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Customer Discussions > Literary Fiction forum

What is literary fiction?

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Showing 176-200 of 356 posts in this discussion
Posted on Sep 19, 2009 11:22:40 PM PDT
windrider2 says:
Let's not forget the role that class plays, overtly and covertly, in whether a work is considered "literary" fiction or "mass" fiction. It manifests on a couple of levels:

Class of Readers
Even the terms are telling: "mass" fiction means that the masses are reading it, in other words lots and lots of people, many of whom can't possibly be very discerning or intelligent in their choice of fiction. "Literary" fiction, by implication, attracts a more sophisticated, intelligent, "cultured" readership. But this strand of judgment stretches back in time to economic class, when only the wealthy could afford books and only the wealthy could and would educate their children, which included reading.

Class of Story
Again, this goes back to class of reader. A shoot 'em up, bang ban or bodice ripper romance is not viewed as intellectually stimulating. Mysteries, especially "potboiler series", are just a step above romances with a predominantly female readership, unless they are very convoluted which may attract a larger male readership (male=inherently smarter).

Legal mysteries, however, may appeal to a higher breed of reader and therefore, doesn't seem to carry quite the stigma of other mass fiction genres.

Horror seems to carry a high brow/low brow dichotomy, with Stephen King seeming to sit right on the fence.

Only science fiction seems to deviate away from the class dichotomy but it is also a generational genre that only truly blossomed in the boomer generation. There isn't much of an historical analog for science fiction, despite Jules Verne, but in horror there is: Poe, Hawthorne, Lovecraft, whose works were once considered "mass" fiction but are now seen as classic literature.

My own criteria are: the quality of the story and the quality of the writing. I read for two reasons: for the story and for the writing. Not all books satisfy both, nor do they need to in order for me to buy them. I consume a fair number of "snack books" every year, usually horror novels that aren't terribly gruesome (I'm not much into splatter), are usually a fast, one-time read, and are then recycled. I seldom pre-order them and the authors are usually not ones that I go looking for, or watching for the next book from them. But I've discovered some gems among the snack book pile, and the author usually becomes someone whose work I'll follow, but not necessarily always buy. Then there are my must-read authors, and there aren't a lot: Stephen King, Joe Hill, Dorothy Allison, Bentley Little. It's almost never a gamble to pick up one by them; I already know the quality of their story telling and writing, and the probability that I'll enjoy the book and reread it several times is high.

And not that I'm prejudiced toward Stephen King or anything, but I think "Duma Key" is every bit as much literary fiction as mass fiction (and "The Stand", too). These are books I reread sometimes just for the writing...and the stories ain't bad, either.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 20, 2009 7:46:09 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 20, 2009 7:46:57 AM PDT
Case Quarter says:

tangled among the roots of science is magic and the miracles of religion, giving rise to the miraculous and the fabulous, so where i see sprouting up science fiction i also see fantasy, and wonder if they're siblings, fairy tale twins separated shortly after birth. it's easy to provide literary ancedents for the fantasy, science fiction is more of a challenge but possible.

regarding our host's question, i would say that maybe it was the element of fantasy that earned her novel entry into the class of literary fiction.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 20, 2009 1:00:10 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 20, 2009 1:14:23 PM PDT
rocketman says:
There has been an chicken-or-egg philosophical discussion for eons trying to answer the question of whether the writer writes for the reader, or doe he/she write for himself and for his own pure, sublime reasons.

Of course the question can only be answered by the public. . . But the public is such an enormously disparate range of brains that the test results are skewed wildly. The real answer is simple economic reality: the reader buys, the reader rules. And the reader is a collective tyrant.

What good is writing books such as, and using an extreme example, Proust's literary masterpiece, Remembrance Of Things Past? Here you have Proust writing simply for Proust, and knowing a reader must go to work to read the book, and must toil and endure to the end to get the message or conclusion Proust eventually delivers.

On the other end of the spectrum you have Clancey, Chricton, Grisham, who throw the reader into the story in the first line and keep changing the rules and dangling the carrot and playing the reader like a pinball machine until leaving him pleasantly exhausted at the very last line.

So who is going to be a success as a writer? Depending on your definition of success both are masters. The Proust-writer is a purist and definitely a literary fiction master. The plot-fiction writer is a talented popular success because he/she makes the reading simple enough that a dictionary is never required, fast and gripping, minimally plausible (since of course the reader wants simply to be entertained, not frightened by thought-provoking suggestions of reality), thrilled, and then of course left with that heart warming 'happy ending.'

