What even is literary fiction?

thoughts orangutan

Ahh isn’t this just the perennial question? Every time I have conversations about literary fiction, it seems to me no one can quite decide what it is or what it should be or how to define it. And if you try to get a definitive answer, you’re going to have a hard time pinning it down. Google it and you’ll find tons of opinions. Go on Goodreads and you’ll find a plethora of books described as literary fiction (…some of which probably aren’t, but we’ll get to that).

What got me thinking about this recently was watching a video by Alexa Donne pitting literary fiction against commercial fiction, which was an interesting point… but not one I entirely agree with. Because I’d say the whole point of calling something literary fiction is to place it in a specific marketing category. And if it doesn’t have broad appeal, that’s not for want of trying (the same could be said for any book that doesn’t take off and become a bestseller).

Often called a “modern classic”, the idea is that these are the books that will stand the test of time, these are the books worthy of specific prizes, these are the books you can feel smart discussing around the dinner table… which to me is a marketing tactic. And perhaps this is distasteful to admit- it’s a very powerful one. As much as I (and many others) may chafe at the ploy, it certainly gets people’s attention. Merely labelling a book “highbrow” is enough to give it an aura of prestige- which can help propel it into commercial success.

Muddying the waters even more, literary fiction tends to exclude genre fiction… whilst also including it under different names (yes, it is that muddled). Mysteries and thrillers and historical fiction in this category will often play down those elements in the marketing. Likewise, sci fi and fantasy gets the (much more acceptable in the literary world) label of “speculative fiction”.

*Even more confusing*, there are outside this category, which later find their way under the literary fiction umbrella. If you go to Goodreads, you’ll find a huge range of books with this label (many of which I really don’t agree with). Firstly, there’s a tendency to put classics in there… which is weird, cos those are already classics. Secondly, any book with a modicum of success often ends up there (somehow frothy thrillers like Girl on the Train count?!) And I wouldn’t just blame this on users of the site getting trigger happy with the term. Books that were never pitched as literary fiction can easily be pivoted into the category if they’re deemed beautiful enough (the occasional Gaiman book ends up on the Goodreads list- despite the fact his books are consistently magical realism- and I’ve never seen them marketed in literary fiction). Maybe I’m wrong (and this is not to say anything about the quality of these books) but I’m not convinced any of these are literary fiction:

Apart from showing that you can’t trust everything you see on Goodreads, this suggests some serious genre snobbery. To my mind, genre fiction can be beautifully written, meaningful and potentially a future classic. Shoving a book post-publication into this category just adds to the snob value of this already bloated category. It’s an attempt to say ah now it is worthy. To bolster up the idea that the literati have magical foresight into what will live on (when, truth is, we can make guesses, yet never know for sure).

None of this is to say that I hate literary fiction or think it’s automatically pretentious or that this is the fault of the books themselves. Every category or genre has its downfalls- and unfortunately this snob-value seems to be part of the appeal. And, while I cling to the genre fiction labels, I’ll still (grudgingly) use the term. There’s a certain amount of sense to it- in spite of how tough it may be to figure out what literary fiction even is.

Well, I wonder if you agree with my assessment? What do you define as literary fiction? Let me know in the comments!

76 thoughts on “What even is literary fiction?

  1. I remember being offered a book titled ‘Soon’ which was labelled as a horror literary fiction. Hadn’t the foggiest what literary fiction was so did some digging. The best I could discern is that it’s fiction that is more character driven than plot driven.

    Soon was certainly a 70/30 split as far as character/plot driving went. I loved the book as it was well-written, had great characters and a good premise. But I don’t think I could keep on reading literary fiction as I prefer the easy-reading of a fast, yet deep plot.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah I’ve heard that argument as well- but having read enough of it, I’d say a lot of it can be pretty plot driven… so it really depends and I feel like the distinction is pretty flimsy (because a lot of genre fiction can be character driven as well).

