Writing

Literary Fiction: Definition, Characteristics, Literary Fiction Vs. Genre Fiction

Written by MasterClass

Sep 10, 2019 • 3 min read

Works of fiction are those that tell made up stories. As opposed to the many genres of nonfiction—biography, autobiography, commentary, data analysis, philosophy, history, and others—fiction is defined by its focus on narratives invented by the author. Most academics and literary critics further subdivide fiction into two categories: genre fiction and literary fiction.

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What Is Literary Fiction?

When compared to genre fiction, literary fiction tends to follow non-conventional plot structures while containing embedded symbolism and allegory.

As a general rule, literary fiction and literary fiction writers are often studied in English departments at universities and receives careful criticism in journals like the Paris Review, The New York Review of Books, and The London Review of Books. Literary fiction can include novels, novellas, and short stories.

Examples of literary fiction that are known to most readers include works such as:

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise
  • James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room
  • Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat
  • Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter
  • Joyce Carol Oates’s Do With Me What You Will
  • Edward P. Jones’s The Known World
  • E. Annie Proulx’s Postcards

What Are the Characteristics of Literary Fiction?

Literary fiction is not a rigidly defined term, but most works of literary fiction include one or more of these facets:

  • Character-focused narratives
  • Ample symbolism, metaphor, and allegory
  • Advanced vocabulary infused with imagery
  • Ambiguous plot points, including even the work’s conclusion
  • Exploration of larger philosophical themes regarding the human condition and the will of nature
  • Exploration of larger trends in history and culture
  • Lack of adherence to a fixed plot formula

What Is Genre Fiction?

For popular examples of genre fiction, consult the book racks in airports and grocery stores. There you will encounter many of the most successful genre fiction authors including Dan Brown, Danielle Steele, Anne Rice, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, James North Patterson, and Helen Fielding.

Some genre writers tend to straddle a line between genre-focused commercial fiction and the traditions of literary fiction. John Updike, for instance, has been noted for his somewhat pulpy novels that excited readers with their boundary-pushing considerations of sex and love, but which also seem to mine the human condition. Meanwhile, J.R.R. Tolkien developed a worldwide following within the fantasy genre, yet his Lord of the Rings trilogy is famous for its intricate allegory for man’s relationship to nature and—debatably—the geopolitics of the twentieth-century western world.

What Are the Characteristics of Genre Fiction?

Genre novels tends to be defined by the following characteristics:

  • Adheres to time-honored formulas for plot and character arcs
  • Typically more literal with fewer obscure symbols and allegories
  • Whatever symbolism might exist is typically clear and easily accessible to all readers
  • Often fits specific genres like mystery, horror, science fiction (sci-fi), romance, military thrillers, and spy novels

What Is the Difference Between Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction?

Most critics define genre fiction as the opposite of literary fiction. In some academic and journalistic circles, genre fiction is considered inferior to literary fiction, but in fact, genre fiction is more popular with large masses of readers. Indeed most fiction books on the bestseller list would be classified as genre fiction rather than literary fiction.

The best books are not necessarily literary novels, but such books tend to endure for decades if not centuries. While some genre fiction also endures for similar periods of time—this of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—it is safe to speculate that future university English classes will spend the vast majority of their curricula studying books from the literary fiction subgenre.

Want to Become a Better Writer?

Called the “Prophet of Dystopia,” Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass on the art of writing, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale provides insight into how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Margaret Atwood, Dan Brown, James Patterson, Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaiman, and more.

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