What Is Literary Fiction?

And why you should stop assuming you hate it.

Photo by shutterhacks.

  • Myth: Anything you read in school is literary fiction.
  • Myth: “Intellectual” works are automatically literary fiction.
  • Myth: Literary fiction is always boring/has no plot.
  • Myth: Literary fiction is always wordy.
  • Myth: Literary fiction is snobby.
  • Myth: Literary fiction is “better” than commercial fiction.

As you can see, there are a lot of misconceptions about literary fiction. And when you ask someone what literary fiction actually is – really try to pin down a definition – the answers get pretty vague. Even industry experts seem to disagree on what the requirements are for a piece of fiction to be called “literary.” What does it even mean? Isn’t all literature “literary”? Help!

I hear a lot of people slam literary fiction on a semi-regular basis, usually based on one of the myths above rather than a genuine knowledge of what it is. And as someone who is absolutely passionate about both reading and writing literary fiction, that makes me sad. Especially since, more often than not, there’s only one type of literary fiction that someone doesn’t enjoy.

*does Scooby Doo double-take grunt*

That’s right. I’m here with a theory.

Part of the reason there’s so much confusion and misunderstanding around literary fiction is that what we mean when we say “literary fiction” is actually three separate things: a style of writing, a genre of book, and a qualifier.

So I’m going to go through each type in hopes of clearing up some of the confusion and possibly nailing down exactly what you might not like about certain types of literary fiction.

1) Style

Sentence structure, vocabulary, metaphors, similes, and a generally “poetic” (or “stark”) quality.

Any genre in the world can be written in a literary style. There are two drastically opposite styles that most people identify as literary:

The Rambler– Those long, complex, lovely, and sometimes convoluted sentences that often seem to be more focused on the beauty of the language above the message they tell. If you can’t stand Herman Mellville’s Moby Dick or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, you probably dislike verbose prose (which usually also means you won’t enjoy many things written before 1900.)

The So Tight It’s Cryptic– When an author makes nouns and adjectives into verbs for the sake of compact sentences, things can get confusing. If reading Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes or Don DeLillo’s The Names felt more like work than pleasure to you, you might not like your prose packed so tightly.

2) Genre

Established plot and character expectations just like any other genre (romance, mystery, horror, etc.).

In romance, it’s expected that there will be two characters in conflict who eventually get together. In mystery, it’s expected that a main character will be faced with a mysterious event he or she then has to uncover the explanation for. And in horror, the reader knows that there will be some version of a “monster” that the main character will have to beat to survive. Literary fiction, as a genre, also has certain expectations it must fulfill.

The Nothing Happens Plot– With the popularity of thrillers, apocalypse stories, and action-packed adventures, small-scale stories can seem plotless. The truth is that every story has a plot, but what people mean when they say a book “has no plot” is that the plot is mundane. The characters live slow, ordinary lives, often stuck in a rut, and no global safety is at stake. Stories of broken relationships, general discontent, and “I’m at the end of my life” stories often seem light on plot. If you couldn’t have been more bored by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, the genre type of literary fiction might not be for you.

The Intentionally Unlikable Characters– Most commercial genres strive to make at least their main characters likable, relatable, and memorable. But Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita turns that tradition on its head with an unabashed child molester. And the most important part of that? Nabokov never intended for the reader to fall in love with Humbert Humbert (or Lolita, for that matter). But if adoring your main character is a must – books like Lolita and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus are absolutely intolerable to you – you’re less likely to find something in the literary genre that suits your taste.

3) Qualifier

Poses a larger question and answers it using methods other than plot and character.

Now this is where things get prickly… and where people get snobby. “Qualifier” inherently implies quality. So does that mean that all quality books are literary fiction? No. It really doesn’t. You can absolutely have commercial fiction of extraordinary quality. So if you think of literary fiction as snobby, please reconsider. And if you’re perpetuating that myth, please stop.

