I keep hearing about literary fiction, and how it is so much better than genre fiction. What exactly is literary fiction?

  • Could you edit the title to make it more specific? "What is literary fiction?" would be much better!
    – juan
    Nov 18, 2010 at 20:47

10 Answers 10


There's always the good old wikipedia definition: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_fiction

My take on it is that it is often used to mean "serious" fiction (whatever that is), as opposed to fiction that is merely "entertainment". It often seems to be thrown about in the context of snobbery (that is, someone may not "read that airport bookshop rubbish" because they like literary fiction), but I don't know if people really say those sorts of things, or if it's just the impression that the other side ("genre" people) think they might say.

It's just one of those terms that means different things to different people (as @neilfein's answer suggests).

(For a quantitative answer, how about: the average number of metaphors per paragraph?)

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    So lots of metaphors make fiction less or more literary? Look at any romance novel for metaphors and similes up the... ahem. Nov 19, 2010 at 0:17
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    @neilfein: Hmmm...I see your point. It seems this problem needs more research to rate metaphors for literary value. I predict the final formula will have logarithms ;)
    – Ash
    Nov 19, 2010 at 0:28
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    So if it's not entertainment, then why are you reading it? :-P Dec 16, 2010 at 5:37
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    @Nick Bedord To build character.
    – Ethan
    Dec 17, 2010 at 3:06
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    @NickBedford: "Not merely entertainment" is not the same as "not entertainment". For example, I enjoy YouTube series about math like "Mathologer" and "ThreeBlueOneBrown". They are usually entertaining to me, but they are not merely entertainment, they also often teach me something about math I didn't know. OTOH on YouTube you'll find math lectures that teach you even more about math, but are not very entertaining (but can be very interesting anyway). And of course there's no lack of YouTube videos that are just entertaining (and no lack of videos giving neither entertainment nor insight).
    – celtschk
    Apr 30, 2018 at 9:20

Here's the money quote from a good article on the subject:

In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character and tends to be multilayered stories which wrestle with universal dilemmas rather than with plot. They usually provoke the readers beliefs and thoughts, often with an outcome of changing or altering their audiences outlook on life. More often than not, literary fiction addresses what might be considered more serious issues to uncover a truth bringing its audience; by the way of the main character; to a deeper understanding about life.

(...) Most of these books are character centred rather than plot oriented; looking at the human condition and provoking the reader into some sort of change.

This is a good summary, though I think it covers lit-fic's goals better than its commonplace achievements.

Though, like other genres and streams, there isn't a one-size-fits-all definition for literary fiction, here are some other common distinguishing characteristics:

  • Literary fiction often eschews dramatic plot, viewing it as unrealistic, contrived (even if brilliantly so...), and/or as being a "cheap" way of generating excitement. It's less that nothing exciting happens, and more that events don't all occur along a clear dramatic structure; the events don't tie together neatly and with clear purpose, except to advance the more subtle theme and character examination.
  • Focus is generally on examination of a theme, powerful portrayal, and offering new insight.
  • Literary fiction generally makes little attempt to entertain. It relies strongly on the reader's active interest in the theme, the portrayal, the insights, etc., and his willingness to bear with the author in order to understand what the author is trying to convey. The reader's interest in the story is aided primarily by the strength and power of the writing, and by very little else.
  • Literary fiction generally is difficult to attribute to a particular genere - that is, they (almost always) aren't romances, or mysteries, or sitcoms. Science fiction has seen some interesting interplay with literary fiction - e.g. Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveller's Wife, which applies a literary-fiction approach to a classic SF trope. I suspect many other genres are more clearly distanced from it, because romances, mystery, horror, and other genres generally imply something about the plot of the story, suggesting a narrative structure that lit-fic would work poorly with.

At its worst, literary fiction can feel pretentious, deliberately oblique, and ultimately pointless. At its best, it can be subtle, deep, and provoking, in ways that most popular fiction simply can't reach.

And as a parting shot, here's another good article: What Is Literary Fiction?

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    I'm not sure I'd agree that literary fiction in general 'eschews dramatic plot'. A lot of what you describe here sounds more like modernist and post-modern literary movements rather than literary fiction.
    – Chester
    Sep 27, 2016 at 14:12
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    @Chester : I'd say it's a tough, fuzzy thing to define. But I do pretty much identify "literary fiction" with modern and post-modern movements; older work I'd generally file under "classic literature." In general, being "literary" isn't the same thing as being "literature"! What would be an example of literary fiction where dramatic plot is a major component?
    – Standback
    Sep 27, 2016 at 20:36
  • I don't think most people do distinguish between 'literary fiction' and 'classic fiction'. There doesn't seem to be a lot of sense in lumping together Middlemarch and some pulpy 19th century crime story but refusing to do the same for contemporary fiction. When it comes to literary fiction that uses dramatic structure -- just for an example, The Road by Cormac Mccarthy. It might not have a perfect dramatic structure like a screenplay would, but to say it eschews it is a little odd.
    – Chester
    Oct 21, 2016 at 14:21

In addition to +1ing a couple other answers, I'd add:

It seems to me that the breakdown of fiction into genres (including "literary") is an imperfect system that mostly serves commercial needs. Someone might read Twilight and go into a bookstore looking for something similar. The booksellers want to make that process as easy as possible, and to do that they need to make bets on what "similar" means.

