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!