Literary fiction is a category of fiction that explores any facet of the human condition, and may involve social commentary. Generally speaking, literary fiction is regarded as having more literary merit than genre fiction, especially the most commercially oriented type of genre fiction. However, the serious study of genre fiction has developed within academia in recent decades.
Characteristics of literary fiction generally include one or more of the following:
- A concern with social commentary, political criticism, or reflection on the human condition.
- A focus on "introspective, in-depth character studies" of "interesting, complex and developed" characters, whose "inner stories" drive the plot, with detailed motivations to elicit "emotional involvement" in the reader.
- A slower pace than popular fiction. As Terrence Rafferty notes, "literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way".
- A concern with the style and complexity of the writing: Saricks describes literary fiction as "elegantly written, lyrical, and ... layered".
- Unlike genre fiction plot is not the central concern.
- The tone of literary fiction can be darker than genre fiction.
The distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is sometimes doubtful or controversial, because many works of genre fiction are considered works of literature. Furthermore, major writers of literary fiction, like Nobel laureate Doris Lessing, as well as Margaret Atwood, also publish science fiction. Doris Lessing described science fiction as "some of the best social fiction of our time", and called Greg Bear, author of Blood Music, "a great writer".
A number of major literary figures have also written either genre fiction books, or books that contain certain elements of genre fiction. For instance, the novel Crime and Punishment by Fydor Dostoevsky contains elements of the crime fiction genre. Gabriel García Márquez's book Love in the Time of Cholera is a romance novel. Frankenstein and Dracula are examples of gothic horror novels. Graham Greene at the time of his death in 1991 had a reputation as a writer of both deeply serious novels on the theme of Catholicism, and of "suspense-filled stories of detection". Acclaimed during his lifetime, he was shortlisted in 1966 for the Nobel Prize for Literature. John Banville publishes crime novels as Benjamin Black, and both Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood have written science fiction. Furthermore, Nobel laureate André Gide stated that Georges Simenon, best known as the creator of the fictional detective Jules Maigret, was "the most novelistic of novelists in French literature".
In an interview, John Updike lamented that "the category of 'literary fiction' has sprung up recently to torment people like me who just set out to write books, and if anybody wanted to read them, terrific, the more the merrier. ... I'm a genre writer of a sort. I write literary fiction, which is like spy fiction or chick lit". Likewise, on The Charlie Rose Show, Updike argued that this term, when applied to his work, greatly limited him and his expectations of what might come of his writing, so he does not really like it. He suggested that all his works are literary, simply because "they are written in words".
- Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, "Popular Fiction Studies: The Advantages of a New Field". Studies in Popular Culture, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Fall 2010), pp. 21-3
- Saricks 2009, p. 180.
- Coles 2009, p. 7.
- Coles, William (2007). Story in Literary Fiction: A Manual for Writers. p. 26. ISBN 978-1425986643.
- Coles 2009, p. 8.
- Saricks 2009, p. 182.
- Rafferty 2011.
- Saricks 2009, p. 179.
- Saricks 2009, p. 181-182.
- Doris Lessing: Hot Dawns, interview by Harvey Blume in Boston Book Review
- Atherton, C. (2015). A/AS Level English Literature B for AQA Student Book. Cambridge Univsersity Press. p. 177.
- "Crime and Punishment at 150". The University of British Columbia.
- "Crime and Punishment". Penguin Random House.
- Wood, Michael 1988, April 28 Heartsick The New York Review of Books
- Frazier, Charles 1989 Love in the Time of CholeraPhi Kappa Phi Journal volume 69 page 46
- Ian Thomson (3 October 2004). "More Sherry trifles". The Observer.
- Lynette Kohn (1961). Graham Greene: The Major Novels. Stanford University Press. p. 23.
- "Candidates for the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature". Nobelprize.org. 4 January 2017. Archived from the original on 11 February 2017.
- Robert C. Steensma (1997). Encyclopedia of the Essay. Taylor & Francis. p. 264.
- Charles E. Claffey, The Boston Globe September, 10, 1989 Contributing to this report was Boston Globe book editor Mark Feeney.
- Grossman 2006. sfn error: no target: CITEREFGrossman2006 (help)
- The Charlie Rose Show from June 14, 2006 with John Updike Archived February 3, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
- Coles, William (2009). Literary Story As an Art Form: A Text for Writers. AuthorHouse. p. 136.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Delany, Samuel (2009). Freedman, Carl (ed.). Conversations With Samuel R. Delany. Literary Conversations Series. University Press of Mississippi. pp. 214.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Habjan, Jernej, Imlinger, Fabienne. Globalizing Literary Genres: Literature, History, Modernity. London: Routledge, 2015.
- Rafferty, Terrence (February 4, 2011). "Reluctant Seer". New York Times Sunday Book Review. Retrieved April 23, 2012.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Saricks, Joyce (2009). The Readers' Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd ed.). ALA Editions. p. 402.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Saricks, Joyce (2005). Readers' Advisory Service In The Public Library (3rd ed.). ALA Editions. p. 211.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)