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What makes literary fiction different from other kinds of fiction?
Ian Nathaniel Cohen
Posted: Monday, February 10, 2014 11:36 PM

I've been meaning to ask this for a long time.  Is literary fiction a category for works that don't fit into other genres - mystery, historical, romance, etc. - or is it for a specific kind of story/method of telling a story? What makes one book literary fiction and not another?

 

(I'm especially curious when it comes to narrowing or expanding my agent search, since I see that some agents specifically say they're looking for literary fiction.)



Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 2:05 PM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 438


Hi Ian, 

 

I recently talked to a lit fiction editor, and we discussed that very question. While most genres are defined by specific tropes and  conventions (e.g., mystery = we find the killer at the end; romance = the two main characters fall in love, and the story ends in Happily Ever After), literary fiction is defined by its more literary voice and style. It doesn't have anything to do with the plot--it's all about the language, the sensibility.

 

Things get even trickier when we get to crossover fiction which blends genre with literary elements. For example, THE MAGICIANS by Lev Grossman is a fantasy novel BUT because of the more literary style of the book, it is published by Viking (which usually pubs lit fiction) and not by a genre-centric imprint such as Berkley/NAL. 

 

Are published titles similar to yours considered literary fiction OR historical fiction OR adventure/thriller? 

 

Good luck querying!

 

Nevena

 

 

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--edited by Nevena Georgieva on 2/11/2014, 2:08 PM--


Ian Nathaniel Cohen
Posted: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 2:59 PM

Definitely historical fiction, fantasy, mystery, and thriller.  So it sounds like branching out to literary fiction specialists isn't the way to go.

 

Thanks!


Dennis Fleming
Posted: Friday, February 21, 2014 5:22 PM
Joined: 1/22/2013
Posts: 17


I understand that crossover fiction as described above is being referred to as UPMARKET fiction. I think it's to connote its ability to sell in a genre reading market, i.e. it's literary, but no so abstruse, so self-referential language wise as to not be readable by genre readers.
Val
Posted: Monday, February 2, 2015 10:36 AM
Joined: 9/7/2013
Posts: 24


I think Nevena pretty much says it all. Literary fiction tends to be more character driven; I think plots range from what you're used to barely a plot at all. I'm reading "The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P." by Adelle Waldman and while some might call it 240 pages of navel gazing, I'm loving it. The plot, if you can call it that, is exactly what the title says; it's more an examination of Nathaniel's thoughts about why he can't seem to sustain a relationship. It's set in present day Brooklyn, where everyone is hip, literary, witty. . . . it's like a very intelligent sendup of that often ridiculous world.

 

There's lots more exposition in lit fic, from what I've seen. Jonathan Franzen has tons of exposition in "The Corrections" and "Freedom." And it's all wonderfully fascinating, but then again, I adore Franzen -) You can take more risks, do more unusual things, in lit fic, and if you're good enough -- and that is key! -- get away with it and make your novel soar. The writing itself is very important. It must be superb to be lit fic. That's why the word literary in literary fiction!

 

Basically, I think all those rules of writing that everyone's constantly coming across -- show, don't tell, etc. -- apply more to genre writing (mystery, fantasy, romance, etc) than to lit fic. This isn't to say one is better than the other. It's whatever you like to read, and write.


Mimi Speike
Posted: Monday, February 2, 2015 7:53 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014


I get that the advice about show-don't-tell and action-reaction and get rid of the adverbs and all kind of stuff is meant to move the story forward and to keep the reader engaged. I agree with the need for that, but I try to accomplish it in other ways. Since I'm not about to change my style, only time will tell if I'm right or wrong.

 


Val
Posted: Monday, February 2, 2015 7:59 PM
Joined: 9/7/2013
Posts: 24


Yes, Mimi, you expressed what I think but couldn't articulate. Thanks! I'm not about to change my style either and judging by all the lit fiction I've read, there's more than one way to skin a cat
Mimi Speike
Posted: Monday, February 2, 2015 9:17 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014


My style is literary, and has a good deal of highly groomed exposition. I've been heavily criticized for it. So I've tried to get more action in, and my action includes a whole lot of dialogue. My current plot point involves my Minister of the Treasury and my Archbishop scheming to stage a fake Lourdes-style miracle to draw pilgrims from Compostela to their dirt-poor backwater country. (Google is grand! I discovered that the city of Bayonne in southern France tried to do something similar about a hundred years before my period.)  

.

My dopes are planning, and discussing what might go wrong and arguing and back-stabbing, all around fun. I've got three solid chapters of talk, a few asides, but mostly dialogue, and I'm worried that it's gotten tedious, though I've tied myself in knots trying to keep it lively, snappy, and totally ridiculous. 

.

