Literary fiction, also known as serious fiction, is a term principally used for fictional works that hold literary merit, that is to say, they are works that offer deliberate social commentary, political criticism, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition. Literary fiction is deliberately written in dialogue with existing works, created with the above aims in mind. Literary fiction is focused more on themes than on plot, and it is common for literary fiction to be taught and discussed in schools and universities.
Literary fiction is usually contrasted with paraliterary fiction (e.g., popular, commercial, or genre fiction). Some have described the difference between them in terms of analyzing reality (literary) rather than escaping reality (paraliterary). The contrasts between these two subsets of fiction is highly controversial among critics and scholars who study literature.
Literary fiction is usually not considered a genre, with associated conventions, but there are common characteristics that can help define it.
Literary fiction, in general, focuses on the subjects of the narrative to create "introspective, in-depth character studies" of "interesting, complex and developed" characters. This contrasts with paraliterary fiction where "generally speaking, the kind of attention that we pay to the subject in literature ... has to be paid to the social and material complexities of the object".
Literary fiction does not focus on plot as much as paraliterary fiction. Usually, the focus is on the "inner story" of the characters who drive the plot with detailed motivations to elicit "emotional involvement" in the reader.
The pacing of literary fiction is slower than paraliterary fiction. As Terrence Rafferty notes, "literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way."
As a genre
Some authors suggest that literary fiction is, in itself, just another genre or set of genres. Samuel R. Delany, for example, notes that the "literary genres might be characterized as the 'tyranny of the subject'" because of the focus on the "subject, the self, [and] psychology". On the other hand, Mort Castle suggests that literary fiction is composed of three genres: literature (i.e., classics), realism, and postmodernist fiction.
Other authors struggle with the expectations of the literary 'genre'. In an interview by Lev Grossman for Time magazine, John Updike lamented that "the category of 'literary fiction' has sprung up recently to torment people like me who just set out to write books, and if anybody wanted to read them, terrific, the more the merrier. But now, no, I'm a genre writer of a sort. I write literary fiction, which is like spy fiction or chick lit". Likewise, on The Charlie Rose Show, he shared that he felt this term, when applied to his work, greatly limited him and his expectations of what might come of his writing, and so does not really like it. He said that all his works are literary simply because "they are written in words".
Well known examples of literary fiction include The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, The Lord of the Flies, 1984, Pride and Prejudice, Slaughterhouse five, and Of Mice and Men.
Neal Stephenson has suggested that while any definition will be simplistic there is a general cultural difference between literary and genre fiction, created by whom the author is accountable to. Literary novelists are typically supported by patronage via employment at a university or similar institutions, with the continuation of such positions determined not by book sales but by critical acclaim by other established literary authors and critics. Genre fiction writers seek to support themselves by book sales and write to please a mass audience.
- Saricks 2009, p. 180.
- Coles 2009, p. 7.
- Delany 2009, p. 66.
- Saricks 2009, p. 181-182.
- Coles 2007, p. 26.
- Coles 2009, p. 8.
- Saricks 2009, p. 179.
- Saricks 2009, p. 182.
- Rafferty 2011.
- Castle 2006, p. 113-114.
- Grossman 2006.
- The Charlie Rose Show from June 14, 2006 with John Updike
- Slashdot Interview from October 20, 2004 with Neal Stephenson
- Castle, Mort (2006). On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers of America (2nd ed.). Writer's Digest Books. p. 260.
- Coles, William (2007). Story in Literary Fiction: A Manual for Writers. AuthorHouse. p. 112.
- Coles, William (2009). Literary Story As an Art Form: A Text for Writers. AuthorHouse. p. 136.
- Delany, Samuel (2009). Freedman, Carl, ed. Conversations With Samuel R. Delany. Literary Conversations Series. University Press of Mississippi. p. 214.
- Grossman, Lev (May 28, 2006). "Old Master in a Brave New World". Time. Retrieved April 26, 2012.
- Rafferty, Terrence (February 4, 2011). "Reluctant Seer". New York Times Sunday Book Review. Retrieved April 23, 2012.
- Saricks, Joyce (2009). The Readers' Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd ed.). ALA Editions. p. 402.
- Saricks, Joyce (2005). Readers' Advisory Service In The Public Library (3rd ed.). ALA Editions. p. 211.