What’s a “Literary” Novel?

By Maeve Maddox

Sometimes agents and publishers list “literary” fiction as something they handle:

Fiction areas of interest: Action/Adventure, Experimental, Family Saga, Glitz, Historical, Humor, Literary, Mainstream, Mystery/Suspense, Religious, Thriller, Women’s.

Cruise the web and you will find various definitions of the term “literary fiction.” Some agents and publishers don’t even try to define it, saying simply that they know it when they see it.

Two of the five definitions of the adjective literary given in the OED are pertinent to the quest to define the term “literary novel.”

literary: Of or pertaining to, or of the nature of, literature.  a. Pertaining to letters or polite learning.    b. Pertaining to books and written compositions; also, in a narrower sense, pertaining to, or having the characteristics of that kind of written composition which has value on account of its qualities of form.
literary: Acquainted with or versed in literature.

According to the Wikipedia article headed “Literary fiction,”

Literary fiction is a term that has come into common usage since around 1960, principally to distinguish serious fiction (that is, work with claims to literary merit) from the many types of genre fiction and popular fiction. In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character; the plot may or may not be important.

Several definitions I’ve seen indicate that literary novels are all character and reflection and no plot.

Literary agent Nathan Bransford insists that literary novels do have plots, but they are more difficult for the reader to discern:

In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.

The Wikipedia article goes on to use a term that’s new to me: paraliterature:

Paraliterature is an academic term for genre literature, such as science fiction, fantasy, mystery, pulp fiction and comic books, which is not generally considered literary fiction by mainstream literary standards.

The term smacks of condescension, as the prefix “para-” is used to form

miscellaneous terms in the sense ‘analogous or parallel to, but separate from or going beyond, what is denoted by the root word’.

“Paraliterature” is “like” literature, but not quite the real thing. Academic nonsense. Many genre writers produce literary fiction, mystery writer P.D. James, for example.

The 1960s as a beginning date for the term “literary fiction” is significant.

Rudolf Flesch’s expose of the abysmal failure of reading instruction in U. S. schools, Why Johnny Can’t Read and What You Can Do About It, was published in 1955. It shone light on the fact that Americans educated with the new “progressive” theories of reading instruction were not fluent readers.

Along with reduced reading skills came a decline of general knowledge. Before these declines, one definition of a novel was “a long fictional narrative written in literary prose.” Readers with reduced vocabularies and little general knowledge require stories that make fewer demands on comprehension. What used to be simply “novels,” are now categorized as “literary novels.”

Writers of “literary” fiction are well-read. They rejoice in extensive vocabularies acquired by reading the literary canon. They write for readers like themselves. When their characters and plots are sufficiently compelling, they astound the publishing world by attracting large numbers of readers who are willing to make the effort to read their books to the end.

Some examples of “literary” fiction that have appealed to large audiences and are on their way to becoming classics are

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd
The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Like any novel, a literary novel has an unfolding plot and characters that the reader can care about. What makes it “literary” is the background from which the writer writes. The vocabulary may be more extensive than common, and when the story ends, readers feel they’ve learned not just the fate of the characters, but something about the human condition.

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16 Responses to “What’s a “Literary” Novel?”

  • marc nash

    The last line sums it up perfectly. Literary fiction seeks to engage its readers with the world (or the human condition as phrased here); genre fiction, popular fiction, para-whatever, seeks to provide an escape from the world into the imagination for the duration of the book.

    Engage with the world or escape it. It’s a question of personal choice and preference. Of course plenty readers are happy with a foot in either camp.

  • Cecily

    So you don’t think you could have escapist literary fiction, Marc?

    (I would think at least one of Maeve’s examples might qualify for both adjectives.)

  • marc nash

    I think it’s terribly hard to have escapist literary fiction. You can have genre writing which most definitely has literary qualities – Staislaw Lem’s “Solaris” for example.

  • Cecily

    I expect many people find Jane Austen escapist, but even if restriciting the “literary fiction” label to modern works, what about authors such as David Mitchell, Salley Vickers, Audrey Niffenenger, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, possibly Andrea Levy and Yann Martell, and even some sci fi authors? I find all of their works escapist – in addition to the literary aspect of analysing people and the world in an intelligent and thought-provoking way.

    (Goodness knows where one would class Jasper Fforde, though!)

  • marc nash

    I feel this is where the terms collapse under their own weight. I wouldn’t consider Mitchell escapist, but utterly literary. Magical Realism is a tough one I grant, but I think it’s pretty much had its day, though clearly I could be wrong about this. Haven’t read Niffeneger and Levy, so can’t comment. I think we mix up realism with non-escapist and imaginative with escapist, they aren’t necessarily exclusive opposites: Martell’s “Life of Pi” was a fabulist tale, but not an escapist one – it took you along under a set of assumptions it had set up in the reader and then sharply removed those blinkers by taking the novel in a whole new (dark) direction. It wasn’t realistic, but it was certainly literary.

