Storyville: What is Literary Fiction?

Disclaimer: Some of these statements will be generalizations, and their definitions are subjective and not exhaustive. These are my opinions, based on research and personal experience. There are always exceptions to the rule.

DEFINED

From Wikipedia: “Literary fiction is a term principally used for certain fictional works that are claimed to hold literary merit…To be considered literary, a work usually must be "critically acclaimed" and "serious.” In practice, works of literary fiction often are "complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas".

Let’s look at that definition and explore some of its assumptions a bit.

LITERARY MERIT

What is literary merit? Well, it’s a certain aesthetic value. It should stand the test of time, it should have realistic and layered characters and complex emotions, and it should be concerned with the truth. This is someplace to start, at least.

CHARACTER

Often, literary fiction will be introspective, examining the thoughts and feelings of its main characters. There will be a deep study of a person or persons, showing us layers of experience, emotion, thought, and behavior.

PLOT

A lot of literary fiction avoids focusing on the plot—it isn’t about solving something, adding up A + B to = C. The focus is on the inner narrative, the emotions and struggle of the protagonist. In genre fiction, such as mystery, the main focus will be on who did what and how can that villain be caught and how can the mystery be solved? In horror, we want to know who (or what) is dragging the children into the sewers and eating them. The plot is to find out the problem and fix it.

STYLE

In literary fiction, the prose should be lyrical, elegant, and layered. In a lot of genre fiction, there is a desire for mass appeal, so an elevated language would certainly turn off or eliminate a lot of your audience. Take somebody like Cormac McCarthy or David Foster Wallace. Both authors have been claimed by the literary institutions, and it’s easy to see from their prose that the language is complicated, deep, and poetic. Here is an excerpt from McCarthy's Blood Meridian:

“It was a lone tree burning on the desert. A heraldic tree that the passing storm had left afire. The solitary pilgrim drawn up before it had traveled far to be here and he knelt in the hot sand and held his numbed hands out while all about in that circle attended companies of lesser auxiliaries routed forth into the inordinate day, small owls that crouched silently and stood from foot to foot and tarantulas and solpugas and vinegarroons and the vicious mygale spiders and beaded lizards with mouths black as a chowdog's, deadly to man, and the little desert basilisks that jet blood from their eyes and the small sandvipers like seemly gods, silent and the same, in Jeda, in Babylon. A constellation of ignited eyes that edged the ring of light all bound in a precarious truce before this torch whose brightness had set back the stars in their sockets.”

I mean, I had to look up about six words there just to understand what he’s saying. But I love Cormac, even if I have to slow down and often define words based on their context. Compare that to the workman-like prose of somebody like Stephen King or John Grisham, and you’ll see a big difference.

TONE

It’s been said that literary prose tends to be more serious, but I'm not sure if I agree with that. I’ve read plenty of genre fiction that deals with serious topics—genocide, incest, murder, rape, etc. But I suppose if it means that literary fictions tends to ask questions, big questions, such as “Why are we here?” or “Why do we hurt each other?” or “Is there a God?”, then yes, I guess literary fiction does tend to focus on more serious topics, instead of less serious topics such as vampires and werewolves, or how the wizards can learn their new spells and defeat the thing in the dungeon.

PACING

Often literary fiction is a slower read, because of the previously mentioned topics. If you slow down the story in order to develop character, in order to layer that depth so you can weave a more lyrical voice, then yes, I imagine your pace would be slower. Some would even call that “dry,” and that’s why sometimes “literary fiction” gets a bad reputation as being slow and boring. I don’t agree, although I'm not a fan of Shakespeare, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, and many other literary authors. There are certainly science fiction novels that are 100,000 words or more that give us so much backstory, science, technology, and world-building that the pace slows to a crawl, much as there is great literary fiction that keeps the story moving.

AUDIENCE

If your audience is other academics, if your goal is to gain recognition, then maybe you are writing literary fiction as opposed to genre fiction that tends to have a broad, mass appeal, aiming for sales over critical acclaim. Do you see your writing on the bookshelves at Walmart, Target, and Barnes and Noble, or in university libraries, being taught in classes?

PUBLISHERS

Which leads directly to who is publishing the writing. If a story is published in a literary magazine or journal, such as The New Yorker, and then ends up in the Best American Short Stories anthology, then it is probably considered literary fiction. If your story is published in a well-known horror or fantasy magazine, such as Cemetery Dance, Clarkesworld, or Asimov’s, then you’re probably writing excellent speculative genre fiction. Who published the novel—was it a big six press that focuses on literary fiction, or a small, niche publisher that focuses on one genre? What I find particularly exciting these days is that there are more and more stories being published by the big literary magazines, and subsequently in the Best American Short Stories anthology, that are indeed post-apocalyptic, fantasy, magical realism, even horror and science fiction. People like George Saunders, Steven Millhauser, and Mary Gaitskill are partially responsible for this movement, as well as authors like Brian Evenson, Stephen Graham Jones, and many others.

