Literary fiction is a label that, in the book trade, refers to market novels that do not fit neatly into an established genre (see genre fiction); or, otherwise, refers to novels that are character-driven rather than plot-driven, examine the human condition, use language in an experimental or poetic fashion, or are simply considered "serious" art.[1]

Literary fiction is often used as a synonym for literature, in the narrow sense of writings specifically considered to be an art form.[2] While literary fiction is sometimes regarded as superior to genre fiction, the two are not mutually exclusive, and major literary figures have employed the genres of science fiction, crime fiction, romance, etc., to create works of literature. Furthermore, the study of genre fiction has developed within academia in recent decades.[3]


Further information: Fiction § Literary fiction

Literary fiction may involve a concern with social commentary, political criticism, or reflection on the human condition.[4] This contrasts with genre fiction where plot is the central concern.[5] It may have a slower pace than popular fiction.[6] As Terrence Rafferty notes, "literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way."[7] Other works may be more concerned with style and complexity of the writing: Saricks describes literary fiction as "elegantly written, lyrical, and ... layered".[8]

Classic book

Literary fiction includes classic books: that is works in any discipline that have been accepted as being exemplary or noteworthy. This includes being listed in a list of great books. The terms "classic book" and "Western canon" are closely related concepts, but they are not necessarily synonymous. A "canon" refers to a list of books considered to be "essential" and is presented in a variety of ways. It can be published as a collection, such as Great Books of the Western World, Modern Library, or Penguin Classics, or presented as a list by an academic such as Harold Bloom'[9] or be the official reading list of an institution of higher learning.[10]

Robert M. Hutchins in his 1952 preface to the Great Books of the Western World declared:

Until lately the West has regarded it as self-evident that the road to education lay through great books. No man was educated unless he was acquainted with the masterpieces of his tradition. There never was very much doubt in anybody's mind about which the masterpieces were. They were the books that had endured and that the common voice of mankind called the finest creations, in writing, of the Western mind.[11]

High culture

Literary fiction can be considered an example of "high culture" and contrasted with "popular culture" and "mass culture".[12]

The poet and critic Matthew Arnold defined "culture", in Culture and Anarchy (1869), as "the disinterested endeavour after man's perfection" pursued, obtained, and achieved by effort to "know the best that has been said and thought in the world".[13] Such a literary definition of high culture also includes philosophy. The philosophy of aesthetics proposed high culture as a force for moral and political good.

Literary merit

Since 1901 the Nobel Prize in Literature has frequently been awarded to the authors of literary fiction. This annual award is presented to a writer from any country who has, in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction".[14][15] Though individual works are sometimes cited as being particularly noteworthy, the award is based on an author's body of work as a whole.

The International Booker Prize is a similar British award given for outstanding literary fiction translated into English. This complements the earlier Booker Prize, which is awarded to fiction in the English language. For both judges are selected from amongst leading literary critics, writers, academics and public figures. The Booker judging process and the very concept of a "best book" being chosen by a small number of literary insiders is controversial for many.[16] Author Amit Chaudhuri wrote: "The idea that a 'book of the year' can be assessed annually by a bunch of people – judges who have to read almost a book a day – is absurd, as is the idea that this is any way of honouring a writer."[17]

Defence of genre fiction

Some major writers of literary fiction like Nobel laureate Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood publish, among other things, science fiction. Doris Lessing described science fiction as "some of the best social fiction of our time," and called Greg Bear, author of Blood Music, "a great writer."[18] Other major literary figures have also written either genre fiction or books that contain certain elements of genre fiction. For instance, the novel Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky contains elements of the crime fiction genre.[19][20][21] Gabriel García Márquez's book Love in the Time of Cholera is a romance novel.[22][23] Frankenstein and Dracula are examples of gothic horror novels. Graham Greene at the time of his death in 1991 had a reputation as a writer of both deeply serious novels on the theme of Catholicism[24] and of "suspense-filled stories of detection."[25] Acclaimed during his lifetime, he was shortlisted in 1966[26] for the Nobel Prize for Literature.[27] John Banville publishes crime novels as Benjamin Black. Furthermore, Nobel laureate André Gide stated that Georges Simenon, best known as the creator of the fictional detective Jules Maigret, was "the most novelistic of novelists in French literature."[28]

