some noted, it could prove difficult to sell.

Much of the heat in the discussion arose from the feeling that literary fiction was sometimes deemed to be more worthy than other genres: better written, more thought-provoking, altogether a higher art. It was important to recognise the many exceptions, although it was also inappropriate to compare the best of one genre with the worst of another.

With respect to their own writing, many members agreed that their main aim was to write what they chose and “not feel trammelled by genre”. This led to another discussion about the potential conflict between following one’s own muse and selling well. Any summary of this issue must await another day.

There could never be a simple conclusion to such a discussion, but in short, literary fiction means different things to different people. What does it mean to you?


On the day I began this post, my husband and I discussed it briefly. That evening, he read me a passage from the book he happened to be reading. It was a talk by William Waldegrave at a dinner to honour the novelist Patrick O’Brian. We are here, he began:

to celebrate and to honour one of the greatest storytellers in the English language. I start with that word – storyteller – designedly. There are, or used to be, some in the world of English literary studies who regard the capacity to tell a story as being a most deadly disqualification from serious consideration. Only if a book proceeded in a properly inconsequential manner, only if the naïve could be trapped into the ultimate solecism of enquiring what it might be about, only if the pages might be bound up in all manner of different orders without difference to the sense – only then could the thing be taken as high art.

Full speech published in Patrick O’Brian, The Yellow Admiral, HarperCollins, 1997

This was originally published by the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) on 17 October 2016. (http://selfpublishingadvice.org/opinion-what-is-literary-fiction-anyway/#comment-633037)

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