Your Beginner’s Guide to Literary Fiction

Posted on May 11, 2021

You may be familiar with realistic fiction, a genre of fiction with an emphasis on realistic, believable events. If you read a contemporary story that deals with modern-day issues and doesn’t fall into other genres like romance or crime, you’ve probably got a realistic fiction novel on your hands. Here we’ll explore the elements of literary fiction.

But you may also have heard this term, especially in academic or critic circles. What’s literary fiction? What makes it different from other genres? How can we write it? 

When it comes down to it, literary fiction is a complicated genre, and there’s a lot of nuance we have to keep in mind when we’re talking about what constitutes the best version of it. 

You may already associate this genre with capital a “Art.” Literary fiction are the books that win critic awards, the ones that book clubs fawn over for years and years to come, the gripping coming-of-ages steeped in academic settings or war-torn nations. 

You may also associate ‘literary fiction’ with snobbish academics who treasure obscure, difficult narratives that are really just plain unenjoyable. A lot of people seem to synonymize lit fic with boring, tangled stories with unsatisfying endings that critics love and readers, generally, hate. 

What is “Art?” Who decides? 

I’m here to unpack those questions, and to help you decide whether you should set out to write literary fiction. Spoiler alert: I don’t think it matters whether you decide to or not! 

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What Is Literary Fiction? 

It’s a simple question, but the answer cuts into problems that run deep in our publishing system and, in fact, our society at large. 

Literary fiction, to define it as simply as possible, is a genre of fiction set apart by its literary merit. Literary fiction is commonly realistic fiction, meaning that it deals with real people working through contemporary issues in a modern-day, believable setting, but this isn’t a hard rule. 

The only real rule is that it has literary merit. 

Okay, great. So, what’s literary merit? And who decides? And do works of literary fiction really have nothing else in common with one another except that they have ‘literary merit?’ 

Like I said, it’s complicated. 

Works of literary fiction do tend to have a few things in common aside from literary merit. Let’s take a look at a few common points literary fiction tends to hit. Again, these aren’t rules or symptoms of literary fiction—-this is just to give you a clearer idea of what sorts of work tends to get described as lit fic. 

(Also, just a head’s up: a lot of this is going to overlap with realistic fiction, and that’s okay! Don’t panic! I promise they’re different (sort of), and we’ll get into how and why in a little bit.)

A Believable Story

Much like realistic fiction, literary fiction tends to have a believable story. This means that the story, from start to finish, reads like something that could happen to somebody today in the real world. 

First, this means the story’s going to have a believable cast. Characters in literary fiction will be regular people, just like you and me. They’re not real people–remember, we’re still working with fiction–but they’re believable. You won’t see a lot of centaurs or magic children in literary fiction. 

Similarly, you’ll have a realistic setting in literary fiction. Literary fiction might take place in a real city, like New York City or Cairo or Dublin or what have you, or it might take place in a Midwest town that’s inspired by a real one. Either way, the idea is that the story is fictional, but it could be real. It’s believable. 

This also means that the plot is going to rely on realistic events and actions. It’s down-to-earth and it’s something that could happen to a real person. 

Contemporary Issues 

This one’s also in step with realistic fiction, but literary fiction generally deals with contemporary issues. Historical fiction is a genre unto itself, after all. Because lit fic tends to grapple with bigger questions about being a person in our world–and we’ll talk about that in a minute–those issues are going to hit harder if they’re contemporary. 

This can help us distinguish literary fiction from other ‘realistic’ genres like romance or mystery novels. A romance novel’s primary concern is love. Will they get together? A mystery novel’s more worried about who did it, how it happened–will the detective solve the case? 

In a literary fiction novel, the questions are a little different. What’s it like to go to college as a first-generation student? How do we cope with mental illness in late-stage capitalism? How does it feel to be a gay kid in the modern-day South? 

These stories might contain romantic subplots or elements of mystery, but that isn’t their primary concern. 

Character-Driven Narrative 

Here’s where we start getting into more subjective territory, so bear with me. 

When people talk about literary fiction, they often say it’s character-driven as opposed to plot-driven. This means, basically, that the story is focused more on the character’s development than on a rapidly unfolding plot. They’re often more rooted in emotion. 

Character-driven narratives aren’t found only in literary fiction. Romance is another genre trademarked by character-driven narratives–romance stories are focused almost entirely on how these characters feel. Namely, romance focuses on whether its characters feel in love. 

Most stories are going to be some combination of plot and character driven. Plot, at its core, is the breakdown of events. Events have to happen for your characters to develop, so even in literary fiction, there’s going to need to be some plot. Character-driven just means that it’s less about twists and turns and more about the character’s emotions, feelings, and reactions. 

