Literary Fiction – What is it, really?

The literary genre is arguably the most misunderstood genre of writing of today. I recently saw a discussion on social media in which literary was described as “flowery and sophisticated words.” Sambuchino, editor of Writer’s Digest, described literary fiction as “requir[ing] the highest command of the language” and “not easily defined, and sometimes the premise is not easily explained.” Santi, editor of Our Stories named common misconceptions of literary fiction, “they assume that the reader is interested in continuous tags of dialogue, riddled with unimportant gestures and gesticulations” (cited in Allen). Because of this widespread misconception on the definition of literary fiction, writers’ “literary” stories receive swift rejections, and people continue to spread false impressions on what literary truly is. 

I didn’t realize literary fiction was even a genre prior to my MFA enrollment. When I considered taking a class called “Literary Novel Draft Workshop,” I had to briefly search into the definition of literary before I took the class, and much of the results defined it as a genre characterized by serious and sophisticated vocabulary, intellectual snobbery, with a complex and dramatic story. Through a few classes and plentiful resources available to me as an MFA student, I learned what literary actually was. I was surprised to find out that the common opinion of literary is far from the truth, and there aren’t many reliable definitions available to those who aren’t studying writing at the academic level.
The simplest way I’ve learned to distinguish literary from traditional genres is the focus of the story: literary has a character driven focus, whereas genre has a plot driven focus.  The literary novel is one that follows the evolution of a character throughout a variety of circumstances. Those circumstances, the vocabulary used to shape them, and characteristics of the plot are neither the focal point nor the standard that comprises the literary genre. Literary speaks to the human condition, offering realistic and relatable themes throughout a character’s journey. Alvarado, fiction editor for Cutthroat literary journal, explained that literary fiction “gives us glimpses of the characters’ particular worlds and relationships and also opens a ‘new’ window on to our own worlds and lives and relationships” while including compelling characters that engage the reader, even if they aren’t reliable or sympathetic, and culminated with “some kind of imaginative transformation of ‘the real’” (cited in Allen). These sort of characteristics can be found in any contemporary literary novels.

As Węgrodzka wrote, the literary character “came to be viewed as a representative of the culturally and ideologically embedded self, a product of a given set of discourses … construed as a complex field of multiple ideological struggles” (13). This is perhaps why we see struggles of poverty and the working class in novels like Restraint of Beasts and Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, as well as the struggle of sexuality acceptance in We the Animals, the struggle of balancing family and working life in Dept. of Speculation, among many other examples. These cultural and ideological struggles have transitioned into common themes of the literary novel due to how closely related they are with the human condition, and the circumstances affecting the literary novel character.

As society goes on, the current and relevant cultural and ideological struggles will continue to work their way into the literary fiction, further conveying literary fiction’s emphasis on the human condition. Literary characters will continue to serve as a reflection of humanity, and the challenge of individuals’ quest to find their identity and happiness. They will continue to leave an impact on readers, and inspire new generations of writers that continue to keep fiction alive.


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