      Ah that’s fair!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yup. My general feeling is: it’s called literary fiction if a person or a publisher/marketer either has too high an impression of quality or just makes people want to think its a cut above the rest.

        It’s a strange old game this book categorizing malarkey.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. I thought the books under the list of specific genre on Goodreads are because users tag them under it when they write review or mark read.I’m used to read definitions under them and I’ve to say some time some books are hard categorize as per those definitions.For me literary fiction are those gem that can be worthy of future classic, there is different writing style like Kite Runner or The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (I didn’t like that but it falls in genre). Maybe I’m putting all cultural fictions in here. maybe one can include all fiction with flowery prose and deeper insight and they are mostly character driven. I’m not sure if I’m right but that’s what I think. I love your argument. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah- I don’t think I made that quite clear in the post- it’s definitely user-based (I just think that it gets muddled, cos a lot of people don’t know what it means anyway and books can end up being marketed in all sorts of categories). I think that makes sense (and I’ve only read kite runner, but I’d agree with you there). I think that’s fair (I’m not sure either lol!) Thank you!!

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  3. Definitely agree with the genre snobbery thing! Interesting to add- magical realism often gets placed in the “fiction” section of a bookshop along with classics and literary fiction because it will appeal to readers of those genres (perhaps more than fans of, say, Brandon Sanderson). For example, Erin Morgenstern’s books get put in the fiction section of the bookshop where I work.

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  4. I think it’s a stylistic difference. You can’t have a story without a plot – conflict that propels the characters to act and the reader to keep turning pages – nor a plot that isn’t inhabited with characters – people or creatures motivated by external suspense and internal suffering. But you can have a formulaic story that fits into a specific category or two, which is why there is genre fiction. Genre fiction runs the gamut from trashy to uninspired to exciting to beautifully realized. But is it literary? To me, the writing must grasp the essence of a sensation with a brief but precise phrase, making me walk around thinking of that phrase all day. It must have a nuanced plot that makes me uneasy because it headlights a current crucial social situation. It must have historical context whether it’s set in the 17th century or outer space or Outer Slobovia. In other words, the story must be bigger than the sum of its words and the characters must convey more than their limitations.

    For me, these contemporary books reach my standards for exceptional books I would consider modern literary fiction. I’ve read most more than once.

    The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
    The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
    A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
    The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
    The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish
    The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
    Beloved by Toni Morrison
    All Other Nights by Dara Horn
    I Know this Much is True by Wally Lamb
    The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea
    The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
    Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
    Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
    Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
    Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
    The Color Purple by Alice Walker
    Atonement by Ian McEwan
    The River Midnight by Lilian Nattel

    Great post today, thank you.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Yeah I’m hearing the distinction between character and plot a lot- and it makes sense- but I like how you’ve expanded it- because it makes a lot of sense. Sometimes there are flaws with genre fiction (especially with it being samey and formulaic). And that’s a really great way to describe the difference- I love that definition! Far better than anything I could’ve come up with!

      Excellent list! Of those I’ve read/know about, I’d agree!

      Thanks very much for reading and for your insight!

      Liked by 4 people

  5. I don’t feel like literary fiction is a real category… it’s either going to be contemporary, historical, crime/thriller, romance, science fiction, etc (broadly speaking) and some writers are just more wordy and sophisticated than others.

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  6. Great discussion post! I’ve actually stopped using the term literary fiction on my blog (I must admit, I did it in some of the earlier posts) because 1) I don’t think it’s well-defined, 2) I don’t want to decide, whether a certain novel is literary fiction or not and 3) I’m not a high-brow reader 😉 . Regarding your examples: I do think genre fiction can be literary fiction at the same time, but, well-defined or not, I’m fairly sure, The Girl on the Train is not literary fiction!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you! I think that’s fair! I don’t think it’s well-defined either and I think it puts undue pressure on books to have to give it the label (and seems harsh to other books that might deserve it!) hehehe definitely agree about not being a high-brow reader either 😉 hehe yes- I hear you- but yeah… definitely not girl on the train!

