Literary. We all know what this word means. Sadly, it has connotations which cause confusion when applied as a label. Literary Fiction, a term common since the seventies, is controversial to the point that some people throw up their hands and declare all labels detrimental. But genre labels help readers and books find one another. They are important.
General understanding of the label Literary Fiction splits into two prominent views:
The first perspective holds that the term describes works of literary merit (basically, having won prestigious awards or academic acclaim.) I find this meaning less useful, and I wish a different identifier was used. “Celebrated,” maybe. Celebrated Fiction.
The other definition is one of genre. In this view, celebrated achievement is one of several common factors which may combine to define a work as Literary Fiction. Plot is often overshadowed by these distinguishing characteristics. The parameters are subjective, but a work of Literary Fiction includes one or more of these:
Particularly Deep Themes
All novels have a theme. The theme is the train of thought which runs beneath the surface and I suppose you could say that it answers the question “What’s the novel about?” rather than “What happens?”
In Literary Fiction this theme is deeper and often less obvious. Sometimes we can’t even put our finger on what it is, exactly, but even so it will affect our experience.
Many expect a work in this genre to be an insightful study of contemporary issues or the general human condition. It is often referred to as “serious” fiction. These stories spend time in places it’s not nice to be. Happy endings are rare, satisfying ones not guaranteed.
In my experience, Literary Fantasy approaches these same subjects in a less direct way and is more likely to be inspiring or give us a laugh at ourselves. Of course there are plenty of dark stories, too. Fantasy presents an alternate world which is relatable but is an escape from the immediate concerns of ordinary reality, and this world can be a great place to engage readers in ethical or philosophical subjects, because the unique perspective of a new world encourages critical thinking. Literary Fantasy both frees the reader from our world and escorts them further into it.
Aesthetic Writing Style
Rather than a goal of entertainment, literary style writing is mostly concerned with developing the above mentioned themes. There is a plot, but it may be subtle and it may take some time for us to figure out what’s going on. The emphasis is on ideas and impressions, versus a plot that must move forward with every detail. The writer devotes greater time to features such as character development and description.
Literary fiction puts the reader to work, through advanced vocabulary, allusions, and typically a lot of subtext, and often the book gets better with each reading. The reader might not be as deeply immersed in the story at all times, pausing once in a while to think, Ah, what a beautiful turn of phrase! Or maybe, I see what you did there!
This writing is aimed at readers who enjoy a more artful look at things. There are parts of the story which will be considered slow by those who prefer plenty of action or a straightforward plot. The reader may not perch on the edge of their seat but it’s likely they’ll find themself thinking about the book for days after finishing.
Freedom From Conventions
Literary Fiction isn’t concerned with storytelling norms. There are no rules specific to the genre. Because their work is not usually intended for the broader market, authors are free to take risks, experimenting with any facet of writing they choose. There is less dependence on the tried-and-true, on formulas, hooks, or on catering to trends.
All this means a read that’s likely to be innovative, challenging, and possibly inspire a new outlook on life.