Reflections on Literary Fiction

by James Scott Bell

I read a literary novel a few weeks ago, and it frustrated the heck out of me. There was a powerful story wanting to bust out, but I felt it was hemmed in by the author trying too hard to be, well, “literary.” There was an emphasis on style, some of it quite good. But the scenes didn’t grab me. The author wanted things implied rather than rendered dramatically on the page. That’s often a nice touch, but not for a whole book. There was too much description and narrative summary, and not enough on-the-page action and dialogue. Any momentum was stopped a few times with flashbacks (Chapter 2 being one of them; not a great place for a flashback ). The ending was ambiguous, and left me feeling nothing.

Other than that, it was a pretty good book.

So what is literary fiction anyway? I once asked a respected editor for a definition. With a wry smile, he said, “Fiction that doesn’t sell.” Fact check: Mostly true. For example, most novels nominated for the National Book Award top out at four or five thousand units. Which is not a knock on literary fiction. Books are written for a variety of reasons, and authors do best when they write what they’re moved to write. It’s just that the other side of the fence is called “commercial fiction” for a reason.

One source states: “Literary fiction explores the human condition. While genre fiction (as a whole) seeks to distract the reader through light entertainment, literary fiction is much more introspective in its objective. Literary fiction as a whole wants to make sense of the world around us by exploring the human condition.”

That seems to me inadequate. The best genre fiction also explores the human condition, as in, say, Michael Connelly. Indeed, I have long held that high school reading lists would be better off ditching The Great Gatsby in favor of The Maltese Falcon. The latter is all about the human condition—lust, avarice, greed, obsession, and lies. Best the kids learn about politicians in tenth grade.

Perhaps someone will say literary fiction is more about character, and genre fiction is more about plot. I say that some literary fiction could do with more plot, and some commercial fiction with more character.

In short, I have no idea how to define literary fiction. Maybe it’s best to echo what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in another context: “I know it when I see it.” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964).

There is good and bad literary fiction, and a bunch in between. Judgment here is a matter of taste, of course. But I will venture the thought that “bad” literary fiction stresses style so much that it sacrifices story. It tells us more about the author than it does about the characters. It can feel too much like an attempt to impress. (If you want to do a deep dive on this topic, then pack a lunch and read the controversial article “A Reader’s Manifesto.”)

“Good” literary fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t set up stylistic roadblocks on the way to bonding us with a Lead character.

Someone might say that literary fiction doesn’t tie things up in a “neat little package.” The ending is thus more like “real life.”

You can botch this, too, as did the novel I referenced at the top. There’s a difference between an ambiguous ending that leaves you confused, and one that invites you to contemplation. In my book The Last Fifty Pages I discuss what I call “open-ended” endings. That’s where the author leaves us with a trajectory that we fill out for ourselves. For example, at the end of The Catcher in the Rye we wonder if Holden Caulfield has found a reason to go on living. Salinger doesn’t tell us. Instead, we are made participants in the dénouement.

An ambiguous ending, on the other hand, just leaves us flat.

So why did I write this reflection? I guess to make the point that fiction writing should always be in service of story. Don’t write to impress your readers; write to distress your characters.

I don’t know what else to say on the matter, so I leave it to you to pick up the discussion. Do you have a definition of “literary fiction”? Do you have a favorite writer of same? What draws you to him or her?

I apologize in advance if I’m not able to respond much today, as real life needs some tending.

24 thoughts on “Reflections on Literary Fiction

  1. A book I keep coming back to is Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. It is considered to be genre fiction, horror. This book is a deep dive into the human condition, one endured by many many young woman. It moved me. Maybe that is what fiction should do no matter how the literary intelligencia wants to label it.

  2. If I think back at my all-time favourite books, “Atonement” by Ian McEwan, “A legacy of Spies” by John Le Carré and “The Secret History” by Donna Tart, I’d guess they all belong in the literary fiction camp. They all have great satisfying stories to tell, phenomenal characters, plots that grab. In that way, they are no different from good so-called commercial fiction.

    What sets them apart and keeps me coming back to these masterpieces is the quality of the prose. Nothing is sacrificed along the way, in terms of the fundamental pillars of storytelling. But the aesthetics are of such high standard that I can pick one of these at any time and regal in the delight. I’ve gone though “Atonement” and “A legacy of Spies” more than a dozen times.

    So I would describe successful literary fiction as that which achieves everything good commercial fiction does and then adds an impeccable sense of style.