  • Kathryn

    To me, all fiction is inherently escapist. . .to a degree; and also inherently seeks to engage readers with the world. . .also to a degree. If you see those as opposing qualities, then they are the ends of a spectrum, but I’m not even sure that makes sense to me. And, well, hm. I’ve never actually managed to get through, say “Finnegan’s Wake,” but could you say that Joyce was seriously trying to engage his readers with the real world? Some genre writers (Peter Dickinson and Ursula K. LeGuin spring to my mind) write fascinatingly about ideas, which seems to me to be one of the qualities we tend to associate with literary fiction. And John Barth–unquenchably in the literary pool–was in his younger years a rollicking teller of tales into which one could escape with great pleasure.

    I have trouble with hard and fast categories in the first place. Guess it shows.

  • marc nash

    Kathryn I sort of agree with you – to me everything ought to be fiction, but with genre tagging, it is subdivided and subdivided which diminishes the work.

    Having said that I would disagree with you re something like Finnegan’s Wake – all ideas and notions of reality are couched in language and this is what Joyce was playing with. Language is a layer between perception and understanding.

  • Michael

    I’ve always found the ‘literary’ tag (or, here in Australia, frequently ‘literature’) to be very arrogant. Surely the whole kit and caboodle is literature or literary? To label a book with a genre is simply a device for arranging books on a shelf. Unfortunately, some seem to take it too far. I’ve always enjoyed science or (more broadly) speculative fiction, and even though this genre is well-established and includes (arguably) some of the greatest literary works, there is still a tendency to poo-poo it amongst ‘literary’ experts. I suspect a similar prejudice toward other genres. It seems plain to me that, from the titles listed, Eco, Niffenegger and Atwood (I’ve not read the others) are all speculative fiction. Perhaps this tag would turn some people off, but a spade is a spade. Spleen vented.

  • Allena

    “Magical Realism is a tough one I grant, but I think it’s pretty much had its day” oh, wow, am I hoping you’re wrong 🙂

  • Sudeshna

    This has got me thinking on what is pulp fiction. That is one term which I have had trouble with always. Maybe the next post in this series could talk about pulp fiction please.

  • Cecily

    Marc: I think the plot of Mitchell’s “Ghostwritten” is inherently escapist (one soul travelling through time, space and people), though I concede that his other works are far less so.

    I don’t know whether magical realism is on the way out, but the works of the new Nobel Laureate for Literature, Mario Vargas LLosa, are sometimes classes as such. (I’ve only read one of them, which I would describe as magical realism.)

  • Ryuno

    Outstanding! Does that mean I have mistakenly classified my first novel as YA? Well, that explains a lot.

  • Sam

    My definition of literary fiction would be “Novels granted this designation by self-interested groups of critics and readers who think they have superior judgement to others they regard as plebs.” Personally I recognise only fiction that I like and fiction that I don’t like. Experience has taught me that novels commonly labelled as “literary” are generally badly written and boring but that’s probably because I am a pleb.

  • PreciseEdit

    Great discussion of a term we often use but, as often, don’t pause to define.

    I think the issue of learning is central to the definition of literature in general. Does the story in some way relate to my thoughts, beliefs, and experiences? Am I a different person after having read the story? Do I think differently about my life and the people I know? Have I learned anything?

    If I can answer “yes” to these questions after reading a book, I’m inclined to label the book “literary,” whether it was written by Joyce, Irving, Eco, or Heinlein.

    I apply the same questions to the visual arts.

  • Iniekongabasi

    Sudeshna raised an interesting quest. I will also want to know what pulp fiction is. Sounds strange and dreamy each time I see it.

  • Stephen Thorn

    David Copperfield (the magic guy, not the book) has said that he bills himself as an illusionist instead of a magician because the illusionist gets paid 20% more money. I tend to think that the “literary novel” is similar, in that such “classy, upper crust” literature is supposedly superior to the common, coarse trash littering the shelves at the bookstore (I hope you see the sarcasm dripping from my words there).

    Okay, I’m a dumb ol’ redneck and not some hoity-toity, ivory tower-dwelling snob, but I find the “literary novel” designation to be an insult to the author whose work doesn’t fit that niche. It seems to me that the term was coined to separate the “important” and “upper class” books from the riff-raff and hoi-polloi of authors (and, by extension, their readers).

    To christen a book as “literature” is akin to having identical twin babies and choosing one as your favorite. Whether you’re writing “The Great Literary Novel That Critics Will Laud but Nobody Will Really Read” or “Some Piece of Pulp Literature That Critics Will Hate but Will Sell a Million Copies” the philosophy is the same: Tell a great story so you entertain and please your readers. You may have to do that in a different way (different types of characters, situations, language, etc.) to reach your target audience but you are still doing the same basic thing. When I hear “literary novel” I can’t help but also hear “pretentious” on its heels.

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