So what do I mean by qualifier? Quite simply, this type of literary fiction aims to answer “large” questions (such as difficult issues about morality, life, death, love, human nature, etc.) through devices other than character and plot. In other words, a character waxing poetic about betrayal doesn’t make a work this type of literary. But a literary device that aims to force the reader to come to their own conclusions about betrayal is.

It is such literary devices (and admittedly “buried” messages) that most often frustrate readers. And let’s be honest here: it is this type of literary that most draws the hyper-intellectual snoots who tend to give literary fiction a bad name among commercial fiction fans. Some authors revel in reaching only a very select readership. If you’re not that readership… just ignore those authors.

So if you’re reading a book that has an unusual or strange literary device in it (such as an unreliable narrator, a story told out of order, switching points of view, story within a story, satire, metafiction, and epistolary novels), there’s a good chance that device was chosen to make you think. The author is trying to tell you something more about the story through this unusual device.

The Unchronological Story– If a novel is told infuriatingly out of order, such as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights or Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, there’s a good chance that was done for a reason. Is the author asking you a deep question about time, for example? If you don’t much care for drawing your own conclusions, this type of literary fiction probably won’t be your cup of tea.

The Strange Point(s) of View– In The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Death (as in the Grim Reaper) is the narrator. In good literary fiction, this type of strange point of view is only done for a reason. In Zusak’s case, he’s trying to tell you something about his world, characters, or message that a different narrator couldn’t have told you. Similarly, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying switches point of view between most of the characters. If you don’t enjoy puzzling out why these types of devices are used, you might avoid “qualifier” literary fiction.

The Takeaway

As you can see, it’s easy to have a literary book that is just one or two of these things, which means that if you don’t like one aspect, you shouldn’t necessarily discount all literary fiction.

If you dislike literary genre plots, for example, you could try “upmarket” fiction, which generally means commercial plot written in a literary style and with deeper messages (i.e. A book with an easy plot and likable characters that you can delve into if you want – but don’t have to in order to understand what’s happening, like Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire). Or if you dislike literary style writing, you could try Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere, which has a literary plot and deeper themes, but is relatively straight-forward in style. And PS- If you love all three, I recently enjoyed Matt Bondurant’s The Night Swimmer.

My point is: now that you are aware that people mean three different things when they call something “literary,” you can figure out which types you don’t care for and avoid those – without automatically discounting all literary fiction.

So how about you? Do you like literary fiction? Loath it? Which type is your favorite, and which makes you want to throw a book against the wall?

Like this post? Check out all posts in the What is Genre? series!

Share this:
This entry was posted in Genres and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • I love F.Scott Fitzgerald like Nathaniel Hawthorne loves scenery descriptions. (by this I mean A LOT) mm now I want to read the great gatsby! the eyes of dr. eckelberg..

    and lord of the flies! the nothing hapens plot is quite ironic because big stuff does happen in these stories! I mean..spoiler alert..Gatsby is murdered for crying out loud and tom’s mistress is murdered as well.

    Also, all of jack kerouac’s stuff is literary. I love stories abut relationships and everything that can go wrong with them. Sometimes it nice to not have a global destruction. The biggest destruction can be what happens between two people.

    and I loove unlikeable characters. They are incredibly interesting. I often fall in love with characters I really shouldn’t.

    Mmm verbose prose..I was reading Mary Shelley’s frankenstein when I was in 4th grade.

    I need more literary fiction in my life.

    • =D I think everyone needs more literary fiction in their life! But then again, I’m clearly biased.

      So you love literary fiction as a genre, in particular. That’s cool! And yes, the “nothing happens plot” is a bit of a misnomer, as I mentioned. No story has “no plot,” otherwise it wouldn’t be a story at all. It’s just that some of those plots can seem mundane to people used to The Da Vinci Code type stuff. I totally agree with you, though, that the relationship story can be the most interesting type. Sometimes global destruction can get tiring to me. (Although I would never “shelve” Lord of the Flies under “The Nothing Happens Plot” to begin with. That book is literary in the “qualifier” way, I think.)