In the end it is the reader one writes for, because, like speaking, it makes no sense to stand on a street corner gabbing when no one is listening. Sadly, from a purist's perspective, the average gum-chewing American who is intellectual enough to read a novel is interested only in sixth-grade level prose, does not want to work, think, explore philosophical issues, and wants only to be relaxingly stimulated and spoon-fed an exciting, titillating story without any effort or learning involved.

This is why I use writers such as Trevanian as masters. Trevanian delivered all the above, but forced the reader to use a dictionary, forced the reader to think, forced the reader to work just a tiny bit to enjoy the story. And he made himself wealthy and popular in the process.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 21, 2009 11:20:51 AM PDT
Maytree says:
thanks for some great food for thought.

Very stimulating comment.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 25, 2009 12:12:58 PM PDT
Toni Seger says:
What you left out of your description is that Proust who has been gone longer than these writers have been alive, will continue to be read long after Clancey, Chricton (sp?), Grisham and others who seem to be so important, are completely forgotten.

Success for some writers is quick money. For literary writers, it's longevity.

Toni Seger
author, The Telefax Box, Vol. 1 The Telefax Trilogy

producer/director, The Force of Poetry on DVD

producer/director, Morning Song, a spoken word CD

Toni Seger
author, The Telefax Box, Vol. 1 The Telefax Trilogy

producer/director, The Force of Poetry on DVD

producer/director, Morning Song, a spoken word CD

Posted on Oct 2, 2009 3:07:22 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 2, 2009 4:16:25 PM PDT
L. Cooperman says:
As in classical music, literature does not repeat material or form. That has been the discussion in classical music and we can't write Beethoven's 9th again but on its shoulders we can make a statement of modern content. Since language is not like notes and James Joyce is not in vogue, literature has language to deal with and we cannot invent words as we can with new algorithms for musical material. So language in prose can take on individuated constructions that approach poetry even and an author's voice can be so individuated and rich that it is beyond pulp fiction. The Grapes of Wrath is a great example of this, language is relatively simple but in some of the chapters a running poetry is used to describe the selling of farm implements cents on the dollar. As well formal constructions are time based mostly, Benjamin Button is not the first piece written about a life backwards (it really isn't backwards, he just grows younger) but this formal device is used in novel fashion and this is something I am speaking about when I mention that form is a consideration of literature and stories sometimes do not go forward in the traditional sense. Literature also captures, in a very deep way, a time and place that transcends history as The Grapes of Wrath did so well to cause Steinbeck to be branded a Communist as this level of reality is generally too much for entrenched political interests. Not that a political statement makes literature but certainly the level of reality can be hyper real and move opinions. The quality of moving people's opinions and feelings, with eloquence, deep voice and style is another characteristic of literature.

Posted on Oct 2, 2009 3:07:34 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 2, 2009 3:08:34 PM PDT
L. Cooperman says:
Sorry. Posted twice.

Posted on Oct 12, 2009 2:54:31 PM PDT
Jonnie Comet says:
Gail is dead-on the point in all of her posts here. 'Genre fiction' is a concept devised by narrowminded and less-intelligent agents and publishing editors that enables them to accept or reject a work based on a two- or three-word catch phrase. I call these genres 'cubbyholes'. To the average (let's not overuse that word here, however tempted) editor or agent, none of my work fits into their cubbyholes. My work gets judged on what it is not, exclusively-- not 'romance', not 'adventure', not 'young adult', not 'lesbian', not 'literary', and so forth; yet all of these are present in 'Deirdre', for example, and overall the work is what I would call wholesome, being that it lacks nothing to be an eminently readable book on its own terms-- which is what all literature should be.

I also support the idea of a writers' co-op and in fact am starting one myself. I will be seeking more input from marketing professionals (who are contributors of their own work to the co-op, not for-hire not outside consultants) and raising capital for a better web site... but this idea has merit and in my own corner of New Jersey I have found much interest. One has only to look at the success of Ingrid Michaelson's self-produced and almost not-marketed CD to see the potential of a modest yet worthy work expecting to stand on its own merit... and then being recognised for that.

