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There seems to be a great deal of ambiguity or confusion regarding the definition of ‘literary fiction’. Particularly, it is never really made clear to me whether literary fiction can also be speculative fiction at the same time.

On one hand, ‘literary fiction’ is often defined or talked about in such a way that suggests it has to be based on real life (i.e.: ‘serious’ fiction). But, at the same time, I have come across some definitions that say literary fiction can be ‘cross genre’ (unlike other types of fiction).

So which is it?

The main problem I have with a reality-based definition of literary fiction is that it seems obvious to me that speculative fiction, such as fantasy, romance, sci-fi (especially futuristic) and horror (especially psychological horror), can easily achieve and fulfill the sorts of things that ‘literary fiction’ is usually defined as fulfilling; such as a deep examination of the human condition, presenting a new philosophical outlook, beautiful prose, and so on. Even if most books in these genres don’t do this, there are many that do. Would they therefore be classified as ‘literary fiction’? Or are they excluded because they are speculative and not reality-based?

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    Cynically, if it's critically acclaimed it's "literary fiction" and if it's not it's "popular fiction" or "genre fiction"; I have in fact seen bookstores quietly move a book from "Mystery" or "SF/F" or what have you to "Literature" after its reputation takes off.
    – ToxicFrog
    Sep 13, 2021 at 16:53
  • There seems to be an even greater deal of ambiguity or confusion regarding your Question about ‘literary fiction’. Particularly, it is never really made clear by you how 'literary fiction' could not also be 'speculative fiction'. If you're suggesting 'literary fiction' is different, what else might it be different to, or from or how? Why would ToxicFrog's cynicism not apply? Oct 7, 2022 at 23:00

1 Answer 1

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Central to your question is: what is the definition of "literary fiction".

The general definition is: fiction that has literary merit. What that means is that it will hold up under re-reading, and that it has many of the characteristics that make it art rather than merely entertainment. What are these characteristics? The list undoubtedly varies between literary critics, but some generally-agreed on characteristics are

  • well-drawn characters,
  • an elegant or interesting writing style,
  • an exploration of larger themes, such as the human condition, or the nature of love and/or friendship,
  • interesting and vivid imagery,
  • the use of symbolism, metaphor, or allegory.

There is no question that Latin American magical realism is considered literary fiction — for instance, consider Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solutide, Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, and Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate. These all have fantastic elements, these are all great books, and they're all considered literary fiction.

So why do some critics refuse to admit that English-language novels with fantastic elements can have literary merit?

Literary critics, like any community of human beings, are subject to fads. For a long time during the mid-to-late 20th century, the fad among English-speaking literary critics was for realism. This meant that English-language novels which had fantastic elements were generally considered not to be literary fiction (there were some exceptions, like Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, although I believe Midnight's Children was excused for being a “foreign” novel). And authors who were trying to write literary fiction felt that they had to stick with the critics' guidelines, so they could get good reviews from them. So even if literary fiction authors wanted to incorporate fantastic elements in their fiction, they didn't feel like they could unless they were already famous enough to ignore the critics.

This meant that only authors who weren't trying to write literary fiction used fantastic elements. And while some of these genre or popular authors wrote novels with real literary merit, it was not until fairly recently that they were accepted into the canon of literary fiction.

Some genre writers, like Ursula Le Guin, complained vociferously about this. For example, see this blog entry, which contains most (if not all) of Le Guin's essay “On Despising Genres”.

And in my opinion (probably not widely shared), Stephen King's book Bag of Bones is a raspberry blown in the general direction of these critics. For the first half of the novel, it reads like literary fiction, with the narrator suffering and recovering from writer's block brought on by the death of his wife. In the second half of the novel, King deconstructs this and brings in a supernatural cause for many of the events in the first half, thus placing the second half firmly into the genre of horror. So in this book, Stephen King is indirectly complaining about not being accepted as writing fiction of literary quality.

I want to add that looking at the Booker Prize short list lately, this fad seems to be drawing to a close, although I'm sure that some literary critics will interpret the inclusion of non-realistic novels on the short list as a decline in the standards of the Booker Prize.

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  • Ah, but when does a story marketed as literary get declared out of genre for ill-drawn characters, bad style, lack of theme, bad imagery and/or no symbolism? As, for instance, people will flatly state that the lack of speculative elements means that a story set a decade in the future is not science fiction.
    – Mary
    Aug 22, 2022 at 1:05
  • @Mary Date alone doth not science fiction make (nor vice versa)… Is the future setting of your hypothetical story important in some way? If it could be moved to the present with only superficial changes, then the future setting seems merely background/trappings, and it's arguably not science fiction (or at least, not because of the setting). On the other hand, if it can't, then that must be because it addresses the future setting at some level — which makes it science fiction.
    – gidds
    Aug 22, 2022 at 20:54
  • That was my point
    – Mary
    Aug 22, 2022 at 21:47
  • @gidds It's completely up to convention to call all things set in the (at least somewhat) distant future "science fiction." It's a terrible label that is even anachronistically applied to Lucian's True Story, for example. Genre has two purposes: to tell people what the book is like, and to market books so that readers with a very narrow interest can quickly satisfy their bubble lit-craving. I haven't read much of her actual work, but from a theoretical and literary perspective, Le Guin is right on the money here.
    – cmw
    Sep 30, 2022 at 2:45
  • That said, this is more of a discussion question—a question that nevertheless needs discussing!—and so might be off-topic in the narrowly-defined Q&A style that underlines StackExchange's model.
    – cmw
    Sep 30, 2022 at 2:46

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