190 – What Is Literary Fiction?

The Mythcreant Podcast

Have you heard of this thing called literary fiction? We have, but we’re not quite certain what it is or why it matters. And we’re not the only ones who are confused. This week we get deep into what “literary” means, and how much writers should think about it when creating their stories. Prepare for an epic debate over art, craft, and books about whales.

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

The Grapes of Wrath

Fahrenheit 451


Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Moby Dick

The Southern Reach


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  1. Julia

    Sometimes I think the main thing separating literary fiction from genre fiction is just where the bookstores decide to shelve them. A lot of books under the general ‘literature’ section have spec fic elements: Beloved has a ghost, The Night Circus is pretty fantastical, and The Time Traveler’s Wife has, well, time travel.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That’s certainly how it seems to me. A lot like how YA is more of a publisher’s genre than a reader’s genre.

      • Cay Reet

        Same goes for pulp. You can write any kind of story pulp-ish.

  2. Bryony

    Literary fiction is the book version of Oscar bait ?

  3. rieile

    I have encountered a very interesting view on literary vs genre fiction (unfortunately, I read it in Russian and cannot provide a link): literary fiction is supposed to make the reader uncomfortable about their worldview, while genre fiction is there to reassure the reader (more or less because readers broadly know what to expect from it).

    • Bubbles

      That’s an interesting view. However, I think that if you’re using that definition, a lot of science fiction (and other speculative fiction too, but in my limited experience, it’s particularly prevalent among science fiction) counts as “literary” because it is meant to challenge the reader’s worldview. Books such as Blindsight (and that is just the first example I could think of) are based around the idea that our perceptions and values are not universal and may not be the most effective, and are definitely not expected or exactly reassuring. Even other works that generally don’t go that far, such as Star Trek, often feature commentary on our own society (similarly to a lot of “literary” works), but “dressed up” in the speculative fiction elements.

      • rieile

        I would count “Blindsight” as literary by any standard.
        Any work can have commentary on how society works or have other “serious” elements, but genre fiction uses the genre tells “that kind of story”, you open a high fantasy book and you know roughly what to expect and most likely it will not subvert the tropes to such a degree that you would have to reconsider your whole worldview after reading it. In other words, the protagonist will win according to rules, or lose again according to the same established rules. In literary fiction, rules are much vaguer.

        • Bubbles

          That makes sense. It is just that a lot of people think that science fiction and fantasy cannot be literary, by definition. Which, ironically, means by those standards, literary fiction has the rule “must be on Earth, in a real time or place.” Of course, I and other people don’t believe that is the definition, but the prejudice against speculative fiction is still present all too often.

  4. Evil Genius

    You guys misidentify YA as a genre a lot. It is not a genre. It is a category. Categories are children’s, middle grade, YA, (some consider new adult, YA with protagonists 20 or older, a separate category), and adult. This is the age that your book is sold to. From within this, genre is an unrelated metric. For example, Hunger Games is YA category, and scifi genre.

    The most useful definition of “literary fiction” that I use is rather than the book being plot-driven or character-driven, that you would recommend the book primarily for its writing, like “Gone Girl,” “Lolita,” or “American Psycho.”

    While literary fiction is often mistakenly identified as a genre, it is not. All the examples I’ve cited, for example, are clearly thrillers. If you look in the litfic canon, you will find that it has works from a number of discrete genres, such as “The Big Sleep,” a potboiler mystery, or “Handmaid’s Tale” which is scifi, no matter what Atwood says. If litfic were a genre, it could not have things from other genres within it. It does, therefore it is not.

    The term for what you’re misattributing to mass market is “commercial fiction” or “upmarket fiction” which is why you may be conflating it with “mass-market paperback,” which is a specific size and paper stock quality for a print book. There is no such thing as a mass-market e-book.

    • Jeppsson

      Thanks! That cleared things up for me. I’ve been super confused every time someone talks about “the literary genre”.

      I recently read The Water Cure by Sophie MackIntosh, for instance, and I guess that counts as literary. But if someone were to ask me about the genre, I’d say it’s a relationship drama and also a mystery, where you gradually learn more and more about the characters’ horrible situation and background. That’s the kind of info you’d want if you ask for genre, right?

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