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On Literary Fiction and Literature

Thank you for voting. The purpose of the poll is to let readers decide the genre since I do not know the difference between literary fiction and literature, although what I mostly read isn’t a far cry from these two categories. I was clearing out old e-mails from last year’s Book Blogger Appreciation Week, in which the blog was nominated for literary fiction and GLBT categories. What is literary fiction? To recount the poll result, 59% of you voted literary fiction, and 33% literature.

According to wikipedia, the term literary fiction dated back to 1960. It is “principally to distinguish serious fiction (that is, work with claims to literary merit) from the many types of genre fiction and popular fiction (i.e., paraliterature). In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character, the plot may or may not be important. Mainstream commercial fiction (the page-turner) focuses more on narrative and plot.”

What distinguishes literary fiction from other genres is somewhat subjective, and as in other artistic media, genres may overlap. In the back of my mind, the impression on literary fiction fairly agrees with the above definition. Toni Morrison is what comes right off my mind. Literary fiction is a subset of literature, but doesn’t necessary promise a story. Literature is a conversation across the ages, and the epochs, about our experience and our nature, a conversation in which there is a surprising breadth of agreement. Whereas literature can be plot-driven or purely stylistic, literary fiction concerns with structure, forms, and stylistics. Literature teaches us how, out of the complex welter of impulses churning within us, we make the choices that define us and seal our fate. Imagine how we grasp, response to, and make sense of the complex internal mix of feelings an author imbue to his/her characters.

Even so, literary fiction is generally characterized as distinctive based on its content and style (“literariness”, the concern to be “writerly”). Would I categorize Anne Enright as literary fiction or literature? I tend to associate literary fiction with the criteria used in literary awards and marketing of certain kinds of novels, since literary prizes, in particular Booker Prize and Pulitzer Prize, usually concern themselves with literary fiction, and their shortlists can give a working definition.

(Previously written on May 6, scheduled to appear today.)

10 Responses

  1. I usually call things literary fiction if I can’t think of another genre that I could call it. 😛

  2. I think I’ve always distinguished these two types of books as Literature and Fiction. Literature being the more “weighty” of the two, and Fiction being the more entertainment driven. Either way, I love them both and think the lines between the two boundaries are pretty fluid.

    • I agree with you. Most of the books I read belong to literature rather than fiction. Literature usually requires a bit of thought on the style and the intention, while fiction is meant to be consumed as entertainment. I think literary fiction is a subset of literature—books that are of literary values but not necessarily plot-driven.

  3. Hi, just let you know that I’ve moved to a new home:


  4. Part of the definition of ‘literature” is that it has “lasting value,” so anything being written today can aspire to be “literary fiction” at best. History will sort it all out!

    • Very good thought. I think literature would be books that are read over and over, across generations, and in other word, timeless.

  5. […] top genre, of course, as I have discussed and reiterated, is literature/literary fiction. Although this blog does not review literary fiction […]

  6. I know I’m waaaay late to this discussion, but thank you for saying that “literary fiction,” doesn’t necessarily promise a story, and that “literature,” is more like a CONVERSATION. WOW! These explanations have helped to change my expectations when tackling the more challenging novels, like a Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which, by the way, kept giving me major problems because I was expecting Morrison to deliver a story, which she does in her own way, but now that I realize it’s more about her CONVERSATION, how the novel sheds light on the human condition, now I can better tackle this work. Great stuff!

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