      Liked by 3 people

  7. I’ve never been entirely sure what literary fiction is other than generally written by men, gets nominated for awards and probably to be avoided as I’ll no doubt find it dull. It just bugs me so much that it’s considered superior to genre fiction or ‘women’s fiction’ when most of the time it’s just a long drawn out character / relationship driven story that’s heavy on descriptions. Half the time it actually is genre fiction or ‘women’s fiction’ but the author is considered worthy so it gets lauded as literary.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. This will also, inevitably, give authors an impossible goal, which will be greatly upsetting. After all, if it is purely a marketing device, and nothing to do with the quality of writing, how many aspiring writers will exhaust themselves trying to create something for a genre which only exists as a marketing fiction?

    Actually, maybe ‘marketing fiction’ would be a better fit than ‘literary fiction’…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point! Absolutely agree with you! A lot of people will end up feeling insecure that they haven’t “made it”, when really it doesn’t mean their writing isn’t as good as others- it just means someone thought it would sell better in a different category.
      And that’s true.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. My neck hurts from nodding so much. I feel like a lot of categories are created for marketing reasons, and there is a population, that will pick up a book labeled as “literary fiction”, because they believe it makes them a better-than-you reader. It’s sort of pretentious, but you know, some people like that. And, how do you predict, that a brand new book will become a classic? It takes the test of time to do that, and you never know how those things are going to pan out. How can you say, that no genre fiction will stand the test of time. Look at Agatha Chrisite’s books. The first was published 100 years ago, and people still love them.

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    1. Ah so true!! I definitely see this a lot (and actually it can confuse people in those groups if you don’t discriminate between literary and “non-literary” books). Completely agree with you! So many books in the past that were regarded as genre fiction at the time (like Frankenstein) are now considered classics (and more recently Tolkien is beginning to be considered canon. And very true!

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  10. My snarky answer: Literary fiction is what they call books about relationships when they’re written by men (as opposed to Women’s Fiction or Chic-Lit, which is when women write about relationships)

    My slightly more serious answer: I’ve always thought of literary fiction as books which prize narrative experimentation and other novel ways of execution of a story over the actual plot/characters (and to give “serious writers” a place of their own).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. hahaha! I hear you!!

      And yeah I do think that is what a lot of people claim lit fic is doing (although I’m not always convinced that is the case- sometimes it’s not very experimental and sometimes it’s hard to see that distinction when writers in genre fiction can do that as well).

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  11. I’m currently reading The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. I’m almost at the end and I’m thinking of it at present as a Philosophical text. Of course, I’ve to wait for the ending to decide exactly what I feel it is, but on Goodreads it’s been shelved the most as literary fiction. I’m one confused squirrel now. 😂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I have two working definitions of literary fiction which I use depending on my reason for talking about it.
    1) Books that don’t fit into any other genre
    2) Realistic fiction that glorify human suffering
    Personally I find the entire concept of literary fiction to be completely ridiculous. That anyone would seek to call their book “literature” above other books is completely ridiculous. But I also find that those who enjoy literary fiction tend to be the kind who discount genre fiction as base. I enjoy literary fiction from time to time, same as anyone else I suppose, but for the most part I prefer a bit of magic or technology or time travel or something in my literature.

    Great post, as always!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I definitely hear you about books that don’t fit into any other genre- I’m seeing this definition a few times, and really agree with it! And yeah you’re probably right about #2 as well 😉
      I completely agree with you- it’s such an arbitrary category and so few people even understand what it is/what it’s supposed to be. And yeah, unfortunately that’s true (which is why people might deny something that’s lit fic is genre fic as well, because otherwise people who are snobby wouldn’t read it). And yeah I agree with you.

      Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Yeah, I don’t know what literary fiction is either.

    And that’s kind of a problem because I’m querying agents with my book.