      I love unlikable characters too. I mean, Wuthering Heights is one of my favorite books of all time, and so many people say they can’t stand Cathy. I think she makes a fascinating, dynamic character! And I loved Frankenstein too. Old-fashioned, verbose prose can be hard to read if you’ve just finished something modern, but once you get into the rhythm of it I think it’s lovely. So yes, you and I are right on board. =)

      • If I want to read a book to relax, I will generally go with more commerical fiction. But sometimes I want to work for a book, I want to sit back and contemplate, and shift my view of the world, and that’s where I go more literary.

        This quote from Angela’s ashes sums up my feelings on verbose prose: “I don’t know what it means and I don’t care because it’s Shakespeare and it’s like having jewels in my mouth when I say the words.”
        ― Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes

        I hate reading thrillers. I loathed the da vinci code. When I read that, it made me feel stupid. Afterwards, I quickly read babylon revisited by Fitzgerald. And then the other side of paradise LOL. Yeah..I have a thing for Fitzgerald’s prose. I even played the hidden object game of the great gatsby. ha

        Okay this summer I’m reading wuthering heights. I think Heathcliff’s passion will compliment the texas heat:-)

        • Exactly! Commercial = relaxing, quick reads for fun. Literary = thought-provoking, expanding reads. There is plenty of room for both (and combos). I adore that Frank McCourt quote!

          I’ve actually never read Da Vinci Code, but I can’t wait to hear what you think of Wuthering Heights.

          • yeah I got talked into reading davinci code in preparation for the movie. I think the sunday comics are better written than that “book.” No character development, boring plot, just the worst prose I’ve ever read. EVER. I’ve read better written 1940’s pulp novels.

          • I can’t say I’ve read that one. I do brace myself when cracking open the uber-popular bestsellers, though. The prose is often plain or even poor, but if the actual story is good and I know what I’m getting into, I don’t mind.

        • Pegab

          I love your quote from Angela’s Ashes!! I’ve read poems that I’m sure I didn’t really understand but they were so beautiful I’d read them over & over.
          Conversely, I’ve had so much loss & grief in my personal life that I try to avoid books such as Angela’s Ashes, even if I know they’re well written and/or important. I read books that “represented” big, important, tragic issues when I was young, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Winds of War, War & Rememberance, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Grapes of Wrath, Les Miserables, etc. and just don’t want to wallow in misery again. I don’t know if that’s just an older person’s point of view or my own personal quirk.

          • I can totally relate to that. I used to read Jack kerouac books like mad when I was younger. But his stories tended to be a tad depressing as he had such a negative outlook on life. I had to take a long break. I can read his stuff now but not anywhere near the amount that I used to read. These days, I lean more towards commercial fiction, but I do like to spice it up with literary fiction.

          • I don’t know; I’d be curious to hear if any other people increasingly feel this way as they get older. I’ve definitely heard many parents say that having babies changed what they could tolerate when it comes to books about (sad) children, but I don’t know if that extends out to all sad things.

            Just in case, I’m going to read as many of the good sad books as I can now, while I can stomach them. =)

          • Meghan

            I have a hard time now reading anything that has to do with evil children, killing children,etc now that I’m a Mom. I can’t help picturing my own child..but it kinda helps that I have boys because I can relate better to them and hopefully instill them the knowledge to respect women and men,

  • I like this way of thinking of literary fiction, which breaks things up in a way that makes the category much easier to analyze. Whenever anyone starts making blanket statements about literary fiction things become a little scary.

    Personally, I love books with 1 and 3 and speculative plots (like novels by David Mitchell, Lev Grossman, Catherynne Valente). I used to read quiet (or mundane) novels and stories, but for some reason they don’t catch my interest like they used to.

    • Thanks Lura! And yay! I totally agree with you. In fact, 1 + 3 – 2 = my current WIP to a T. I still enjoy literary genre plots too (especially in short stories), but I love the boldness of mixing “commercial” and “literary” in the way you described.

  • Oh my goodness-Annie–this should be on The Millions! Do you ever read that site? Anyway, an original AND helpful post. I like and hate some of these elements in literary fiction. I especially laughed and nodded at the “so tight it’s cryptic” which is SO true of short stories.