I have to set it aside for a few days, and reread from the beginning. And I have to buy Princess Bride. I saw the movie last week, and I have a feeling that there's a lot of exposition in it and that the style is something like mine, only the description far more contrived and the chit-chat far more stilted. I work hard, writing comic fantasy set in the sixteenth century, to keep the feel contemporary. 

.

Yeah, I never expected this to be easy. Maybe it was easy for Dickens. I read somewhere that he wrote without much revision, his first drafts close to pristine. Hardly no cross outs, changes. Anybody know about that? It sure intimidates the hell out of me. 

 

--edited by Mimi Speike on 2/3/2015, 3:30 AM--


Jennie E
Posted: Saturday, March 28, 2015 10:41 AM
Joined: 3/23/2015
Posts: 2


Dennis Fleming wrote:
I understand that crossover fiction as described above is being referred to as UPMARKET fiction. I think it's to connote its ability to sell in a genre reading market, i.e. it's literary, but no so abstruse, so self-referential language wise as to not be readable by genre readers.
 

Lots of agents seem to mention 'Upmarket' fiction - is this the same as 'high end' commercial fiction', does anyone know? And is 'book club fiction' a different beast from either of these?

 

I find all these labels fascinating but endlessly frustrating, esp. when trying to apply them to one's own work. Just joined BC and flummoxed as to where to put my book. I think it's a literary romance-thriller - not yet sure if there is any way to show that on this site.

--edited by Jennie E on 3/28/2015, 10:44 AM--


Mimi Speike
Posted: Saturday, March 28, 2015 4:31 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014


I have seen this discussed many times and this is what I understand:

.

Literary fiction builds a more complex world, concerned not only with the mechanics of the car (or dragon) chase, but with who the characters are, what they think of it all, and why. I want psychological context. I want to get to know the characters inside and out. 

 


Val
Posted: Saturday, March 28, 2015 6:13 PM
Joined: 9/7/2013
Posts: 24


From Wikipedia -- yeah, yeah, I know, but I still think it's a pretty good definition:

 

"Literary fiction is a term principally used for certain fictional works that hold literary merit. In other words, they are works that offer deliberate commentary on larger social issues, political issues, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition."


I think the key words here are human condition. Literary fiction explores themes such as loneliness, loss, the joy of a relationship, the destructiveness of a relationship, the ability of a person to grow and learn. . . you get the picture. I'm not as familiar with literary fiction that explores social or political issues, but Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" comes to mind because I was so fascinated with it in high school. And at the risk of inflaming other members, I think that generally, literary fiction is written with a better command of the English language (regardless of the author's particular style), where writing skill is taken to a higher level.


I pretty much only like to read literary fiction but I'm addicted to audiobooks and then, my favorite flavor is detective novels like Lisa Gardner (highly recommended if you like detective novels!) or John Grisham. Someone in my book club protested recently, "But that's all crap!", referring to detective novels and such. It's not crap; it's just different: I certainly couldn't put together a Lisa Gardner novel with a zillion twists and turns and eighteen suspects and oh yeah, throw in a little sex and romance between the lead detective and the teacher from the police academy. I love to listen to that stuff, trying to figure out the bad guy and eagerly awaiting the next twist in the story. On the other hand, I worship Jonathan Franzen, who probably wouldn't be caught dead with a detective novel, and can't wait for his next novel to come out.


So there you go.


Mimi Speike
Posted: Saturday, March 28, 2015 8:50 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014


I'm reading an interview with Mark Knopfler on Salon about his new album. The interviewer says, 'you’re inhabiting characters and trying to depict the world through their eyes'. That is the way I work. Past the inciting idea, nothing that I write services my plot. I have theories of what I'd like to happen, if it doesn't work out, I hardly care, for I've probably stumbled on something way better. I create a world and populate it and let it all proceed on its own terms. 

.

In literary fiction, I hope to be shown something that helps me understand myself a little better. And, I certainly look for a seductive style, beyond the storyline, great fun to read the words on the page. 

 

--edited by Mimi Speike on 3/28/2015, 8:59 PM--


Val
Posted: Saturday, March 28, 2015 9:37 PM
Joined: 9/7/2013
Posts: 24


"Seductive style" -- that's beautiful! Perfectly put. There's nothing like a great sentence that makes you stop and admire it in all its literary glory. I love constructing sentences. I can spend a lot of time on one sentence, but when I get it right, I feel great. . . and then I wonder, why can't all my sentences sound like this?, and I get a little discouraged.
Lucy Silag - Book Country Director
Posted: Tuesday, March 31, 2015 4:47 PM
Joined: 6/7/2013
Posts: 1359


Hi Jennie--Welcome to Book Country! Nice to "meet" you on this thread.

 

My question for you as you are figuring out where to place your literary-romance-thriller (which sounds AWESOME, by the way--can't wait to check it out!), is to think about what other authors your potential fans are into. What are some that come to mind?


 

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