    And I think my current book might be literary fiction in the sense that it moves a little slowly and focuses on the relationships between the characters more than on the action. It could also be classified as fantasy (maybe?), but anybody expecting dragon riding and magic battles is going to be disappointed. Heck, I don’t know.

    Some agents say they rep, or even are looking for, literary fiction. But even then I feel icky calling my novel that, because it seems so pretentious. As if to say, “This is GLORIOUSLY written!”

    To my mind, the ultimate example of literary fiction is Ulysses by James Joyce. No, I haven’t even read it. But I understand it’s a novel where nothing much happens really, and all of the interest comes from the way the writing carries you along in a stream of consciousness through the narrator’s thoughts until (I am told) is coalesces into Glory.

    So maybe, the less action in your novel, the more literary it is? 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hehe yeah I’m getting the impression that few people do 😉

      Ah I can understand that- that’s a tough one. I feel like it can be really tough as well because an individual agent might have a different idea (I guess it’s useful to see if they’ve mentioned liking any specific books to see where they might put it). And I do think that there are different types of fantasy, like magical realism, which fit comfortably in lit fic and genre fic. And I do hear you there as well.

      Yeah I do see that with Joyce (though I tend to put classics in a separate category). But either way, I do think there is something to be said about a lot of lit fic having less action (though, again, I can think of some exceptions like Donna Tartt and even Ian McEwan). So it’s a tough one.

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  14. Interesting post! The way I sort it in my mind is that modern fiction has two major categories: genre fiction and literary fiction. (And classics are kind of off by themselves.) But there is a lot of blurring between those two camps, and I also honestly think a lot of snobbery comes from the side of the lit fic people. Like you said, where is something really lyrical or impactful to go when it’s fantasy, sci-fi, etc? I’m thinking of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, for example.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yeah I hear you (I also put classics in a separate bracket). And yeah for sure! Absolutely! And I think some of the reasoning for something to not be considered genre fiction can be kind of daft as well (like, sometimes I’ve heard famous authors critiquing sci fi or fantasy for having thorough world building… as if it somehow makes lit fic better for the world building to make less sense?!)

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  15. The distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is completely artificial. It has nothing to do with quality because as you point out, there are many books that are traditionally classified as genre fiction, that have a great deal of literary value and can spark discussion and debate.

    I was in a bookshop earlier today and I was noticing that there were sections for romance, fantasy, and mystery and everything else was classified as “fiction”. That’s problematic because obviously everything in mystery, fantasy and romance is also fictional. But as I was looking in the fiction section, I noticed several books that I would classify as sci-fi/fantasy (authors such as Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan had all of their books together in fiction, while some of their work would be just as comfortable in the fantasy section) and a number of books that had predominantly romantic plots (the work of authors like Susanna Kearsley, Kate Morton, Beatriz Williams and Hazel Gaynor all feature plots where romantic relationships play a large role) and many authors that write “literary” or historical mysteries. So why weren’t they in those sections? The only answer is that their publishers decided not to market their books that way.

    That in itself isn’t a bad thing, unless it gives rise to snobbery. Which is unfortunately, what often happens.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah I hear you!! That’s the problem I have with people saying “I just think it’s books that provoke thoughtful discussion”- because I know loads of genre fic that does that too!!

      And yeah that’s an issue too! Because it doesn’t really make things clear (and again, there’s loads of books which probably should be put under genre fic, that end up there instead, cos they have “broader appeal”). And I definitely agree with you about all those “literary” authors- I think they’re really good examples of people who are considered literary, but would fit very comfortably into genre fiction. And yeah, I see that as well.

      And I agree that it doesn’t have to be a bad thing- I think the problem is more that this has a tendency to give rise to genre snobbery, like you said.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think that question of “broader appeal” is interesting. A reader who might not usually read SFF and wouldn’t usually venture into that section, might read something by say Kazuo Ishiguro for reasons that have nothing to do with genre. That’s certainly one reason why his work may be placed in the general fiction or literary fiction sections. I think it complicates the question even further: that reader SHOULD have a chance to find his work and potentially broaden his/her fictional horizons. But will he/she venture into the SFF section after reading The Buried Giant or Never Let Me Go? Or will the fact that those books are considered literary fiction rather than genre fiction create a barrier?

