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Literary Fiction: Never a Clear Definition?

Novel - The Picture of Dorian Gray
Literary Writing

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the question: What is literary fiction?

Is it something you’ve been scratching your head over, wondering what it is, how to write it, how to read it, even? Or does the very idea just put you off – reading is for fun, not hard work!

I also don’t know how many times I’ve witnessed experienced writers twist themselves into all sorts of weird shapes trying to explain it in a way a newbie would understand. Or, in a way anyone could understand, in some instances. It’s like this nebula ‘thing’ they know and yet can’t quite put into words. It’s instinctual rather than qualitative. Definitely not something that can ever by truly defined. They just know it when they see it.

Then there are the semi-experienced writers who try to preach to everyone else what their personal definition is and treat the subject as if it’s some kind of debate, where the soul of literary fiction is somehow up for grabs if they get the majority to agree with them. Maybe they might get their definition published in the dictionary!

In more recent years, I’ve seen this question crop up in relation to speculative fiction, too. Another nebula to some folks.

So, yes, you guessed it, that’s what we’re going to cover today – genres! Well done; have a Smartie (but not the orange ones, please).

Stack of Harry Potter novels
Commercial Fiction

Well, when I say genres, this time I’m referring to the umbrella terms that sit above the shoulders of classic genres as the average person might recognise them. What is the difference between commercial fiction and literary fiction? What even is literary fiction, anyway? And speculative? What’s that all about?

In the most basic terms, commercial fiction is all about entertainment, and literary fiction is about making people think.

Now, when I say think, that can take on a multitude of meanings. Literary fiction might intend to make social commentary, similar to Animal Farm by George Orwell. Alternatively, it might intend to make people take notice of the beauty or bestiality in life in minute detail through the style of its prose and/or the greater truths the writer draws from their observations of life, nature, people. In a similar way to The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

Literary fiction is really about creating art above anything else, and art either seeks to state or highlight an irrevocable greater truth, provoke an inner, subjective truth or dazzle you with its beauty and/or raw expression. Compare literary fiction against commercial, if you wish, within the framework of the paintings of Vermeer versus a Spider Man comic. Or like form poetry against freestyle, perhaps. Or maybe freestyle and form against a limerick would be more appropriate…

Literary fiction is driven by the quality of the words and ideas, the rhythms and syntaxes, the observations the writer makes, the turns of phrase and the internal reflection their writing often provokes in the reader. Or it can simply be about capturing that reader in beautiful moments that will linger with them for a long time after – sometimes all their lives. Think of a piece of writing that has moved you so much by how beautifully it’s been composed, or by how much it leaves you ruminating on a plethora of subjects that the author’s words stimulated in your thoughts. How many times have you come back to that favourite line or paragraph to linger on it again? That’s literary writing.

But literary writing can often be a harder slog to get through to the end. Publishers of literary endeavours will often respect the author for their vision and voice, for the concept they want to present to their audience and resist interfering too much in that creative process, or even the final version. This can mean the authors get free or looser rein to do what they want, and that can sometimes end up being too overwhelming an experience for all but the most ardent of fans or the most determined of readers.

Often, because literary fiction has been traditionally identified as being based in reality and not within the speculative realms, it can get confused with contemporary fiction. This is especially so for writers who keep their fiction firmly on the ground in the real world, writing about real life things. Contemporary fiction does not automatically make a piece of literary writing simply for being rooted in this fictional bed, though there are many short fiction publications that don’t necessarily make that outward distinction in their submissions guidelines. If the prose is too straightforward, clunky or even just plain ordinary, with little by way of subtext, inference, beauty, character or societal study* -- thought -- it won’t hit the literary standard.

(Not an exhaustive list.*)

Now you’re wondering what contemporary and speculative mean, right? Okay, let’s go for some further unpicking of these areas.

Commercial, literary, contemporary, speculative, historical – these are all umbrella terms for stories that follow certain conventions or styles and under which almost any genre – or subgenre – could fit.