  3. As a lit major in college, I read enuf literary fiction to last a lifetime, thank you.

    “Literary fiction as a whole wants to make sense of the world around us by exploring the human condition.”

    Raymond Chandler and John D. MacDonald certainly do that but aren’t generally considered literary. They also don’t put me to sleep.

  4. In all these years of studying writing, I’ve never understood “literary” fiction. I have interpreted literary fiction to be about authors who want to overtly display their skills & style with wordsmithing in a manner that is meant to shout “Hey, look at me! Look what I did with my writing! Aren’t I upper crust?”

    And that is the exact opposite of how I’ve ever been taught anything about writing. Yes of course, as authors, our experiences, style, & voice will inevitably end up on the page but the point is to let the STORY speak, not the author to advertise themselves overtly on the page.

    And that idea that literary fiction is somehow unique in exploring the human condition is utter nonsense. I’ve never read a novel that didn’t explore the human condition. That’s the point. Nor is literary fiction unique in trying to make sense of the world. What’s the motivation to write ANY genre if you’re not exploring the human condition and trying to make sense of the world?

    I have read very few “literary” books, and the one commonality they all have for me is that I don’t remember anything about them. That’s how little they impressed me. Literary fiction always brings out the rebel in me. I was kicked out of the gifted & talented program for refusing to read such books that the school picked out for me. Life’s too short to waste it reading boring books. Later on in life, I did read a few of these forced reads and found that my first instinct to rebel was right. These books did not live up to the hype they received.

    One day I may read a literary work that knocks my socks off. Great! The debate over literary fiction will go on. But for myself, literary fiction is simply another genre (the “Look at Me!” genre), and it’s one I tend to avoid. And that’s the beauty of it–there are many genres for readers to pick and choose from, literary included. No one has to be pigeon-holed to any one thing.

  5. Like you, Jim, I also disagree with “one source”, for without delving into characterization the plot will fall flat. Hence why I never bought into “character driven” or “plot driven” classifications. A story needs both to fully engage the reader.

    Happy Superbowl Sunday!

  6. I don’t think I’ve read much “literary” fiction since books were assigned reading in high school. The Old Man and the Sea, and The Great Gatsby are the only titles I remember. (Sorry, Mr. Holtby.)
    My book club’s choices lean toward “women’s fiction” which is probably the closest I’ve come in recent years.
    I don’t want pretty words. I want the story.

  7. Donald Maass, in WRITING 21st CENTURY FICTION, High-Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, makes the case for utilizing “what is best” about literary and commercial fiction. Maass calls novels which accomplish this “high-impact novels.”

    I enjoy the structure for which commercial fiction is noted. I enjoy that subtle poetry that John D. MacDonald said he enjoyed and looked for. Let’s look for (and use) the best of both sides of the aisle.

  8. Hello James. I think you wrote this post to draw attention to the defects that cause fictions to not work. “There is good and bad literary fiction….” True as well with the word “literary” omitted. But the trick for anyone who aspires to write literary fiction as distinct from pure escapist reads is to figure out how to hold reader interest. Without plot, or care in developing characters, or without understanding the demands of pacing, the odds are poor.

  9. ❦A very rich topic, JSB! My example of LitFic is Iain Pears’ “An Instance of the Fingerpost.” It’s hard to say why I like it, except that it wove a spell for me. It’s rather long, religiophilosophical (yes, that’s a word, and I won’t be using it elsewhere), and has 3 narrators, each viewing the major event therein from a different aspect. Not everyone’s cup of tea, nor everyone’s concept of LifFic, either.
    ❦I find “Gatsby” void of any special qualities. “Catcher,” however, is a superb character study, obviously based on an actual case (Salinger, himself, it turns out), and often cryptic to anyone who has never lost a relative or close friend, or is not a therapist. It’s about grief, not about rejection of adult values, as many reviewers claim. Holden rejects anything that is neither Allie or Allie-related. Definitely an atrocious pick for HS reading, good though it may be.
    ❦The “Reader’s Manifesto” is worth reading. It rips Cormac McCarthy’s style, among others. McCarthy is the only author who ever made me think, “Why the hell am I reading this drivel?” Then I encountered his scene where they’re breaking the young horses, which answered the question. But I’m not a fan of anything he writes, except that one passage.
    ❦”Confederacy of Dunces” is the worst book I’ve ever tried to read. It displayed no literary worth, just the author’s abysmal self-image. Awful. And yet it got the Pulitzer. So much for “literature.”
    ❦I’ve never set out to write anything “lit’rary.” I like genre stories and the boys in the basement and I intend to keep making them up.

