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Writing: What Is LIterary Fiction Anyway?

Writing: What is LIterary Fiction Anyway?

Photo of statue of Hamlet with Yorick's skull in his hand

Alas, poor Yorick – and Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear, says Theo Rogers (photo by Bobby via Morgefile.com)

This is a question that never gets old – and we're unlikely ever to find a definitive answer. But always up for a good debate, ALLi Author Theo Rogers shares his views and asks some provocative questions. Pile in to the discussion after you've read it, folks – we'd love to hear your views on this always hot writing topic.

Is It a Genre?

Literary fiction is a genre. Like all genres it has its own well-defined market and its own well-defined conventions. As has been observed by others before me, many an “experimental” piece follows a path as predictable and formulaic as any detective novel.

Of course, the paradox of all genres is that while they are largely defined by their conventions, few writers are so highly regarded as those who successfully break – and thereby redefine – those conventions.

What Is Conventional?

The current conventions of literary fiction are easy to identify:

  • Literary fiction deals with inner life and/or human relationships. It does not deal with science, engineering, or the physical world for its own sake – although human responses to all these things would of course be accepted as valid subjects.
  • Plot, if present, must not exist for its own sake, but must serve to express some deeper theme.
  • A focus on high status individuals, glamorous settings, raw spectacle, or any other situation where the stakes are high on anything other than a personal or interpersonal level are all to be treated with great suspicion, and are largely taboo. To the extent that these elements are allowed at all, they should be dealt with in an almost deprecatory manner.
  • Gross breaks with mundane realism are to be treated with the greatest suspicion of all, and any writer who resorts to such elements must be extremely careful to make it clear that they are not the “point” of the work.

What Makes LitFic Special?

Why then give any special status to this genre?

Literary fiction is also by definition fiction that is perceived by the wider society as “high culture.” This overarches and supersedes the (otherwise) defining conventions listed above.

When what we, as a society, deem to be high culture changes to encompass a new set of conventions – which one day it will – then fiction written according to the new conventions will be recognized as literary, whereas fiction written to the old will not.

If written today, Hamlet, Macbeth, or King Lear would not be recognized as literary.

All that non-ironic focus on Great Men: royalty and heads of state?

Puh-lease. This is the age of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Why is it a Grey Area?

Of course, like all genres, literary fiction is what psychologists and philosophers would call a “fuzzy category”. This means that asking “What is literary fiction?” is like asking “What is red?” There is no clear and absolute border where red becomes orange… or purple, or pink. And because there are no absolute borders, there’s always some wriggle room around the edges. Just so long as you don’t stray too far on too many criteria.

So you can, for example, insert a little magical realism into your writing and still be considered highbrow, as was most famously achieved in the television series Six Feet Under. Which, you will note, follows all the other conventions I have listed above quite scrupulously. The show also made it very clear that such flights of fantasy were not the point of the work, but were there to serve the core purpose of taking us deeper inside the characters’ heads.

The Boundaries: Fuzzy but Firm?

But just because the boundaries are fuzzy, this does not mean that they do not exist. If you write a novel that’s positively awash with magic, the major characters are all royalty, and the plot serves no purpose but to spin a knuckle-whitening yarn about saving the world, then… I’m sorry my dear, but you have not written literary fiction!

In the end, literary fiction is quite simply the genre with the highest cultural status. In the early 21st century, a novel that follows the conventions listed above will garner greater cultural cachet than one that follows the conventions of a romance or thriller.

I leave the reader to decide whether this is any different from the fact that in most situations, a Belgravia accent will get you a whole lot further in life than one straight out of Compton.

Word to your mother.

OVER TO YOU What's your take on Theo Rogers' definition? Join the debate via the comments box!

Why wouldn't #Hamlet count as #literaryfiction if published today? asks Theo Rogers #opinion Click To Tweet

FROM THE ALLi ARCHIVE: Another thought-provoking post about literary fiction

Author: Theo Rogers

Theo Rogers is an Amazon jungle guide and author of "How To Get Good Reviews on Amazon". author member of ALLi and a keen reviewer. Find out more about Theo and his book at his website: www.getgoodreviews.com.


This Post Has 7 Comments
  1. I entered one of my novels in a contest that was open to all types of fiction. I write historical novels. This one involved a man (a warrior-king) whose eldest son was killed as the result of a stupid mistake on the son’s part. The MC received the news late through another mistake. He is devastated. The novel which at 85K words is one of my shorter ones, follows him as he goes to a small village and lives there under an assumed name.

    The story involves attacks from nomadic people who are migrating from the desert, and has a love aspect as well. The actions of the king’s second son, who finds himself Crown Prince, also play a large part of the story.