    • Thanks, Nina! And no, I’m not familiar with The Millions. I will go check that out for sure.

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    Annie – I think this is THE best article I’ve read about literary fiction that really spells out the definition and explores the varying aspects of a misunderstood genre and style of writing. I have had many a conversation with others about “what” constitutes literary fiction. Like you, I am a huge fan of literary fiction — each kind you mention, and even more so when an author can weave all three elements together. I’ve always also (maybe erroneously) thought that literary fiction centered more on character-driven plots, and more internal conflict than external.

    • Thank you so much, Melissa! =D

      I love all three together too, although I understand that it’s a bit of an acquired taste for most people. And I think you’re definitely right about the conflict in lit fic often being more internal than external — I think that’s one of the types of plots that so many readers consider “boring.” I personally don’t think it’s boring if done well, but yes, I think that fits right in.

  • Amanda Myre

    What an interesting post. I’ve certainly enjoyed literary fiction before, but have generally preferred reading commercial fiction. I suppose exciting plots and likeable characters are important to me, because that’s a large part of why I like commercial fiction. Not to mention, I love supernatural elements, and those are often lacking in literary fiction.

    I did in fact hate Wuthering Heights, largely due to hating the characters. But I loved Frankenstein despite the rather flawed characters. Perhaps it was easier for me to see and/or appreciate the messages in Frankenstein, for some reason, because I don’t remember taking much away from Wuthering Heights aside from a sense that horrible people tend to have horrible relationships. If that was the message, then I understood it, but it wasn’t exactly a new or exciting thought.

    I must say, I do hate it when art of any sort is both boring AND lacks a strong theme or message. I remember going to a modern art exhibition one time and seeing a piece of art that made no sense to me at all. I asked a docent for more information, and she said, “Well, what do you think it’s about?” That sort of thing is unbearably frustrating. It made me feel as though the artist had nothing to say. And if that’s the case, then what’s the point? This art wasn’t visually interesting. Perhaps that’s the sense people get sometimes when reading literary fiction – that the plot is boring, the characters are unpleasant, and the theme or message is either completely undetectable or boring.

    Also, you’ve inspired me to go read something literary.

    • I totally understand what you mean about needing the message to be strong if the character/plot is literary. There needs to be some sort of reward for putting your reader through that, I think. I personally did get a message from Wuthering Heights (in fact I wrote my senior thesis on it), but I can see how someone else wouldn’t. Everyone interprets books their own way, and everyone has messages that either resonate and fall flat. That’s just plain taste — nothing wrong with that!

      I’m glad I tickled your literary tastebuds! Hope you pick a good one. =)

  • Don’t shoot me for saying this; I prefer literary fiction. I read literary fiction. I guess because I taught it. So pulp fiction is something I write… but don’t prefer. I know I’m an idiot. Even my fiction is heavy stylistically. Saw Gatz at the Public Theatre…you know where they read/act out the entire novel…using a current backdrop. Hearing Fitzgerald’s words read aloud is wonderful because some passages are pure poetry and others…are so telling. Anyway…thanks.

    • Shoot you? I’d rather hug you! =) I love literary fiction too, so I have no problem with that particular bias. I have no problem with people preferring commercial fiction either, for that matter, but I do wish more people would try both.

      I’ve never been to a novel reading at the public theatre… that sounds kind of awesome!

      • I think you should all give Lionel Shriver’s work a look. In Something About Kevin she really has unlikeable characters but they are more lifelike to me than earnest people I meet in most novels. She is the closest to the great novelist of the last century that I have read. She made reading fun for me again.
        Cara Bertoia

        • Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll definitely check her out.

  • Lisa Ahn

    I love the way you break down different categories of lit fiction with examples. This is definitely the clearest, most thorough definition I’ve seen.
    I read lit fiction mostly for the beauty of the language and the complexity of the characters and narration. I love books like Egan’s Good Squad or Donoghue’s Room that challenge me in terms of narration and structure. Helprin’s Winter’s Tale is another favorite, along with Kallos’ Broken For You. Okay, my list could go on and on . . . but the bottom line is that I love a book that makes me see differently.