Contemporary means set in modern day (within 30-40 years) So, for instance, you could have a contemporary science fiction which means it’s science fiction set today or several years from now or several years ago. NOT a futuristic sci-fi, which would be set in 50, 100, or a 1000 years from now. A contemporary drama, thriller, suspense all mean that the story is set in modern day without any speculative elements to it – i.e. it’s based in real life, no magic, no aliens, no ghosts, etc. But a contemporary fantasy suspense means it’s set in modern day with magical elements to it.

Historical is what it says on the tin: set in the past. You can have historical fantasies, mysteries, hard-boiled detective, science fiction, urban fantasies…. You get what I mean.

Speculative fiction refers to stories that incorporate a speculative element – a ‘what could or should be, but currently isn’t’, if you like. So, anything that takes the story into a situation that isn’t officially recognised by society to exist in real life, as we currently know it. Magic, ghosts, afterlives, time travel, brain transfers, colonising other planets, etc., all place a story in the speculative realm. More subtly, contemporary stories based in real life with a genuine psychic in them would also come under this umbrella.

And we come back to commercial fiction once more. Commercial fiction seeks to entertain above everything else. It leans much harder into genres, with the main objective being to tell an entertaining story. This means it will deliver on certain expectations in both genre conventions and in what the story sets up from the beginning and throughout the middle.

That’s not to say a commercial story will necessarily be predictable – it can still have lots of unexpected twists and turns in the plot and character development – but it is more likely to adhere to certain expectations, and some of those might well be predictable, yet deliberately so. Part of the fun for many fans of detective mysteries is guessing whodunnit (or who the red herring is) before the author gets to the big reveal, then reading on to see if they got it right.

And to confuse you even further, I’m going to chuck an extra umbrella genre into the mix: general fiction.

General fiction mixes both commercial/genre with literary. That means it seeks to both entertain – deliver on certain storytelling aspects – and make people think, admire, and linger in the aftermath. As tastes change and become more sophisticated, it's fair to say that the commercial fiction of old that centred on thrills and improbabilities in order to deliver on reader satisfaction at, perhaps, the expense of authenticity, has mostly had its day and general fiction is now the new 'commercial' norm. People want more depth than they were prepared to accept a couple of decades ago, but they also want the more conventional shaping that commercial fiction brings than straight-up dense narratives that literary pieces are often identified with.

It’s a happy middle ground for authors who want the best of both worlds and don’t want to be stuck with the sneering attitudes of both commercial and literary fans, admirers and creators.

(Yes, both sides tend to take a downward look upon the other – literary folks tend to be snobby and view commercial readers and writers as ‘lesser’ beings, while coveting the wealth and success it brings (though, to be fair, this has considerably diluted since I first started out and the industry has made strides to be more inclusive and welcoming, mostly foisted upon them by self-publishing authors). Commercial/genre fans and creators tend to consider literary folks as stuffy professor types more interested in the whiff of their own rose-scented backsides and polishing their gilded chess trophies than any concern for their audience or creating anything that’s actually interesting to read. Evidently, neither is typically true of either side! It was a culture war before we had any real culture wars.) There are other umbrella genres we could dissect, but that's all you are getting today! The most important question to ask here is: why does this matter to me, the writer who just wants to express themselves in whichever way they feel like? I don't pay much attention to genres when I read books - I just read what I like. Why should I care?

There's actually a pretty simple answer to that: because, if ever there comes a day where you decide you'd like to move away from hobby writer to professional author, it can determine how you approach sculpting that career, whether you go the agent-publishing house route or the self-publishing route and when -- if -- how -- to go hybrid, if you need a new pen name and how hard to fight for your art/craft and when to concede in the face of the dreaded (though often exaggerated) overbearing editor.

So, is it clearer now? Do you have a better handle on what all these terms mean? Anything you still don’t understand? Ask in comments!

(Do I sound a little sharp today? I’m off on holiday, so maybe my tone sounds a little pinched because I’m hurrying to get this posted so I can finish packing -- ta-raa, folks!)

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