    • Yes, An Instance of the Fingerpost is a great example. I enjoyed all of Iain Pears books. i think I read The Road on a dare from one of my book friends and once started, couldn’t put it down. Now have The Passenger in my stacks

  10. I never have understood what “literary fiction” is or why we tend to divide things into two halves, as if there isn’t a continuum. I went looking for a good definition of literary vs. genre fiction this morning and found this on with my comments in bold.

    “The world of fiction writing can be split into two categories: literary fiction vs. genre fiction. Literary fiction (lit fic) generally describes work that’s character-driven and realistic, whereas genre fiction generally describes work that’s plot-driven and based on specific tropes.” Specific tropes?

    The article continues: “That said, these kinds of reductive definitions are unfair to both genres. Literary fiction can absolutely be unrealistic, trope-y, and plot-heavy, and genre fiction can certainly include well-developed characters in real-world settings.” Well, that clears it up. 🙂

    I do enjoy stories that are entertaining and make me think, whatever we call them.

  11. I always want style to be in service of the story as a reader, and as a writer. What I crave as a reader is a story that pulls me in and won’t let go until it ends. The best stories for me are the ones that linger after I’ve finished. I want compelling characters striving for something, overcoming obstacles and an antagonist that is deliciously oppositional.

    Literary fiction, to my mind, typically elevates style in importance to be at least equal with story, and sometimes puts it well above story. More power to those readers who crave style first. It’s just not how I roll as a reader, or a writer.

  12. Many claim that literary fiction is the exclusive domain of “the best” writing/authors.
    I disagree with that notion and my reading choices happily reflect my belief. 🙂

  13. I’m probably taking my life in my hands, and only have my own definition to work with: I WRITE the stuff – mainstream/commercial/literary/epic fiction. What has been called a ‘big book.’

    Plot, to me, is as important as characters – and both have to be balanced with the themes you write about – and the use of language. I write from the inside out, through the eyes of three main characters – no author intrusion or narrator allowed.

    I have found over the years since I published the first novel, PURGATORY, in my mainstream trilogy, that the readers who like it (and NETHERWORLD, the second book) also have an overlap with me in loving other novels I consider mainstream/literary/… – in differing subsets. They have read extensively, often in the classics as well, and expect a high level of story for their time. So they’re used to getting something ineffable from their reading.

    Here’s a sample of the list I use to qualify a potential reader/reviewer before I ask:
    Jane Eyre
    The Thorn Birds
    Gone with the Wind
    The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
    On the Beach
    Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, the ones with Harriet Vane
    A Tale of Two Cities
    A Man in Full
    John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee stories
    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and stories (canon only)
    A Good Man is Hard to Find
    A Canticle for Leibowitz

    There is something in these books that make you happy to re-read them, happy to get immersed in their world: I can’t pick up GWTW to study how Mitchell does it without getting sucked into the story.

    These novels aren’t perfect – and I’m probably missing everyone’s favorite – but they require more and deeper from a reader, and pander to that. And they give more. They’re my kind of literary fiction.

    I know ’em when I read ’em – and can’t pin them down any more than that. My list doesn’t include many of the novels considered literary (and navel-gazing) – it’s the list of an autodidact who read them for pleasure and not for school. It has lead to some of the nicest and most fulsome reviews, which often state something like, “I don’t normally read this kind of novel, but…”

    Your mileage will vary.

  14. Good topic, Jim. I like action stories, page-turners, bodies, etc. for leisure-time reading. But there are a few literary-type books out there that have lit up my creative juices.

    My idea of what literary fiction should be: good story comes first. Without a good story, what’s the point?

    But like well-applied make-up, the literary part should lurk in the background, unnoticed on the conscious level, just an undefinable aura of something beautiful looking back at me.

    In my opinion, Charles Martin writes literary fiction-great story with gorgeous underpinnings.

    Don’t know if that makes sense to anyone else, but it does to me.

    Happy Sunday all…I’ll be offline until next Sunday. Going to Texas with one daughter to see the other one! 🙂

    • After Marilyn Monroe was dressed for going out and finished with her makeup, she’d study herself in a full length mirror, then turn her back and glance back at herself. Whatever element of her makeup jumped out at her, she’d make less noticeable. She’d do this until she had a complete look.