    • Lisa Ahn

      Sorry — that should be Goon Squad (yikes!)

      • Thank you Lisa! I totally agree; I love books that force me to expand my way of thinking. Literary fiction, at its finest, is the perfect blend of challenge and enlightenment. That’s why I get so frustrated with authors who are intentionally cryptic; how can they expand a reader’s thinking if the reader can’t even figure out what’s going on? I think there should be a good balance.

        I am loving meeting all my fellow lit fic lovers here! =)

  • Richardsfive

    I read a lot of literary fiction in my preteens (before I was old enough to understand a good portion of it). I hadn’t discovered the library yet and my grandmother left a bunch of it behind when they moved her to the rest home. Later I got a bike, discovered the library, and became addicted to commerical fiction.

    But every once in a while I still read literary fiction. I come away appreciating the talent of the writer, feeling I’ve widened my horizons, and asking myself why I don’t read great literary stuff like that more often.

    Then, I admit, I dive back into a pile of commercial fiction like a summer-kissed kid cannon-balling into his favorite swimming hole.

    • =) There is absolutely nothing wrong with that! I love your description of it, too. Reading mostly literary fiction when you’re too young to understand it sounds exhausting, though, and I’m glad I was exposed to it step by step. I do think eventually commercial vs. literary ultimately comes down to personal taste. Maybe it’s like watching TV versus movies. Some people love TV and rarely see movies, or vice versa, but that doesn’t mean they can’t switch every now and again and enjoy something new.

      • Pegab

        This really has been such an interesting discussion! I don’t know if To Kill a Mockingbird is considered literary fiction, but when I was 10 yrs old I discovered the Reader’s Digest condensed version of it in my grandparents’ old books. I loved that book from the first word!! I loved Scout so much and just lived & breathed her world, but there was so much I couldn’t understand. I will never forget how terrifying Boo Radley was to me as a child and that horrendously scary night of the Halloween carnival. I can vividly remember trying to understand what rape was and how curious I was, but I couldn’t figure it out until I read the book in high school. Of course, it wasn’t the kind of cryptic literary fiction that even adults have trouble understanding, but it certainly stretched my little 10 yr old brain. I was amazed when I read it in high school at how much I had missed. The funny thing is I read it again this year and was amazed again:) This time I cried my buckets of tears for Atticus Finch, one of my lifelong great heroes…

        • I would say that To Kill a Mockingbird is probably literary, although it’s been so long since I read it that I couldn’t pin down in which way. I think all great fiction, though — literary or commercial — has the potential to change as you read it in different stages of life. Commercial fiction answers big questions too, though in different ways… but I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s a whole other blog post. =)

  • I wish I had read this post before I started my MFA program. I’ll confess I was much better read in commercial fiction, and my perception of literary fiction was that 1) nothing happened, and that 2) authors sometimes seemed to go out of their way to make their works impenetrable, creating an emperor-with-no-clothes scenario, where if you said “Wait, I don’t get this,” others who didn’t get it would go, “Oh, no, don’t you see the subtle genius of…”

    And those books exist. And I can avoid them, because people far more learned in literary fiction can guide me to ones that move me while gripping me. A literary novel may not grip me in the way a good thriller will, but I’m gripped nonetheless; by the beautiful writing, by the vividness of the characters, by the experience of reading a painting.

    I no longer dismiss literary fiction–I embrace it–but I value commercial fiction as well. They serve different needs for me as a writer.

    • Hi Patrick! Glad to see you here.

      Impenetrable is a good word for it, for sure. Really good professors will help students out with that factor, but not so good ones will just make it worse. Anyone who uses that “cryptic” element to make themselves seem superior definitely has the wrong motivation, in my opinion. (I feel the same way about that factor in poetry, too.)

