L is for literary on my A – Z blog challenge. If you have been querying agents or publishers for some time, you would no doubt have come across the term “literary novel” or “literary mainstream fiction.” I remember the first time I saw it I was confused, and many years later I’m still confused, as apparently are the many people who have attempted to define the term.

The most common definition I’ve come across is, you can’t define it, but you’ll know when you see it. Very helpful, isn’t it?

Another one from Nathan Bransford, author and agent, “In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.” He goes on to say that in genre fiction, a character gets involved in doing something and things happen on the surface, which the reader can see. In literary fiction, things may happen on the surface too, but what is more important is what goes on in the heart and mind of the character.

Which begs the question: When Robert Langdon, Dan Brown’s protagonist, chases an assassin all over Rome to prevent him from committing yet another assassination, isn’t something happening beneath the surface in ML’s mind?
Okay, so another popular distinction between the literary and the genre novel is that the literary novel is usually character-driven while the other is plot-driven. I would assume then that a page turner like Angels and Demons would definitely not be literary. How about The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner which I have never been able to finish reading? I suppose that would be classified as literary.

Wikipedia sums it up this way: Literary fiction is a term that came into common usage during the early 1960s. The term is principally used to distinguish “serious fiction” which is a work that claims to hold literary merit, in comparison from genre fiction and popular fiction (i.e., paraliterature). In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more upon style, psychological depth, and character. This is in contrast to Mainstream commercial fiction, which focuses more on narrative and plot. Literary fiction may also be characterized as lasting fiction — literature which continues to be read and in-demand many decades and perhaps centuries after the author has died. In another post, Wikipedia terms this as classic.

Perhaps the article that throws the most light on the subject for me is this one by Sanjida O’Connell, a literary author based in the UK. She begins by saying that literary works are those that win a literary book award, such as the Booker Prize for Fiction. She has never won the prize even though she is marketed as a literary author. However, she does say that for her, a literary novel should be made up of the following:
• Intellectual content or ideas
• Style – “beautiful prose that makes you want to weep”
• Depth – the interweaving of theme, plot and sub-plots
• Character – which drives the plot

Just in case you’re wondering if you now have a clearer understanding of what constitutes literary fiction, here are a few examples:
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Lord of the Flies by William Golding and many others which you may have already deemed to be literary. Drop me a line on what you think literary fiction is and what are its merits or demerits.

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