To me 'literary fiction' is what my writer's-group facilitator calls 'committing an act of literature'. Such a work will be written in standard (formal) English, not vernacular; it will avoid garish use of inappropriate language or puerient topics; it will make a point more than merely topical and merely aesthetic; it will intend to stand on its own for a universal audience, in any continent, at any time, of any background --in short, it merits consideration for university or high-school study lists for being an eminent example of good writing, positively representative of its own time and place. I hate to be the one to say it but I write like this-- or at least aspire to. What's sadder than my having to say that is that there are so many so-called editors and agents out there who know far less about what they're supposed to be doing in their realm of the business than I do-- they make decisions on behalf of readers and writers everywhere, and make money into the bargain; and I am a starving ex-teacher having to become a marketer of books out of necessity.

It's a funny world in which we live.

I've written on this elsewhere--

See Deirdre, the Wanderer: A modern picaresque

Posted on Oct 16, 2009 8:30:59 AM PDT
I think and this is just one woman's opinion...Literary Fiction is that which stands the test of time and is not just trendy...sort of like fashion.

BK Mitchell


Posted on Oct 22, 2009 5:28:44 PM PDT
I can only speak for myself, but to me, literary fiction is fiction that challenges me successfully. Usually this involves a moral or psychological issue, and usually the story doesn't resolve it but makers me think about it. A sure sign of literary fiction is that I go back and read it again, and in doing so, discover something new in myself because of the story.

Sorry if that sounds vague; the other answer is the same one used by a Supreme Court Justice to define pornography: "I know it when I see it." But that's less helpful.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 3, 2009 4:04:19 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 3, 2009 4:38:50 PM PST
stonycal says:
Literary fiction rarely has covers with the titles in big silver-embossed letters.

Posted on Nov 5, 2009 5:47:55 PM PST
Nobody says:
It's clearly all subjective, since labels on "types" of stories are almost always arguable.
If we listen to the professional reviewers, we do ourselves a disservice, imo.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 22, 2009 7:42:16 AM PST
Diana, good to see you on the the literary fiction forum. Your own website,, focuses a great deal on literary fiction, which I enjoy.

As a writer of literary fiction, I'm finding that literary fiction is a great niche to be in with critics, and a tough one with publishers. That is, publishers can have a difficult time marketing literary fiction and, as I'm seeing through my agent, editors are much more open to mystery, romance, and other popular genres. I love reading great literary work and, in fact, recently taught Water for Elephants (Thorndike Paperback Bestsellers) by Sara Gruen, in my Freshman English class at Santa Monica College, and the students loved it and not only fell into a great story, deeply affecting, but also saw the artistic use of language and more. We'd also read Walter Mosley's "Little Scarlett" and while they liked that book, too, they simply felt "Water for Elephants" was "more"--more surprise, more sadness, more love, more "life as it is."

Posted on Nov 23, 2009 2:31:56 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 23, 2009 2:33:40 PM PST
SteveA says:
Great posts here. Literary fiction is sometimes looked down upon as being pretentious or gimmicky, but I think that applies only to a handful of writers (you know who you are). In a broader sense, the term hopefully means any story that benefits from a writer taking the effort to apply his craft as best as he/she can. This crosses all genres. Among crime thriller writers, well-known examples include Patricia Highsmith and James Lee Burke, while among espionage writers there are John Le Carré and Alan Furst. It doesn't have to be humorless, either. Confederacy of Dunces and Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene are great examples.

There's so many examples, in so many genres. The main thing, I think, is that so-called literary fiction should be both entertaining and speak to deeper truths through well-applied craft. Some literary fiction is seen as long and overblown, and that's too bad. There's nothing wrong with being entertaining.

Of course, indie writers like me are hoping you'll look beyond the obvious examples and seek out us lesser-knowns.

Choose wisely!

False Refuge
Besserwisser: A Novel

Posted on Dec 13, 2009 9:26:19 AM PST
Great and interesting variety of opinions expressed in these posts on a very legitimate question. A Google search on "literary fiction" offers many different "official" definitions and opinions for sure, but no consensus. One common denominator seems to be that literary fiction is everything that escapes literary genres. Beyond that, trying to define literary fiction is like trying to grab water. It's there, but it escapes classification because its very nature is to be literature that can't be pigeon-holed into a genre.

The following analogy has been helpful to me. In a different arena, music lovers have spent countless hours trying to define what is "progressive music." Great debates there too. Everybody agrees that outstanding musicianship and creative composition beyond specific formulas are prerequisites, but beyond that, it can really be anything, from slight variations on standard structure, to off-the-wall gong ho experimental music or noise-collages. Yet, it may have a foot (or two) in "genre" music: you can start a hot debate just by asking if "Bohemian Rhapsody" is progressive music. Stretching further, in spite of great musicianship and creative composition, did the Beatles do progressive music (most would say not, but easy to ignite a raging debate here too)?