So they might stick it with other books intended for a similar age group ("young adult fiction"), or books that have similar worlds, imagery, or themes ("fantasy/horror"), or even books that have a similar emotional tone ("romance").

When an author says they work within a specific genre, I interpret that as: "My work has deliberate commonalities with other books in this genre. Provided my writing is good enough, consumers who've read and enjoyed other works in this genre are also likely to enjoy my work. And by being explicit about the genre, it will be easier for booksellers to categorize and for consumers to locate."

All of that said, here's my joke about "genre" vs. "literary" fiction, based on an actual event:

Me: Where do you keep your horror?

Shopkeeper: It's with "fantasy/sci-fi".

Me: That's where I was looking, but I can't find the book. It's called House of Leaves.

Shopkeeper: Oh, good horror is under "literature".

Me: [blank stare]

It's an imperfect system, like any broad approach to categorization of complex works, but it seems to be the best we've got. As others have observed, many books considered "literary fiction" could also fall into other genre categories, and it's generally the style that overrides those other categories.

That, again, is the bookseller's bet: That the quality of House of Leaves* which engaged me was the style, and not the haunted house theme or the mood of suspense/mystery/horror.

*Just an example. If you hated House of Leaves, feel free to substitute your favorite genre-spanning book.


In the sense you mean, it probably stands for general fiction, i.e. not romances, science-fiction, or mysteries. (Fiction that is "literary".) There's a lot of genre fiction that has excellent character development, but like anything else, the vast majority of anything is usually pretty bad. It may have other meanings as well. An agent I know uses this term "literary fiction" to refer to anything she handles that's not non-fiction. (Including graphic novels.)


To me, LitFic is fiction that is not a "page turner" (i.e. a story with only very direct surface themes, that gets you to the next page via suspense, but doesn't make you think about anything outside the context of the book itself), and is written to have serious shelf life (i.e. is both relevant and understandable to future generations).

LitFic can also be genre fiction (some of Heinlein's work comes to mind, scifi but definitely LitFic), but isn't usually (it's harder for genre fiction to remain relevant to a wide audience over time).


I think it is a mistake to try to define literary fiction in terms of themes, language, or the primacy of plot vs character. I would suggest that it can be better understood in terms of the pleasure it gives.

Stories can give different kinds of pleasure. Some provide vicarious adventure (you want to pretend you are a spy or a mountain climber). Some provide wish fulfilment (you want to get the girl or win the battle). Some provide immersion in a subject of interest (you will read anything about horses). Some provide confirmation of our biases and prejudices. Some flatter our egos and make us think we are insightful or cool or wise. Some provide genuine insight into the human condition.

There is nothing wrong with any of these pleasures (given reasonable proportion). But they are very different pleasures and we may seek each of them at different times. Works that, in addition to whatever other pleasures they provide, give genuine insight into the human condition tend to last a long time and we call them literature. (Insight here does not mean the statement of a psychological truth or diagnosis, but rather a recognition of something genuinely human in the circumstances of the story itself. It is an experience, not a proposition.)

Some works of literature can also be rip snorting adventures or taut thrillers. (Think of Dickens or Joseph Conrad.) There is no limit on either the subject matter or the use of language for a work of literature. It is the type of pleasure and the type of insight it provides that defines it as such.

As a commercial genre, literary fiction refers to works that attempt or claim to provide this kind of insight. Since works of genuine literature are rare, most literary fiction does not provide the pleasure of genuine insight. It may, however, provide the pleasure of confirming prejudices or flattering our belief in our own insightfulness or sophistication.

What makes genre fiction genre is similarly not its subject matter but the class of pleasure it intends to provide. A genre is defined not only by subject matter but by a specific formula designed to reliably provide a certain kind of pleasure to the reader. Many stories involve romance, but a romance novel promises a much more specific formula calibrated to provide a very specific type of pleasure. Not all stories set in the west are westerns. Not all stories set in the past are genre historical fiction. Not all stories set in space are sci fi.

It is possible (though rare) for a work to transcend its genre and also qualify as literature. (Raymond Chandler might qualify here.)

