Can Fantasy Be Literary Fiction?

Why did this surprise me, though? I believe, at least partially, that it’s because it’s a work of fantasy, and I often find that fantasy is left out of the literary fiction genre.

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While I am a frequent writer on literary fiction for this website, it isn’t necessarily what I typically read, and I had to go about finding books that qualified with help from my local library. While doing this, I discovered that the book The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, which I’d read a while ago and loved, and to my delight it and the rest of its series were literary fiction.  (Or at least The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch are, according to their Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data)






Why did this surprise me, though? I believe, at least partially, that it’s because it’s a work of fantasy, and I often find that fantasy is left out of the literary fiction genre. When I made my search on my library website, many of the books included characters living in a modernish world, doing modernish things and suffering modernish problems. Sure, fantasy characters can have fantastical problems, but the beauty of fantasy is that it gives you a wider range of ways to discuss the modernish human experience through metaphors and false societies.

So what’s with leaving fantasy books out when it comes to categorizing literary fiction? Is it because they are obviously genre fiction, and therefore automatically considered separate, as the NY Book Editors place them? They’d be fine separate, if it wasn’t for the association of literary fiction with books possessing ‘merit’ (yet another vague concept).  (NY Book Editors lists a connection with awards as a trait of literary fiction) If fantasy books aren’t ever labeled literary, does that mean they aren’t recognized as worthy of praise? I don’t think I can recall reading much fantasy in school (my best reference for literary fiction). Looking back, a lot of Shakespeare’s work can be classified as fantasy, but is labelled ‘classic’ instead.  If fantasy isn’t included in our schooling, does that send the message that it’s not worth reading?





When you look up what literary fiction is, the results aren’t exactly at odds with fantasy. According to NY Book Editors, literary fiction has these traits:

– “Literary fiction uses creative-storytelling.”

I wonder at the amount of creativity that must go into fashioning worlds, countries, people, systems of magic. With each new work of fiction is a world of unknowns, where authors can experiment.

– “Literary fiction is a commentary on the human condition.”

How can any literature not be, when we write from the angle of the human condition? Encased in it, our experiences become part of what we write even when we don’t mean for them to. We reform what we know into something different, something new, but we’re still in it, and our thoughts reach out to others.

– “It doesn’t follow rules.”

Sure, there are rules in the fantasy genre, but, as with any genre, those rules can break, and even literary fiction follows rules. It’s written on a page, in a book format. Sometimes they have chapters.

– “Literary fiction may be difficult to read.”

Reading fantasy is memorizing characters, magic systems, and countries for each new book you approach.

– It “often has an ambiguous ending.”

Any book from any genre can have that.

(Note that I have nothing against the NY Book Editors’ article I’m about to talk about. It acknowledges that there isn’t a clear line between literary fiction and genre fiction and that nothing is really clear. I’m just using it to frame my argument.)





Does this mean we should mark every work of fantasy as literary fiction and call it good? Definitely not. Fantasy books are also perfectly capable of fitting into none of the characteristics that make up literary fiction. It just frustrates me that fantasy and literary fiction appear to be at odds when sometimes they are one and the same.

Have fantasy books you think should be works of literary fiction? Share them with us!


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