What even is literary fiction, anyway? This is something I never really thought much about before, but after the discovery of the literary fiction category on this website, I became curious.
My original definition of literary fiction was just books I had read in school, but when it came to searching for books outside of those, I was forced to consider an actual definition. I attempted to hunt for literary fiction by typing “literary fiction” into the website of my local library and ordering half the books that came up. This led me to Elinor Lipman’s Good Riddance.
Good Riddance is about Daphne Maritch who inherits a yearbook from her mother and decides to throw it out in an attempt at decluttering her apartment. Unfortunately, said yearbook is picked up by her neighbor, who decides to attempt to write a documentary about it and callously reveal Maritch family secrets to the public. Reading this book immediately destroyed my association between literary fiction and school, because I can’t imagine this book appearing in a high school classroom. So, in honor of Good Riddance, here is an exploration of what literary fiction actually is.
According to NY Book Editors, literary fiction is sort of opposite to genre fiction, books that don’t follow rules. Literary fiction books tend to “[explore] the human condition” (NY Book Editors), and often provide a heavy focus on characters. Celadon Books also adds that literary fiction is generally considered more serious, which is probably why I equate it with school. However, Good Riddance isn’t really a serious book, and yet it appears to be literary fiction. So what’s going on?
Good Riddance is indeed character-based, focusing on Daphne and her struggles rather than a clear plot. The condition it explores is not anything Earth-shattering, which isn’t a comment on its merit at all. It focuses on family, what constitutes family and what doesn’t, and the complicated feelings we have for relatives we feel have betrayed us. NY Book Editors makes sure to point out that literary fiction is not “more serious and substantive” (NY Book Editors), something that I agree with. It’s the other characteristics that feel more important than the seriousness of the novel, which feels like an arbitrary label trying to pin experimental works as being dry and not accessible to the public, when really they should be.
NY Book Editors lists availability to the masses as a characteristic of genre fiction and not of literary fiction, though I’m not sure this is an inherit characteristic of either type of book or just a pattern that has emerged. They state that “the term ‘literary fiction’ is controversial” (NY Book Editors) and that there isn’t necessarily a distinct line between genre fiction and literary fiction, especially since genre fiction explores the human condition as well.
The distinction between genre and literary fiction reminds me a bit of the separation of graphic novels from non-graphic novels, the absence of fantasy and science fiction from classrooms, or the exclusion of video games as a valid art form. Does it exist just the create a class of people with ‘superior’ reading tastes, or is that just what it has become? NY Book Editors suggests that literary fiction might just be another book genre rather than a type of book, and I think that this definition is more suitable. For poetry, free verse breaks the rules that other poetic forms have, and yet it is just another type of poetry, so why isn’t literary fiction? It’s experimental, character-based writing that sometimes fits into other genres and sometimes doesn’t.
So why have the distinction anyway? Is it necessary to label our books as being literary or not? Share your thoughts!