Works of general fiction are those that do not attempt to follow the conventions of a genre, no matter their subject matter. (In some sense, literary fiction is also a genre, in that it follows a formula designed to deliver a particular kind of pleasure.) Some small part of general fiction rises to the level of genuine literature.


I would say that it is fiction written in an elevated style. Note, by "elevated" I do not mean necessarily superiour. Heinlein was mentioned above, and he falls into a second category: books that transcend their time period. If you write crappy genre fiction, and people are still reading it 200 years later, it magically becomes literature (just ask Alexandre Dumas).

The particular subject doesn't really matter very much. Most people would place obvious sci-fi like Farenheit 451 and 1984 in the category of literature. Likewise more modern and geeky literary fiction like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are classed as literature solely because of style, not subject. A good number of postmodernists write novels that would fit into scifi or fantasy (like David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest or Thomas Pynchon with Gravities Rainbow or Mason and Dixon(1)) but you won't ever find them there because the style doesn't fit.

Like it or not, most genre fiction, be it romance, or thrillers, or scifi, or fantasy...It's written plainly, without a lot of embellishment. There are exceptions, of course, like when Steven Brust got stuck in French Romance mode for 10 years, but other than that...

1) Psychics and talking dogs respectively, are fantasy. Even if the dogs speak poetry.

  • -1. "Literary fiction" is not the same as "literature."
    – Standback
    Jul 4, 2011 at 11:56
  • @standback: I haven't been to this site in months. Thank you for reminding me why. Nice to see things are so exciting that you have time to be pedantic on an 8 month old question. Jul 4, 2011 at 14:51
  • Heh :) There's actually some really good questions a few months back, that I think could do with better answers then they've got. I didn't mean to be pedantic; defining litfic (and by extension, its distinction from literature, which is basically "books that are good") is the topic of the question. But before I'd had my answer posted with my own contributions, I could see how the offhand disagreement might have seemed... unhelpful.
    – Standback
    Jul 4, 2011 at 18:06
  • A lot of fantasy fiction is written in an elevated style (Tolkienesque high fantasy, not urban fantasy). And there's certainly literary fiction written in a deliberately humdrum style like James Kelman's early novels, or a deliberately non-elevated style like much of Bret Easton Ellis (horror-porn), Alasdair Gray's 1982 Janine (porn), etc.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 23, 2022 at 15:37

Literary fiction is fiction you read so you can brag about having read it. If it ain't raining, you ain't training. If you aren't getting flak, you aren't over the target. And if you're enjoying a book, it isn't literary fiction.

Some famous literary fictionists who are actually terrible writers:

Cormac Macarthy
Chuck Palahniuk
Don DeLillo
Alice Walker

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    BAHAHAHA!!!!! This is actually the definition I've always used! I'm not alone!
    – kitukwfyer
    Jul 6, 2011 at 13:57
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    Nailed it! I'm with you on this. Mark this as The Answer
    – raddevus
    Jul 22, 2015 at 12:01
  • Yes. You nailed it. People who write hard to read stuff in order to have other people brag about having read them but in fact never have read them because they are boring. If you are writing and don't care if people actually really read your story, but you want people to SAY they did, then you are a literary fiction writer. I have nothing but contempt for the circular wanking squad around "literary fiction". I say that as someone who has written novels that can be categorized in that way too...
    – JBiggs
    May 28, 2018 at 3:16
  • Lots of people brag about reading Tolkien (not The Hobbit but the long boring ones), Alan Moore esp. Watchmen, serious science fiction, Chuck Tingle, any particularly bloody and disturbing horror that lesser mortals are too revolted to finish, and even having read the Harry Potter books if they did it "before it was cool".
    – Stuart F
    Feb 23, 2022 at 15:32

If it is bound in hardcover, reviewed in a respected publication, written by someone with an MFA in English, or assigned as required reading in a college course, it's literary fiction. Literary fiction is prestigious, and generally assumed to be read by a wealthier, more highly educated audience, as opposed to genre fiction, which is issued in mass market paperbacks, and is assumed to follow the formulaic conventions of a genre such as romance, science fiction, horror or mystery. Literary fiction is aimed at posterity, while genre fiction is disposable and interchangeable --at least in theory.

In practice, some of the best respected classics began life as genre fiction, while many celebrated or uncelebrated works of literary fiction are quickly forgotten. It's perhaps best to conceive it, therefore, as primarily a marketing designation, aimed at helping books reach their most receptive audience.


I think the wikipedia definition gets quite close to the essence. Additionally, you might think about the type of fiction meant to have an aesthetic value/quality, that is what literary fiction hopes to achieve in my view.

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