    I was very interested to see this story, which was a semifinalist, classified as ‘Literary Fiction.’ I suspect that if the various characters in a story do a lot of ‘thinking’, LitFic is applied. So The Lord of the Rings as well as Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy are LitFic.

    1. I’m going to be moving to a new apartment in a few hours, so as you might imagine, under such circumstances it’s hard to martial a serious reply 😉 Nevertheless, I’ll do my best!

      I’ll also be offline for a few days afterwards, so any response to this reply will likely not get to me until the end of this week.

      Underlying my post is a belief that there are masterpieces and mediocrities in all genres. It is difficult to imagine a more formulaic romance than Pride & Prejudice; or for that matter a more formulaic tragedy than Macbeth. But they are no less masterpieces for the fact. I personally have an interest in how far people can go in creating complex and compelling works in media/genres of low cultural status, such as, say, a cartoon. Try reading this review of mine on Amazon.co.uk and then read the comment (and follow the link) I have left as the initial comment below it, and you’ll see what I mean:


      Many would also consider Lord of The Rings an example of this. It is interesting to look back on how perceptions of this work have evolved since its publication.

      If a work is good enough, there can sometimes be a “back door” into the halls of high culture. More recently, we see this quite clearly with Watchmen.

      “Good enough” is also very much defined by my first two points: that the literary must deal with inner life and human relationships, and plot must not exist for its own sake, but must serve to express some deeper theme. In this case, the theme is closely entwined with a third factor that makes Watchmen great: it successfully shatters and thereby redefines the conventions of its own genre. Watchmen does this by questioning the ideal of the superhero and revealing it for what it always was: the ultimate embodiment of unaccountable power. For a while there in its wake, back the ’90’s, comic books that echoed this sentiment were positively in vogue.

      It’s also important to remember what I said about fuzzy categories, and that there are many works that blur the distinctions between different genres, such as literary and historical fiction. When the two collide the conventions of both are in play, and historical fiction is far more accepting of a focus on powerful individuals. Even so, it is difficult to imagine a modern serious writer (or at least, one who was trying to be taken seriously by the literary establishment) focusing as intently on the head that wears the crown as Shakespeare does in so many of his plays.

      This is why I found Dan’s earlier comment difficult to interpret. On the one hand Wolf Hall has far more of a focus on the Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns of its world than you would ever see in a Shakespearean play. On the other, yes, there is also far more of a focus on the movers and shakers than you would normally find in lit fic that takes place in a contemporary setting.

      Bottom line: if one starts out by defining a genre as a category of fiction with its own established conventions that have evolved to satisfy the demands of a particular market, then it becomes clear that literary fiction is exactly that.

      And… like I said in the beginning, there are masterpieces and mediocrities in all genres.

      I hope all that made sense. The movers could be here in less than two and a half hours.

  2. I’m still struggling a little to understand Theo’s definition of “high culture” as it pertains to literary fiction. I do agree with Alicia, though, that any fiction that attempts to prove the author’s superiority in any respect is liable to make the reader recoil.

    On the other hand, literary fiction should present a challenge that readers will be willing to accept, which is the social challenge of expanding the reader’s capacity for empathy. I’ve said this before but one of my favorite films is Shadowlands in which C.S. Lewis says “We read to know we are not alone”. I feel as though individuals who don’t read literary fiction likely do not have the same capacity for empathy as readers who have the opportunity to be taken into the inner lives of a book’s characters, a staple of literary fiction, which Theo mentions at the beginning of his post.

    Once you become aware of the inner worlds of people, it’s that much harder even in the real world to not meet or have conversations with others and recognize the world within each of them, though you don’t physically see anything other than a bag of skin and bones standing before you.

    This “feeling” that emerges by recognizing the inner worlds of others is the basis of community- and relationship-building. I believe literary fiction does and should have a social mission, to create an awareness of the broad range of personal experiences in the world beyond our own personal experience, and to develop more compassionate and empathetic people.

  3. As long as I can have a plot, requiring that it be in support of the deeper meaning, rather than there for its own sake, is a definition I can embrace.

    Literary fiction has traditionally had a larger vocabulary; as long as the verbiage isn’t used to hit the reader on the head with ‘I am more cultured than you are,’ it is good to be in the hands of someone who understands nuance, and isn’t merely providing the closest approximate word and moving on. It takes time to sit with, not a thesaurus (thought thesauri have their place), but the writers own experience and worldview, formed by large quantities of reading material of all kinds, including Hamlet and the classics, and select the precise word.

    Good literary fiction should have you hoping to be invited back for another banquet, not feeling like the turkey at Thanksgiving.

  4. “If written today, Hamlet, Macbeth, or King Lear would not be recognized as literary.

    All that non-ironic focus on Great Men: royalty and heads of state?

    Puh-lease. This is the age of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.”

    Only one thing ti say to that, really: Wolf Hall

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