      And yes, you’re also right about well-learned readers and teachers being able to steer newer readers away from those books. And a little tip I’ve picked up; literary agents are often great people to get lit fic book recommendations from, since they’re also looking at the commercially viable (read: entertaining) side of them and not just the scholarly side, like professors. Two of my favorite literary fiction novels I first heard of from agents tweeting about them!

      I’m so glad you’ve embraced literary fiction. Commercial, literary, and in-between all have something to offer. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • I may be the exception to the rule. I love love love literary fiction. Yums. I’ve tried to talk others into reading a “classic” a year. If they agree, I find myself explaining –things.

    Thanks for break down of the literary.


    • Hi Teresa. I wonder if lit-fic lovers like us really are the exception. Obviously, commercial ficiton makes more money, but does that really mean most readers don’t like literary? I’d love to see some type of large-scale poll taken! Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

  • I know a couple of people at the writer’s forum I’m a member of who consider their writing lit fic. They tend to have better prose.

    Unfortunately, since my preferred kind of book are YA literature, I tend to not read a lot of literary fic. My one recent experience with it had the problem of “The Intentionally Unlikable Characters”.

    However, would you consider The Book Thief literary? If so, it’s a fantastic example of it, along with a prose masterpiece. I wouldn’t say that the “Strange Narrator” is a problem, since Death’s execution (no pun intended) is something to admire.

    • Well, you’re in luck, because YA has tons of great literary fiction! The Book Thief is absolutely literary, and yes, it is a masterpiece. And as to the narrator being a problem or not… any literary device, if used well, won’t seem like a problem. If executed beautifully, it will be just like Death telling that story: unique but necessary.

      So yes, definitely YA lit fic. If you like it, try asking other YA fans for lit fic recommendations. I loved Jandy Nelson’s The Sky Is Everywhere, although admittedly, I think a lot of people would consider that more of a “girl book,” and it’s more contemporary than The Book Theif. But don’t give up on lit fic just yet! =)

  • Jenna Wall

    It’s great to have the different categories described that way! Now I have a response to all of my friends who complain about the books I read.

    • Hehe, so happy to be of help! Also, give those friends a kick in the pants for me. =)

  • Pingback: What the Heck Should I Call Myself, Anyway? « The Artist's Road()

  • Ambeggs

    Love many types of literary fiction, to name a few Poisonwood Bible, Atonement, All the Pretty Horses, Faithful Place, too many to list them all.

    Thanks for the clarity, too!

  • Lane Lester

    It’s interesting to me that book lists have “Fiction” and “Literary Fiction” as separate categories. Since I’m clueless about the distinction, I found your post interesting. Since I’m looking only at book categories, I conclude that a literary fiction book will be either have a Nothing Happens plot or Intentionally Unlikable Characters. I’m not sure the book list makers are observing those requirements, but it gives me something look for in the book descriptions.

    • I agree; that is a really interesting distinction. I’m glad
      you liked my post. You’re definitely right that not everyone uses my
      guidelines, so most of the “categories” in this area are up to the
      reader to determine. There are, however, more “literary” plots than just
      the Nothing Happens and Unlikable Characters; those were just two examples. The
      more literary books you read (like with any genre), the more you will be able
      to spot patterns — as well as decide which techniques you enjoy and which you
      don’t care for.


      Good luck, and thanks for stopping by!

  • What a fabulous, astute post!  Loved Gatsby and Lolita … the sheer beauty of the words, the way they were woven together — the way they challenged me, forced me out of my comfort zone.  I’ve actually enjoyed “literary fiction (and literary non-fiction) more, the older I’ve become.   As I commented on your related post, I think my perspective has been formed, over time, by my work in the visual arts.  Consider the scene Barbara Kingsolver offers us at the beginning of The Poisonwood Bible:

     “Imagine a ruin so strange it must
    never have happened. First, picture the forest. I want you to be its
    conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick,
    brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. .. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting
    wrestle for sunlight … a glide of snake belly
    on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform
    grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And,
    in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree
    stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives
    forever.”To me, this paragraph (edited to make it shorter here) is like food!  The imagery, by itself, is luscious … but it also serves as a foreshadowing element.  I could go on.  Forgive me for the long comment.  Great post!

