Columns > Published on August 1st, 2013

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.

About the author

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was 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 Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit

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