Literary fiction are fictional works that are deemed to be of literary merit, as distinguished from most commercial, or "genre" fiction. The distinction can be controversial among critics and scholars, especially because a number of major literary figures have written genre fiction, including John Banville, Doris Lessing, Iain Banks, and Margaret Atwood.
Neal Stephenson has suggested that while any definition will be simplistic there is today a 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 a similar institution, 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, so he does not really like it. He suggested that all his works are literary, simply because "they are written in words".
Characteristics of literary fiction generally include one or more of the following:
- a concern with social commentary, political criticism, or reflection on the human condition, 
- a focus on "introspective, in-depth character studies" of "interesting, complex and developed" characters, whose "inner stories" drive the plot, with detailed motivations to elicit "emotional involvement" in the reader.
- a slower pace 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".
- a concern with the style and complexity of the writing: Saricks describes literary fiction is "elegantly written, lyrical, and ... layered".
Saricks also suggests a contrast with genre fiction, in which plot is the central concern. However, this does not imply that plots are unimportant in literary fiction. Saricks also claims that the tone of literary fiction can be 'darker' than genre fiction; however, dark themes also feature in genre fiction, notably horror and some fantasy, paranormal and science fiction.
However, the distinction is becoming blurred with major writers of literary fiction, like Nobel laureate Doris Lessing, as well as Margaret Atwood, writing science fiction. Also George Simenon, the creator of the Maigret detective novels, has been described by American composer and writer Ned Rorem, as 'one of the five greatest French writers of our century'. 'Rorem placed Simenon in the company of Proust, Gide, Cocteau and Sartre. Gide once called him 'the most novelistic of novelists in French literature'.
Academia is also gradually reflecting this, with the University of Dundee offering a MLitt in Science fiction, Florida Atlantic University, has an MA in Literature & Theory with a concentration in Science Fiction and Fantasy, while the University of Kansas, has a Center for the Study of Science Fiction.
- Slashdot Interview from October 20, 2004 with Neal Stephenson
- Grossman 2006.
- The Charlie Rose Show from June 14, 2006 with John Updike
- Saricks 2009, p. 180.
- Coles 2009, p. 7.
- Coles 2007, p. 26.
- Coles 2009, p. 8.
- Saricks 2009, p. 182.
- Rafferty 2011.
- Saricks 2009, p. 179.
- Saricks 2009, p. 181-182.
- Charles E. Claffey, The Boston Globe September, 10, 1989 Contributing to this report was Boston Globe book editor Mark Feeney.
- Science Fiction
- 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.
- Habjan, Jernej, Imlinger, Fabienne. Globalizing Literary Genres: Literature, History, Modernity. London: Routledge, 2015.
- 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.