Word Nerdery: What Exactly Is Literary Fiction?

Do you remember going to English class in school and having to read some frankly bizarre books? One of my least favourite was The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, a strange book where the narrator had no name, and I was entirely sure that there was not much going on at all. There were others, certainly, but that one sticks in my mind. These books, and others, are considered literature, or at the very least literary fiction (these are very slightly different, I’ll get into that in a moment), but the question is: what exactly is literary fiction?

In any bookstore, the shelves are generally divided into genres. Fiction, Romance, Mystery/Thriller, Sci-fi, Fantasy, Young Adult, Poetry, etc. Each genre has specific requirements for books to fit there, and are categorised so that people know what they’re getting into. Mysteries have a mystery to solve, usually involving a dead body. Science Fiction involves a scientific or technological feature upon which the book centres, be it in the future or the past. Fantasy generally has magic. All of this makes sense.

Literary fiction—and literature—however, is a broad, general topic that can fit anything from The Invisible Man to Wuthering Heights (another book I disliked, despite my fondness for gothic romances) to The Elegance of the Hedgehog (not an English class book, but one I enjoyed). There can be a mystery, or romance, or just people hanging out in a coffee shop and talking. I’ve even seen literary fiction that includes magic, though admittedly this is quite uncommon. 

When I’ve asked fellow authors to define the genre, though, I have received answers that are so far and wide-ranging as to be absolutely useless. Comments on the human condition (isn’t every book?). Fiction that doesn’t fit into any other genre. Stuff that you read to sound smart. None of this tells me what, exactly, is required to call a book literary fiction. 

So let’s dive in and see if we can’t figure this out.

According to Wikipedia, “Literary fiction, mainstream fiction, non-genre fiction or serious fiction is a label that, in the book trade, refers to market novels that do not fit neatly into an established genre (see genre fiction); or, otherwise, refers to novels that are character-driven rather than plot-driven, examine the human condition, use language in an experimental or poetic fashion, or are simply considered serious art.”

Right. That doesn’t necessarily tell me anything. A serious book? I’ve just read several books in the fantasy genre, the historical genre, the thriller genre, and more that are quite serious. A book that is character driven rather than plot driven? Same thing. Using language in an experimental or poetic fashion? I just worked with an editing client whose use of language is so poetical that I can’t even run it through a standard grammar checker, like I do to see if there’s anything I missed. His books are inherently understandable and definitely firmly in the fantasy genre. Considering a book serious art? What is considered art?

Literature, also looked up on Wikipedia, gives a similarly confusing result: “Literature is any collection of written work, but it is also used more narrowly for writings specifically considered to be an art form, especially prose fictiondrama, and poetry.” Art again, which is so subjective as to be meaningless.

(A small digression: Every English teacher I ever had mentioned Earnest Hemmingway at some point. Now, despite the adulation of many authors and teaches, I have never understood the appeal of his works. They consider his books literature. I would happily use them as doorstops instead. Whereas I would consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s works literature, and that usually falls into the fantasy genre.)

I ask again, then: what exactly is literature?

If you look up the 10 best books of 2022 on Time (or any other well-known publication), the entire list is comprised of books that do not have any markers of genre fiction, and therefore fall firmly into the literary fiction category. (This list here: https://time.com/6238663/best-fiction-books-2022/) I’ve never heard of any of these, and I am an independent author, book reviewer, editor, and am extremely fond of bookstores. The subjects of the books range from coming to terms with death (but not as a mystery) to campus politics at university to a diasporic community. The time periods and characters are wide ranging and varied. And, frankly, I’m not entirely sure what the books are about going by their descriptions.

I would absolutely agree that Shakespeare falls into the literature category, as does Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (which is often considered the first science fiction novel, by the way), and many others besides. But there are a lot of books that I would say are not literature that others would put into that category. Literature or literary fiction, serious works or art, I could not tell you.

So, what exactly is literary fiction?

I have no idea.

And maybe that’s the point.

“Literary Fiction.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Nov. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_fiction.

“Literature.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Jan. 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literature.