I have been reading, writing, and analyzing literary fiction for half a decade. Lit Fic has been of interest to me for a third of my life, and I still cannot tell you how to define literary fiction. Google did not have a clear definition, but I have my definition, and if you stick around, I can offer you that.
And I can try to tell you why I am prepared to spend the rest of my life studying a genre I do not even know how to define.
My Definition of Literary Fiction
I define a literary fiction novel as one packed with lines that punch me in the gut over and over and over again until I have to put the book down every other page to reflect, think, breathe. In effective literary fiction, which is the premise of this article, those lines will tie into a plot that, while nowhere as multilayered as your average novel, will be real, will be human. The plotline will stretch and warp around the character, not the other way around.
Literary fiction must have a strong plot and story to it, but it adds a layer to that story. It says, here is the story you want to tell. Now can you make it impactful? Can you make your words sing instead of tell? Can you write paragraphs of poetry and make publishers think it is prose?
Most importantly, can you tell a story about being human and show readers the rawest parts of themselves through your characters?
Genre fiction–which includes romance, sci-fi, fantasy, and other genres–often seeks to distract the reader from the world around them, but literary fiction, literary fiction makes readers more aware. It asks, can you take this world you live in and use fiction to reflect upon it?
Writing Literary Fiction
My favorite aspect of being a writer in the literary fiction genre is that literary fiction, unlike many other genres, does not limit the story you can tell. The mystery, romance, and fantasy genres are indicators of what you write.
Literary fiction, even literary works in general, if we’re being bold, can be about anything. The secret spice to literary fiction is the telling of the story. It’s the ambiguity as you break from your traditional heroes and villains, it’s the human understanding as you write characters gray and flawed, heroic and terrified. When I’m reading and writing literary fiction, my characters feel less like characters to serve a purpose to the plot, but people, real people acting upon the world around them and facing those consequences.
The biggest difficulty and reward of literary fiction is the specifics of the words. Each description is crafted perfectly, each metaphor tells just a little bit more if you look past it. Writing literary fiction allows you to become a stronger writer by sidelining the plot and focusing on your words, your descriptions, your subtle developments, your complex, nuanced allegories. For me, this made me a more atmospheric writer, able to use connotation to my advantage. It made me a better poet, able to put in purposeful figurative language rather than metaphors and similes for the sake of being pretty.
The biggest con of literary fiction is that it is that one indie movie that keeps winning prizes, and you just don’t understand why because it sucks. Many people don’t like reading literary fiction. It’s boring, it’s excessively long, the plot doesn’t make sense. Literary fiction is difficult to turn into a marketable novel, which is why most literary fiction works blur the already hazy line between literary fiction and genre fiction.
However, this is not a con for me because sometimes, it’s kinda awesome to write something that can’t be understood at the surface level. Sometimes, it’s fun to write something that makes a reader think about the story being told, that makes the reader do double takes on lines and find hidden meanings. Some argue that this is what makes literary fiction pretentious, but there’s hidden magic to that too. It doesn’t have to be rooted in something attention-seeking or pompous–sometimes, it’s just cool to write something beautiful and complex.
Literary Fiction Recommendations
Lit Fic Authors:
Lit Fic Books:
Fair warning, literary fiction tends to be on the darker side, so keep in mind to look for trigger warnings before picking up most of these!
Also, another warning, these are books I classify as literary fiction due to their styles and focuses, but from my research–which has shown that the definition is ever-changing and ever-varying–there can be room for disagreement. Many classics counted as genre fiction in their day can now be considered literary fiction. For the most part, I stayed clear of those for this list.
To be honest, many of these books are genre novels that went off the rails, that bent the rules of their genres so much that the genre didn’t fully fit them anymore. Literary fiction is so important in allowing us to look at the rules of our respective genres and evaluate them and not be afraid when we break them. We all contain so much experience and love and so many thoughts, and I, for one, am happy that literary fiction exists to contain all these works that genre fiction cannot.
is a high school student in New Jersey. They like (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and are always up to learn something new! Find them on Instagram at @writing_stoot.
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