Think about the difference between a mystery novel, which revolves around solving a murder, as opposed to something like a John Green book, where the subject matter rests more in how the character learns and feels and grows. 

Big-Picture Themes 

Maybe the biggest distinguishing feature of literary fiction lies in its subject matter. Literary fiction asks big questions of its readers and explores enormous questions. How does it feel to grow up? How does heartbreak change you? 

In asking these sorts of questions, literary fiction tries to get at the biggest question of them all: what does it mean to be a person? What are the challenges we face, and how can we overcome them? Can we overcome them? 

Because of this approach, literary fiction tends to be more philosophical than most other books. It tends to rely more heavily on big-picture thinking and uses its specific character and circumstances to comment on society or personhood as a whole. 

You’ll notice that some genre fiction actually does get at some of these questions. And, yeah! It can! Speculative fiction especially tends to interrogate what it means to function in our society. That’s why defining literary fiction can get dicey. It tends to be realistic fiction, but it isn’t always. 

What Literary Fiction Isn’t 

You’ve got some more concrete signifiers to look for to identify literary fiction. Let’s talk briefly about what literary fiction is not, and why it can be a little complicated when we start talking about literary merit and what constitutes ‘art.’ Sounds like a lot, I know, but stick with me! 

Capital A “Art” 

Why Literary Fiction Isn'T Visual Art

We have to consider what literary merit is and who gives it. Our biggest prizes for artists have, historically, gone to white, straight men, and for hundreds of years, Western culture valued their art as literature over everything else. Literary fiction as a term used to be used to distinguish serious ‘male’ novels over woman-dominated ‘genre’ fiction, and sometimes, that’s still true. 

Different people have different perspectives and different stories bring opportunities for different types of symbolism, which means all of it’s great for broadening  our understanding of ourselves, each other, and our weird little planet. 

So, yeah! The stuff deemed ‘literary fiction’ isn’t the only stuff that we should think of as capital A ‘Art.’ 

Genre Fiction… Sort Of 

Since literary fiction has started opening up for other genres, the lines have gotten blurrier and blurrier. Artists working with magic realism, especially, make it harder to say that literary fiction, as a rule, does not deal with genre fiction. 

If you’re not sure, check the subject matter. A story about a young girl taking apart her oppressive government three hundred years in the future is probably more dystopia than literary fiction. A story about a traveling theater crawling through post-plague America which deals with what art means to people might lean more lit fic. (These examples are The Hunger Games and Station Eleven, respectively). 

Just For Snobs 

Some literary fiction can be stuffy, difficult stories about boring white boys turning into boring white men, sure. But there’s bad art in every genre! You get the occasional cliche, awful fantasy novel or a predictable, frustrating romance every now and again. It doesn’t make the whole genre useless. 

At its best, literary fiction pushes us to contemplate our time on this Earth. And maybe that’s not what everyone wants out of their reading time–some people just want some good old fashioned escapism, and that’s totally fine! 

But just as not every high fantasy story is the same, every lit fic novel isn’t the same, and it’s not just for snobs and MFA bros. 

Should I Write Literary Fiction? 

Well, it depends. And maybe it doesn’t matter. 

If you’re wondering if this is what you should pursue, take a look at the criteria or common traits we listed earlier.

If those sorts of novels are your favorite to read and that describes the sort of story you want to tell, then you should go for it!

And if not, that’s fine, too. 

A quick note for beginning writers: if you’re just starting out, it’s often best to stick with realistic fiction. Not forever, if it’s not your passion! But while you’re getting your bearings, it helps to not get caught up in worldbuilding or magic systems. At the same time, don’t be worried about making capital a ‘Art,’ either. 

And that goes for everyone. Literary fiction is deemed literary fiction, in a sense, by its readers. You can set out to write something that examines the deep questions of what it means to be a person, sure, but honestly, you’re probably best off focusing on writing a good story. 

So write the story you want to write. And in the meantime, what happens, happens. 

Examples of Literary Fiction 

If all of this is still leaving you a little fuzzy, or if you’d like to see some real examples of the concepts we’ve talked about here, I’ll close this out with a list of literary fiction novels to get you started. Good luck out there, and happy reading! 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt 

Do With Me What You Will by Joyce Carol Oates 

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mendel

Beloved by Toni Morrison 

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Gloria Russell

Gloria Russell is a freelance writer and author living in Colorado. If she isn’t writing short stories, she’s probably knitting or stomping around on a mountain somewhere.

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