What is Literary Fiction, Anyway?

What is literary fiction? I’ve been trying to figure it out, and I’m stumped. (Let me just say this up front: this essay is about 750 words, and I absolutely do not give a definitive definition anywhere in those words.) Like any genre or age category, “literary fiction” is a designation that is primarily a marketing tool, an idea of where to find a book in a bookstore…but genre is also supposed to give readers an idea of what to expect, at least in very broad terms, and I don’t think literary fiction does that.

A genre like mystery or romance tells us there will be a central [mystery/romance] plot with expected tropes, familiar structure, and a satisfactory ending where the main character(s) [solve the crime/live happily ever after]. There are always books that break the mold when it comes to tropes and structure, but they conform to the central plot and ending rules almost without exception. Likewise, a science fiction book will in some way involve fictional science, a fantasy book will explore the fantastical, and a suspense book will keep the reader in suspense. Historical fiction takes place in the past, crime novels concern themselves with, well, crime (but not necessarily the solving of it), etc.

But what about literary fiction? What can I expect from the genre? The best definition I can find is that it will have “literary merit.” Well, so do all of the other genres I just mentioned. Next!

After the undefinable “literary merit,” I most often hear that literary fiction has “beautiful writing,” that it is character-focused, and that it is not genre. Hmmm. I can think of books in every genre with beautiful writing, so that can’t possibly be a serious definition. As for character-focused, I suppose it might be true in broad strokes that genre books are plot-forward and literary books are character-forward, but there is simply no way that’s true across the board, or even close to it. Which leaves the idea that literary fiction is not genre fiction.

Well, what does “genre” mean here? Simply, it encompasses the genres like science fiction and fantasy, crime and mystery, romance and women’s fiction (another “genre” that seems to be undefinable and probably nonsense). So, according to this rule, literary fiction is always realistic and never focused on a romance or mystery plot. Again, I say: Hmmm.

I recently borrowed The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid from the library. In it, white people start turning brown in what I assume is a device for the author to explore race and power structures — I haven’t read very far yet. I have seen this book described as literary fiction pretty much across the board despite the premise being, well, speculative at the very least and probably science fiction, depending on the cause of the events in the book. Likewise, I hear Lakewood by Megan Giddings described as literary fiction even though the main character goes through medical experiments that are distinctly science fiction. So what makes these books qualify as literary instead of SFF? I don’t know!

At a loss and feeling somewhat desperate, I googled “literary fiction 2023” and one of the top results was I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai. Now, listen, I haven’t read this book, but I wasn’t born yesterday. That is a mystery novel. What the heck is going on?

While I was pondering this strange phenomena, this genre that seems to only exist because people say it does and not because it means anything, I listened to a few stories from The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw, another book that seems to be called literary fiction fairly universally. The prose reminded me of every other great Southern fiction I’ve read, if perhaps a bit more layered because, frankly, I’ve mostly read white Southern authors and they simply do not have as much going on. That said, I heard Harry Crews in her writing, so I asked the internet what genre he wrote. Well, folks, the internet said “novels.” Which is not a genre at all. (I suppose “Southern” isn’t either, unless it is.)

Maybe it would make more sense to compare literary fiction to its contemporary cousin, commercial fiction. Let me google that real quick. Now hang on just a dang minute. Commercial means, essentially, “for sale.” All books are for sale, Jan. (I am renaming Google “Jan” for the purposes of that sentence.)

I give up.


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