Literary fiction comprises fictional works that hold literary merit; that is, they involve social commentary, or political criticism, or focus on the human condition. Literary fiction is deliberately written in dialogue with existing works, created with the above aims in mind and 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 popular, commercial, or genre fiction. Some have described the difference between them in terms of analyzing reality (literary) rather than escaping reality (popular). The contrast between these two subsets of fiction is controversial among critics and scholars.
Neal Stephenson has suggested that while any definition will be simplistic there is today general cultural difference between literary and genre fiction. On the one hand literary authors nowadays are frequently supported by patronage, with employment at a university or similar institutions, and with the continuation of such positions determined not by book sales but by critical acclaim by other established literary authors and critics. On the other hand, he suggests, genre fiction writers tend to support themselves by book sales.
However, in an interview, 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. ... 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 argued that this term, when applied to his work, greatly limited him and his expectations of what might come of his writing, and so he does not really like it. He suggested that all his works are literary, simply because "they are written in words".
Literary fiction is not a genre, with associated conventions, but there are common characteristics that can help define it.
Literary fiction, in general, focuses on "introspective, in-depth character studies" of "interesting, complex and developed" characters. This contrasts with genre fiction where plot is the central concern. Usually, in literary fiction 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 may be slower than popular 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."
- 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. Subscription required. So in effect a dead link
- 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.