In an interview, John Updike lamented that "the category of 'literary fiction' has sprung up recently to torment people like me who just set out to write books, and if anybody wanted to read them, terrific, the more the merrier ... I'm a genre writer of a sort. I write literary fiction, which is like spy fiction or chick lit."[29] Likewise, on The Charlie Rose Show, Updike argued that this term, when applied to his work, greatly limited him and his expectations of what might come of his writing, so he does not really like it. He suggested that all his works are literary, simply because "they are written in words."[30]

See also


  1. ^ A Beginner's Guide to Literary Fiction|NY Book Editors
  2. ^ "Literature: definition". Oxford Learner's Dictionaries.
  3. ^ Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, "Popular Fiction Studies: The Advantages of a New Field". Studies in Popular Culture, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Fall 2010), pp. 21–3
  4. ^ Saricks 2009, p. 180.
  5. ^ Saricks 2009, pp. 181–82.
  6. ^ Saricks 2009, p. 182.
  7. ^ Rafferty 2011.
  8. ^ Saricks 2009, p. 179.
  9. ^ Bloom, Harold (1994). The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.
  10. ^ "St. John's College | Academic Program | The Reading List". Archived from the original on May 27, 2010. Retrieved 2010-06-13.
  11. ^ Hutchins, Robert M., ed. (1952). Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica), v. 1, p. xi.
  12. ^ The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967) Volume 1. p. 167.
  13. ^ Arnold, Matthew (1869). Culture and Anarchy. The Cornhill Magazine.
  14. ^ "Alfred Nobel will". Retrieved 20 January 2021.
  15. ^ John Sutherland (13 October 2007). "Ink and Spit". Guardian Unlimited Books. The Guardian. Retrieved 13 October 2007.
  16. ^ "Not the Booker prize". The Guardian. 16 October 2017.
  17. ^ Chaudhuri, Amit (15 August 2017). "My fellow authors are too busy chasing prizes to write about what matters". The Guardian.
  18. ^ Doris Lessing: Hot Dawns, interview by Harvey Blume in Boston Book Review
  19. ^ Atherton, C. (2015). A/AS Level English Literature B for AQA Student Book. Cambridge Univsersity Press. p. 177.
  20. ^ "Crime and Punishment at 150". The University of British Columbia.
  21. ^ "Crime and Punishment". Penguin Random House.
  22. ^ Wood, Michael 1988, April 28 Heartsick The New York Review of Books
  23. ^ Frazier, Charles 1989 Love in the Time of CholeraPhi Kappa Phi Journal volume 69 page 46
  24. ^ Ian Thomson (3 October 2004). "More Sherry trifles". The Observer.
  25. ^ Lynette Kohn (1961). Graham Greene: The Major Novels. Stanford University Press. p. 23.
  26. ^ "Candidates for the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature". 4 January 2017. Archived from the original on 11 February 2017.
  27. ^ Robert C. Steensma (1997). Encyclopedia of the Essay. Taylor & Francis. p. 264. ISBN 9781884964305.
  28. ^ Charles E. Claffey, The Boston Globe September, 10, 1989 Contributing to this report was Boston Globe book editor Mark Feeney.
  29. ^ Grossman 2006.
  30. ^ The Charlie Rose Show from June 14, 2006 with John Updike Archived February 3, 2009, at the Wayback Machine


  • Coles, William (2009). Literary Story As an Art Form: A Text for Writers. AuthorHouse. p. 136.
  • Delany, Samuel (2009). Freedman, Carl (ed.). Conversations With Samuel R. Delany. Literary Conversations Series. University Press of Mississippi. pp. 214.
  • Habjan, Jernej, Imlinger, Fabienne. Globalizing Literary Genres: Literature, History, Modernity. London: Routledge, 2015.
  • Rafferty, Terrence (February 4, 2011). "Reluctant Seer". The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Retrieved April 23, 2012.
  • Saricks, Joyce (2009). The Readers' Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd ed.). ALA Editions. p. 402.
  • Saricks, Joyce (2005). Readers' Advisory Service In The Public Library (3rd ed.). ALA Editions. p. 211.