It appears that all agree that genres are just convenient labels that help a target audience enamored with (addicted to?) a specific form of music (country, rap, heavy metal) or stories (murder mystery, romance, horror) to quickly identify if a new product fits that formula. As such, literary fiction can have ties to a genre (there is such a thing a progressive heavy metal music after all), but if it lack the key ingredients of any genre (e.g. no murder = no murder mystery), then it fits the broader category of literary fiction.

Evidently harder to market literary fiction since it doesn't answer the demands of the ready audiences of genre literature (and because it is quite a mixed bag). Yet, even though it is much easier and lucrative for the music labels to market rap than progressive music, I just love progressive music!

Michel Bruneau
Author of "Shaken Allegiances" (literary fiction)

Posted on Jan 28, 2010 12:45:26 PM PST
zstopperuno says:
I'm not sure what it is, but I know what it isn't: anything written after reading,
"Novel Writing for Dummies"

Posted on Feb 1, 2010 7:53:21 PM PST
Literary fiction is the laborious result of a book lover's careful collection of words that is visually enticing and musical in sound. It typifies a variety of styles which captures and mesmerizes an astute audience. Literary fiction is The Love of Pure Evil: The Children of Ankafus by Renee Mincey

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2010 12:44:42 AM PST
rocketman says:
Not to offend anyone, but it sounds as if everyone is making this discussion far too complicated. Literary Fiction is simply defined as fiction in which a story is the result of what takes place between the characters as a result of who they are, with an emphasis on getting to know the characters themselves. It follows that the complexities of those people interacting creates a story. It's a fine line at times between Story Fiction, in which the characters exist to keep the story going. In Literary Fiction it's the other way around. There are all sorts of hybrids out there, in fact pure Literary Fiction is often quite boring. And pure Story Fiction is shallow. So it seems to me the best writing combines the two.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 7, 2010 12:04:26 PM PST
Dragi Raos says:
So, your definition would be more "non-pulp fiction" than "non-genre fiction"? I agree.

Posted on Feb 7, 2010 12:10:42 PM PST
Dragi Raos says:
Hey, why Amazon deleted all those Toni Seger's posts?

Posted on Feb 7, 2010 7:12:16 PM PST
Visa says:
Based upon the definitions described in this discussion, I feel that my novel will be a good recommendation for a read as a literary fiction. Hello, my name is Alma Hudson author of "Checkered Fences". It's available in both paperback Checkered Fences and Kindle Checkered Fences.

Imagine a young black women falling in love with a white man in the early 70's during a time of turbulent change. The war in Vietman is raging, the civil rights and the women's rights movements are in full bloom. The father of the young women is old school and has arranged for his daughter to get married at 15 years old. She fights against domestic violence, is militant, struggles to support herself and to get a college education to be self supporting, so she won't be married off in a loveless marriage, when she falls in love with a young white man.

To complicate matter further, the young man she falls in love with is the oldest son of her employer. She's militant and believes she should be with her own kind, but he doesn't agree. Then imagine the story is true. What would you do if you were a young black women in love with a white man in the early 70's? Then read "Checkered Fences", by Alma Hudson. This is a story based upon my life growing up in the 60's & 70's and was my true situation. I know that you will enjoy this love story. Here's my author's website if you want to know more about me

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 8, 2010 8:44:26 AM PST
Toni Seger says:
I have no idea.
Toni Seger

The Telefax Box, Vol I, The Telefax Trilogy

Aurora Rising, Vol II, The Telefax Trilogy

The Force of Poetry, a film on DVD

Morning Song, an audio CD

Posted on Feb 8, 2010 12:58:06 PM PST
The Big Al says:
Moira Allen has a good piece in the current issue of The Writer titled "What makes literary fiction 'literary'?" I recommend it.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 14, 2010 10:46:59 AM PST
I think that the term "Literary Fiction" would applyto books that could be taught in a college classroom--and, although I myself was an English literature major with two Master's degrees and decades of secondary school teaching experience, I think that aside from a book's actual merit, it must also be somewhat difficult to read or to understand. I read so many books of so many genres in college; some I fell in love with and returned to again and again, and others were just isolated learning experiences. Wrote

Posted on Mar 12, 2010 2:04:37 AM PST
[Deleted by Amazon on Aug 9, 2011 6:09:02 PM PDT]
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