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  16. I have NO idea what literary fiction is honestly :’) A friend of mine gave me her best explanation of it recently, and while I feel like I might understand it slightly more, I’m still muddled a bit. I would certainly agree that the titles you referred to are ~not~ literary fiction. One of these days, maybe I’ll understand this genre a bit more haha!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. haha I hear you! I’m glad I’m not the only one suffering from this confusion tbh 😉 Yeah I feel like I’ve got a lot of definitions after doing this post, which has been helpful… but I’m still not sure I know what it is! Cos so many different ideas and (even conflicting) definitions seem to fit! haha yeah hopefully I will too 😉

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  17. When I see the term literary fiction, I always want to ask, yes but what’s it about. Literary fiction covers far too wide a genre base for my liking. I much prefer to know it it is mainly histfic, or romance or contemporary etc. To me literary fiction is wishy washy.

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  18. Very good, and I agree with much of this. I’ve seen a lot of books labelled as ‘literary fiction’ when they’re actually just contemporary dramas – it seems a bit optimistic. To me, the tag ‘literary’ means it has serious artistic merit, with delectable prose, or one that will be as relevant 50 years from now – as you say, the potential to be a ‘classic’. It shouldn’t just be used for any character drama that doesn’t fit into a genre.

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  19. When I see “literary fiction” I usually expect character-driven stories where the characters are such self-centered, morally disgusting, depressing, and/or self-destructive people that no one would want to read it if they weren’t assured that it was some sort of masterpiece that all the deep people are reading. That’s probably an overly-cynical expectation, and books with that sort of characters can become true classics worthy of discussion (e.g. Gatsby). However, I’ve seldom found “literary fiction” to be worth the time. One exception might be books that riff on classics… some of those might be considered “literary fiction” and can provide interesting insights.

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    1. Ahh I agree- a lot of the time, I find that’s the case! haha no, I understand- I think that it does encourage a certain amount of cynicism to be fair! And true. I do understand that- I find I question whether I should bother reading it a lot of the time.

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  20. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but when I hear “literary fiction,” I think, “contemporary adult fiction, probably with prose that will be described as ‘lyrical,’ possibly lacking a clear plot with a satisfying resolution.” I definitely associate the term with snobbery, even though that might be unfair.

    I find the GR classifications interesting, though, because it seems like users are labeling books “literary fiction” if they think the book is good. It’s popular? Oh, it must be good and therefore it must be literary fiction!

    Alternatively, I could imagine users thinking, “Lyrical prose? Literary fiction!” even if it’s genre fiction. Or even, “I didn’t get this book at all. It’s beyond me and must be deep and therefore it is also literary fiction.”

    The term is so nebulous, I could see users thinking all sorts of reasons to call things literary fiction. Personally, though, I usually go with whatever marketing the book came with. I don’t trust Goodreads at all because users will call MG books YA and fantasies science fiction and all sorts of strange things.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha yes, I actually really get what you mean- cos I think that way too a lot of the time 😉 And yeah, I do see it as being quite a snobbish term (as a lot of people have pointed out to me now, it’s not like a lot of other books aren’t “literature” as well!)

      Yeah I tend to take GR classifications with a grain of salt- and wouldn’t usually use them for classification. I do agree (especially with cases like the girl on the train) it’s just people who think that it’s popular- therefore it must be literary! (or perhaps they just think everything is literary, since it’s all literature 😉). And I also think that’s highly likely on the lyrical prose or thought-provoking front (or not getting it at all 😉).

      I think it’s more of an example of people being unsure where to put books (and fair enough- in some cases like Night Circus, I’ve seen it start in YA, move to fantasy and now into literary fiction- how is the consumer supposed to know what category that belongs in?)