      I’ve always thought this story is an excellent metaphor for writing genre fiction. Anything like overwriting, fancy words, and moments of being too clever need to be toned down.

  15. The right hand isn’t happy today so I’ll cut and paste an article I did on the difference between popular genre fiction and literary fiction.

    The simplest comparison between literary fiction and popular/genre fiction is that literary fiction is about the telling of the story, popular fiction is about the story itself.

    In literary fiction, the author is always evident through the flashy style and the use of complex structure. Plot isn’t important. A common technique found in literary fiction is the frame story where someone in the present is looking into the past, or the end of the novel is revealed at the beginning. In other words, time in most stories isn’t linear, and the reader doesn’t read primarily to know what happens next and how it turns out in the end. This technique emphasizes character over plot.

    In genre fiction, the writer should be invisible, and the reader should be part of the story and not really aware of the writer and the way he’s putting the story together. Anything that breaks this “dream state” is a failure on the writer’s part.

    In literary fiction, the opposite is true. The language draws attention to itself, and the reader pauses to think, “My, what an excellent use of metaphor and language! I think I’ll reread that again.” This is what the literary writer aims for.

    In recent years, since the big publishers now demand decent sales from literary writers, authors have been using genre techniques in literary fiction or vice versa in order to widen their audiences. Here are some of these mixed literary/genre that I’ve read.

    THE ART OF DISAPPEARING, Ivy Pochoda, Literary contemporary fantasy.

    THE VANISHERS, Heidi Julavits. Literary fiction with paranormal elements.

    THE NIGHT CIRCUS, Erin Morgenstern. Literary fantasy.

    THE THINKING WOMAN’S GUIDE TO REAL MAGIC, Emily Croy Barker. Literary fantasy.

    A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES, Deborah Harkness. Literary fantasy.

    THE HAWLEY BOOK OF THE DEAD, Chrysler Szarlan. Literary fantasy.

  16. Hmmmm. This is a subject all right.

    I did a bit for a very small magazine of no great pretensions on Mickey Spillane and his critics from the literary world-and there were many in the 1950s although not so much nowadays-although there was an article on the subject in The Adirondack Daily Enterprise as recently as August 12, 2022 by Bob Seidenstein.

    There is a great, lengthy interview with the Mick in The Armchair Detective for fall 1979. (Michael Barson, Just A Writer Working For A Buck).

    He always said that the literary types just couldn’t get over the fact that more people drink beer and eat peanuts than eat caviar. He didn’t care much for navel gazers.

    Malcolm Cowley of the New Republic, in particular, was furious at the Mick. (Sex Murder Incorporated, New Republic Feb. 11 1952).

    If I had to take a SWAG, I would think that litfic and more importantly the hauteur that surrounds in academia has been pushed by top tier MFA programs because “That’s the way Iowa does it.”

    It is interesting to note that some writers have escaped the iron grip of the IWW and write very good genre fiction-Chris Offutt is one. I spect such people get burned in effigy over there in the ivy covered halls because they are traitors to the true cross.

    I myself have never managed to get more than five pages into Ulysses. But I’ll give anything a try. As BK says, life’s too short to read boring books.

    Bring on the Hemingway. Load up my plate.

  17. Literary novels to me are stories that don’t necessarily wrap up the story in a tidy bow, nor is there a happily ever after. They are a character study, of how people react and live. Some are full of history and draw you in. Plus make you think and ponder what ifs as well as stay with you for a period of time once you have finished. I used to hate these kinds of books preferring to be entertained. Now that I’m older, I’ve grown to appreciate the genre and yes there can be some badly written just as with genre fiction. I loved Barbara Kinsgsolver’s Poisonwood Bible and surprisingly Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Both gave me much to think about. Stories that made me think about the what and the why: Why did they feel a need to do what they did, what was the great need that propelled them forward, what did they hope to find or accomplish? Proust’s Swann’s Way was an interesting read and enjoyed how he poetically and philosophically lead to me to the point of memory. He could have very well said – It’s on the tip of my tongue. Where’s the beauty in that. I thoroughly enjoyed Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale as well as his Soldier of the Great War, and now have Sunlight and Shadow on my shelves. Yes they are all chunky books but well worth reading.

    I find myself with several literary on my nightstand including more Kingsolver, McCarthy, Proust as well as Borges and Ishiguro. But they are definitely books one has to be in the mood to read. For when I”m ready to dig into something more juicy than

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