    • What a beautiful paragraph! The Poisonwood Bible is going on my to-read list, for sure. Thanks for sharing that, and thanks for the lovely input on my posts!

  • Gorgeous, thanks!

  • Lisa

    You are a wonderful writer! And that is NOT literary fiction. This helped me a lot.

  • Pingback: I’m Too Stupid to Understand Literary Fiction | It'll All Work Out()

  • dmpjrp02

    Wrote like a true author! That was a really great explanation. I will never mix literary fiction’s meaning up again.
    Thanks, keep up the truth!

  • Julie Sondra Decker

    I think I’m partial to the “nothing happens” plot. 🙂 As long as the character’s being interesting doing nothing, I’ll still watch them do it. 😀

    • I’m with you on that one! If the characters and themes are well-rendered, I don’t need explosions, deaths, and affairs.

  • Pingback: Should You Read Literary Blogs? | Notes from An Alien()

  • Janet Lingel Aldrich

    I would like to understand this from the writer’s point of view. I generally write genre fiction: horror, speculative fiction, some fantasy. But I have two or three stories I’d like to place and I’m not sure how to determine if they fall in literary, slice-of-life or mainstream. How do I determine that?

    • That’s a really hard question to answer, Janet, especially considering I haven’t read your work. Who you’re sending it to will affect the answer too, because everyone seems to have their own definition of what literary is, and no consensus means there are probably several possible answers to your question. In the end, you’ll have to do as much research as you can, listen to your gut, and then choose the label you think fits best. If you have an agent/editor/critique partner/mentor you trust, they might be able to help you as well. I’m sorry I can’t give you an easy answer. Good luck with it!

  • Sofia James

    Literary fiction is a term which is principally used for certain fictional works that hold literary merit.
    literary devices

  • Katy

    Read this a while back, but didn’t think much of it. Literary still carried the immediate thought of an ‘irrelevant things that happen’ plot, which is very similar to the ‘nothing happens’ plot mentioned above, and it also hadn’t helped that I had just finished reading a VERY literary work for school that hadn’t been enjoyable in any aspect, really. But now having just finished and thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Lovely Bones’ by Alice Sebold, I think I have a newfound respect for the genre! I loved it, I really did. (My mom, who cried and refused to let me out of her sight for nearly a month after seeing the movie, might disagree.)

    While there wasn’t an overwhelmingly obvious plot, there was still that general sense of tension and amazingly likable characters that normally keeps me reading commercial fiction (my usual genre).

    And I decided to pop a visit over here because I’ve recently been inspired by my acting class (we’re doing scene-work right now) for a highly literary book idea that I can’t wait to tackle. But, as you might be able to figure out from the above, I’m not very familiar with literary fiction, its tropes, common cliches, etc., etc.. Any advice?

    • Oh, that sounds so exciting, Katy! Advice. Hmm. Well honestly, the best way to get to know any genre is to consume a lot of it. I’d suggest dedicating your next big chunk of reading to literary fiction so you can become more familiar with the tropes, expectations, and what’s been done already. Novels are great, but if you’re hoping to hurry this along you could always try reading some literary fiction short stories to get a good sense of “flavor” without being overwhelmed. That’s also a great way to test out some of the more popular literary authors without committing to a full novel right off the bat. You could pick up a few different literary magazines or any number of “best of the year” anthologies. That’s where I’d start if I were you! I hope you have fun. 🙂