      Yeah it really is. I think this post has proven it to me even more, cos so many people have such different definitions! (whereas when I did the same kind of post for YA, there was a bit of discussion about the upper bracket and lower bracket, but still a pretty clear idea that it’s books for teens!) And yeah that’s what I try to do (though, it can be a bit more of a problem if that category changes- which I’ve seen!) hehe true!

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  21. I agree with a few different definitions in the above comments. The easiest thing for me to define literary fiction is to look at books that are thought provoking. I know that this wouldn’t always work, but all the classics I’ve read that would probably fall under this genre have all been thought provoking for me and looked at humanity, emotions, etc that still provided an interesting story line. But it’s hard, as you and many have said, that marketing is much more powerful nowadays and the primary genre that a book falls under isn’t always general fiction.
    I love these types of discussion posts! 🙂

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  22. I really feel it’s an artificial distinction, invented by people who did not understand anything but modern experimental novels, and could not appreciate the likes of Tolkien who remembered, the there are many kinds of books that can be written. Atwood and LeGuin argued for decades, if Atwood is in any way genre – and she is, both genre and literary. On the internet you can find a very interesting short discussion between Gaiman and Ishiguro on this topic, from when Ishiguro published “Buried Giant” and got involved into the literary/genre conflict, a very silly and unnecessary one…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah I feel like that as well, a lot of the time. And absolutely- there’s so much genre snobbery. And I think Atwood is a good example of this- she mostly writes dystopia, which is sci fi and definitely genre fiction- but unlike most dystopia it’s arbitrarily called literary- why?! Nothing wrong with being genre fiction! And yeah I think I saw that from Ishiguro- he didn’t want to be considered fantasy- but again, why not? (also, he’s technically written sci fi, since never let me go is a dystopic novel). I just think that there should be more respect for genre fiction (and perhaps taking the literary label less seriously).

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  23. I don’t have an answer about what literary fiction is – or should be – and I’m not even sure this label should exist (*ducks* – the fact is, I hate a high-brow approach to life), but i just wanted to chime in and compliment you for another thought-provoking post!

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  24. I agree that literary fiction seems intended to place works in a specific marketing category. Some genre fiction writers, like Ursula Le Guin, demonstrate exceptional command of language and explore deep, universal themes in their works. However, their works get excluded from such lists simply because of the genre elements.

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  25. Totally agree that it’s a marketing ploy. I actually had this discussion a couple days ago because I work in a bookstore and saw that Jeff Vandermeer’s books aren’t shelved in the sci-fi section. I asked the managers about it and they said it’s because his work is more literary, so it gets shelved in general fiction because it’s considered literary fiction. I personally think it’s so that his books gets noticed by a wider audience (more people tend to wander the general fiction and any tables labeled literary fiction than the SFF ones).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yeah that is the sort of thing I’ve seen before. And people often argue that it’s “literary fiction” but really it’s like you said, to get the book into the hands of more people (and that’s fine, I just wish it was a bit more transparent)

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  26. To me, “literary fiction” is not a measure of quality but a kind of style – where the focus is not in the conventions of a genre or even in the story that gets told but in HOW the story gets told. The tag does have some value to the prospective reader, letting them know that if they are looking for the conventions of a genre or for a suspense-driven throughline, this is probably not for them. It may be no better or worse than genre fiction, but the style doesn’t suit their expectations.

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      1. The modernist novels of the early 20th century are illustrative here — James Joyce, Virginia Woold, D. H. Lawrence — their novels were not about a linear plot, but about circling deeper and deeper into the subjective spaces of the characters and into the intersubjective spaces between them, playing experimental games with the language along the way. That to me is the epitome of literary fiction. A piece of “literary fiction” today may be no better or worse than a romance novel, but it probably resonates in that modernist style, and that could be an important piece of info for a book buyer 🙂

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