WHAT IT ISN’T

There are always exceptions to the rules, but typically, literary fiction is not graphic horror, werewolves and vampires, demons and ghosts. It is not a mystery to be solved, a crime with detectives, women in distress, and dark alleys. It is not a world where dragons and trolls fight for survival, wizards and elves united for a common cause. It is not romance and heaving bosoms and slick sex. It is not time travel and mind reading and rockets. Of course, I can think of examples that break all of these assumptions. There is indeed literary horror, such as the short story “The Paperhanger” by William Gay, or the work of Poe. There is such a thing as a literary thriller—I think All the Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones might fit into that category, maybe Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. There are many that have adopted The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings as literary, which would make that literary fantasy, maybe. I’d guess that in literary science fiction there is Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” because it is in the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, a literary bible. There is certainly fiction in every genre that fits the definition of literary fiction—introspective, layered emotions with in-depth character study, a slower pace, and lyrical language.

IN CONCLUSION

What I personally find fascinating is that there is more genre-bending and genre-blending work going on now than ever before. But if you want to place a short story in The Missouri Review or Ploughshares, it probably isn’t the same story that you could place in Shock Totem or Shroud. What makes a “good” story or reading experience for one person is not the same fiction that will entertain and inspire another reader. I wrote this column today in hopes of helping those authors out there that are trying to wrap their heads around what literary fiction is, and how they can break into the magazine and journals that have been eluding them. Of course, if I had all of the answers, I’d be published in these elite places, as well. But I think if you do your research, as you should be doing already, for each publication, literary or genre, each publishing house, then you’ll be able to figure out where to send your work and what to call it. In the end, just write the best damn story you can, telling tales that you want to tell, fiction that you find entertaining and shocking and mesmerizing and impactful. Good luck.


I urge you to pick up the 2012 Best American Short Stories anthology to see what I mean. You can look at the work by Steven Millhauser, Roxane Gay, Mike Meginnis, and Eric Puchner (my favorites from this year) and find examples of horror, fantasy, science fiction, fantasy, and southern gothic prose. If you haven't picked up the Vintage and Anchor anthologies, I suggest you do that as well. These are excellent examples of how a talented author can really stretch the definitions of literary fiction—authors like the aforementioned Mary Gaitskill, George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, and William Gay, as well as Denis Johnson, Wells Tower, Joyce Carol Oates, Aimee Bender, A.M. Homes, and many others.

Image of The Best American Short Stories
Author:
Price: $7.95
Publisher: Mariner Books (2012)
Binding: Paperback, 384 pages
Image of The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, Shorter 7th Edition
Author:
Price:
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (2006)
Binding: Paperback, 1088 pages
Image of The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories
Author:
Price: $13.56
Publisher: Vintage (1994)
Binding: Paperback, 576 pages
Image of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories
Author:
Price: $12.80
Publisher: Anchor (2004)
Binding: Paperback, 496 pages
Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.

Comments

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 1, 2013 - 12:58pm

Well shut my mouth. Irvine Welsh just said, about this column, "Nice piece, puts aside all the angst, pomposity and defensiveness that often surrounds this question, at least in UK."

Very cool. What do YOU think?

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer August 1, 2013 - 1:24pm

I think Irvine Welsh is one of my personal favorites, and I am psyched for you. Good article. I try to pick up as many of the Best American Short Stories series as I can. A lot of times, you can get past years at a pretty good price.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 1, 2013 - 1:53pm

@jack - you can defintely find older versions of BASS for pretty cheap. but do try to pick up the current ones as well, just to stay in the loop of what's happening NOW. i have BASS going back 30 years, but things do change. you will definitely be able to pick up some stories that may be considered "classics" now, even 10 years back. what's exciting to me is that each year i always find a few "black sheep" in the BASS, stories that don't fit the mold, that fight against conformity and those are the ones that usually resonate for me. 

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago August 1, 2013 - 4:24pm

Once again, an education over a cup of coffee. You have a talent for putting things in perspective. Thanks for the great article.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 1, 2013 - 4:39pm

thanks, tom! i'll be sending you all a bill for my $30,000 MFA which still won't get me a job because even the community colleges are hiring PhDs now. FML. :-) just kidding. i try to condense it down to everything that makes sense, that has been helpful to me in my actual career as a writer. i saw a lot of people in my MFA program (professors and academics) that couldn't name any places to publish beyond The New Yorker and The Paris Review, and a few other elite magazines. and commercial fiction, genre fiction?!?! what's that? well, maybe SOME people would like to actually make a living and sell a few books. but really, i think what's the best of both worlds is what i talk about here in this column, and what i'm TRYING to do with my fiction as are so many other authors that straddle the fence between genre and fiction—take the best of both worlds. entertaining as well as thought provoking, deep and layered as it keeps moving forward, exciting fiction. that's what i'm trying to publish at Dark House Press, too.

hope the article helps. pair that with what i wrote about neo-noir recently, and i think it's a very exciting time to be a writer. best of luck all.

my apologies for the rant! :-)

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer August 2, 2013 - 7:57am

The fence between literary and genre has always been a shaky one, but it is nice to see it deteriorating further. I had a "Gothic Monsters" literary criticism and theory class last spring. Next Spring I am hoping to take a similar class in Detective fiction. At one point, serious literary academic discussion of genre fiction would have been seen as absurd. But when you get down to it, so many classic works had elements of genre. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness was essentially a Gothic novel pretending to be literary fiction. There were a lot fantasy elements in D.H. Lawrence's The Fox. There are countless other examples, obviously.