  • Meghan

    Thank you for clarifying.. I just read a book I felt like throwing at the wall…thinking why did I waste my time..there is no reason for this book to exist..like no plot..just a like a glimpse into someone’s life..there were a couple so I never knew who the main character was, it is Station Eleven. I am an avid Sci Fi fan and it was listed as a great sci Fi read but…it wasn’t. The only thing sci Fi was that it was in a dystopian setting (a flu wiped everyone out) and a comic book called Station Eleven..which was one characters sole work of art. And I would’ve rather read the comic, it sounded so cool but I couldn’t figure how it relates to the book. It also threw a band of people who travel around doing Shakespeare and Symponies..I am gifted but Shakespeare just baffles me.. I can’t seem to figure out anything more than the basic plot. So references to Shakespeare or anything I haven’t read or don’t know.. If I can’t either find it, read it, or google it…really frustrates me and I feel disconnected. I gave it a 3 star rating because of my confusion and now I’m wondering if that was fair. Was it me or the literary style. But I consider a 3 as a readable book just not one that hits me in the sweet spot like 4’s and esp 5’s which are only favorites or books I enjoyed or hated but touched me in a genius way, like how you mentioned not liking the main character. I hate romance genre..don’t mind some paranormal romance. I don’t get poetry.. But lately as I’ve grown older.. Some isn’t bad. I don’t like nature poems. I don’t like series that don’t continue the story. Where each book is the same essential plot, but with a new situation and Same characters unless it’s funny or entertaining like Stephanie Evanovitch’s Fox and O’hare. I love that the strong female detective has to work with a thief and that they love each other but..won’t aknowledge it because of their moral positions like cops and robbers. I love zombies too. I also read Moby Dick and although it was long, there were parts I enjoyed, parts I stumbled through but later was thankful cuz how much does someone who never leaves land know about whales lol! It took me… 10 years to complete it all the way through though. Why they make us read stuff when we are teens and aren’t able to truly comprehend until 30 is beyond me. Anyways look forward to reading more because I’m into reviewing books and I want to learn more. I was always good at English in HS, with AP classes but I’ve forgotten so much, even silly grammar stuff that I see people write books about or rant about on the web. People rant about the usage of commas or some other weird symbol like ; <— can never remember when to use it 😜

    • Hi Meghan. It sounds like you just have distinct tastes to me. 🙂 Not everyone will like literary fiction (or poetry, or romance, etc.), and I don’t see any problem with that. As a reviewer, I would probably stay away from reviewing books in genres I know I don’t like as a whole simply because going into it with a predisposition to dislike it doesn’t seem very productive, but that’s up to you. Good luck with your reviewing!

      • Meghan

        Thanks Annie! With your knowledge, what should I avoid? I don’t know exact terms. I love Horror as well. I feel like it is so hit and miss with me and goodreads doesn’t break it down well enough sometimes..or Amazon. I had fun sifting through your blog by the way! Right now. I am reading Jacob Appel’s TheBiology of Luck which is prosy I think and really funny and Jane Smiley’s Early Warning #2. I really liked the first novel 🙂

        • Gosh, I’m not really sure. I don’t know of any official terms for a break-down of literary fiction subgenres. (That’d be cool, though.) I guess you’ll just have to go hit and miss. =/

          And thanks for the kind words about my blog. 🙂 Happy reading!

  • Hi Annie,

    Thanks for this post! I’ve been working on my first novel and it is a bit more literary fiction-leaning, but some of my confidantes/readers are aware that I’m aiming at a commercial market. A number of them have commented “but nothing happens.”

    So I worked and worked, and what’s most interesting to me is that A. plenty of stuff happened in the drafts they read previously and B. by moving around some of the plot elements, so that the main character had more up-front action and conflict, and cutting a few scenes where most of the “what happens” was internal/environmental the story suddenly no longer feels like “nothing much happens.”

    What’s my point? I think sometimes literary fiction ends up feeling like “nothing happens” because the story wasn’t constructed as well as it could be. And I think this is sometimes also why people say “but nothing happens” when actually a lot happens at the objective level of “Stuff.”


    • Hi Brian! I think that many times you’re right; weak construction often leads to that ‘nothing happens’ feeling. Sometimes books are just trying to do other things more than they’re trying to entertain or be fast-paced/gripping, etc., in which case they aren’t necessarily poorly constructed so much as not to the taste to certain readers, if that makes sense. That’s how I see it, anyway. Conversely, sometimes I read books where TONS happens but I walk away feeling like it didn’t matter, so I guess all of it becomes a balancing act in the end. Thanks for your comment!