Where I think it really has gotten interesting is that it is now possible to be a literary writer dealing openly with genre elements, for example Red Moon, which is very literary, deals with some serious stuff, but is also a werewolf suspense novel. Not to mention The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I don't think anyone could argue that it is not literary, but also embraces the post-apocalypse often described in horror. Books (and authors) have gotten a lot harder to shelve in one place.

 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 2, 2013 - 11:30am

great post, jack. i totally agree on RED MOON and THE ROAD, two excellent examples. 

Matt L.'s picture
Matt L. from Texas is reading Tenth of December: Stories August 5, 2013 - 9:33am

In the end, just write the best damn story you can, telling tales that you want to tell, fiction that you find entertaining and shocking and mesmerizing and impactful.

Yes. This. I made myself dizzy trying to figure out where my novel fit in terms of genre. I settled on thriller with a literary bent for my queries but when it comes to writing, I quit asking myself what genre the work falls into. Just write the damn thing, write it well, and make it interesting.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 5, 2013 - 11:25am

^^thanks, matt. history will place our novels where it sees fit. 

Jacquelyn Sylvan's picture
Jacquelyn Sylvan August 11, 2013 - 11:17am

I read a very apt quote about literary vs. genre fic once (unfortunately I can't remember where, so I can't source it). "Genre fiction is about ordinary people leading extraordinary lives; literary fiction is about extraordinary people leading ordinary lives." Exceptions to every rule, of course, but by-and-large I think it's true. 

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami August 12, 2013 - 12:14am

Its weird, I always wrote genre fiction, but had a hard time finding my genre. But I always prefered to read slower paced slice of life stories that ask if life had meaning. Not sure what that would be.

I must admit science fiction elements makes slicd of stories more interesting to me. I was a fan of eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 12, 2013 - 6:05am

great quote, JS. i'll have to remember that.

maybe check out magical realism, Sarah, has the best of both worlds!

Stacy_R_Haynes's picture
Stacy_R_Haynes from North Charleston, SC is reading Coffee Break Screenwriter August 20, 2013 - 8:04pm

Can someone  tell me the difference between literary fiction, slice of life, and vignettes? They sound very much alike. 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 21, 2013 - 7:32am

literary fiction is a style, (some say a genre), and the column gets into that. a slice of life is a bit of fiction (or it can be non-fiction) that takes parts of a day or life and shows it to you, which can be in any genre, but are typically not a full story, just a slice. vignettes are incomplete scenes, that do not have the full hook-conflict-resolution of a story, but are more involved, less "reported" than a SOL. hope that helps. 

Stacy_R_Haynes's picture
Stacy_R_Haynes from North Charleston, SC is reading Coffee Break Screenwriter August 22, 2013 - 7:22am

Thanks, your comments helped greatly. It's a great essay, and I found it helped me contetualize the styles of fiction better. I've been writing all three (literary fic, SOL, and vignettes) and not really understanding the style I've been employing. 

I've noticed that sometimes with feedback on stories I've written dealt with commerical fiction, which doesn't always appply to literary style of writng. In a sense I've de-coded the problem.  Thanks again.  

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 22, 2013 - 8:57am

cool. there are a ton of different genres out there, don't be afraid to stretch yourself. i'll actually have a column coming up soon that talks about underappreciated and underutilized genres and sub-genres. i tend to write neo-noir (which is just "new-black")—contemporary dark fiction, but it can be fantasy, science fiction, horror, southern gothic, literary, magical realism, transgressive, grotesque, you name it. in the end, what you call it doesn't really matter, as long as can figure out where to send your work when it's done. good luck!

Stacy_R_Haynes's picture
Stacy_R_Haynes from North Charleston, SC is reading Coffee Break Screenwriter August 25, 2013 - 7:42am

Thanks. You make good points about using genre, and knowing where to send stories. Looking forward to your new column post. 

Joan P Lane's picture
Joan P Lane June 2, 2014 - 5:26pm

I'm very glad I read this article, which a friend posted on Facebook. Thanks Richard! It's answered a lot of my questions.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies June 3, 2014 - 8:51pm

thanks, joan!

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami August 27, 2014 - 4:57pm

Something I forgot to note too, a friend of mine is interesting is slice of life fantasy. Whatever that is.

I've been using that term less myself, as it doesn't fit my needs. I prefer stories to be about the character, ... then the plot.

edenstore's picture
edenstore May 15, 2016 - 10:46pm

"Fiction" is a certain type of literature.  "Literary" simply means "concerning literature."  "Literature" means "written works, esp. those with superior or lasting artistic merit."  So literary fiction is really just classical or artistic fiction.  The phrase "literary fiction" is therefore rhetorical and should be dumped.