Literary fiction


Joyce Saricks writes: “Many readers and librarians may be surprised to see Literary Fiction categorized as a genre. Surely such an act is a form of blasphemy! Literary Fiction readers, a group that includes many librarians, tend to see their favorite authors as the epitome of literary standards and style. The authors who write Literary Fiction win the highest accolades available to writers (except, perhaps, best-seller status). It hardly seems fair to link them with genre fiction.

Although readers may not recognize this as a genre, even if they read Literary Fiction, it helps librarians to do so. As with all genres, certain elements characterize the books that these readers seek. When we consider this as a genre, with identifiable characteristics and a particular pattern of writing, it is far easier to help those readers seeking more books that attain the literary standards they desire.” (p.177)

“If Literary Fiction is a genre, how do we define it? All genres have a literary dimension, novels that are better written, that are acknowledged for their style and elegance, even though they still fit within that particular genre. The implications of this are useful for us as readers’ advisors, as we quickly learn that readers who appreciate more literary titles may enjoy them whether they are classified as Mysteries, Science Fiction, or any other genre.

Literary Fiction is critically acclaimed, often award-winning, fiction. These books are more often character-centred rather than plot-oriented. They are thought-provoking and often address serious issues. These are [-p.178] not page-turners, per se, although their fans certainly find them engrossing and compelling reading. As defined in Readers’ Advisory Service in the Public Library, these are ‘complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas.’ These are books that appeal first to the mind rather than to the heart and the emotions. Like others in the Intellect genres, Literary Fiction novels present dilemmas that please their readers, whether through singular characters, avant-garde style, or an intellectual approach to serious issues.” (pp.177-178)

“Language and writing style are primary keys to the appeal of books and authors in this genre. When talking with fans of literary fiction, it becomes almost impossible for us as librarians not to describe books as well written, because by any literary standards, they are. Still, it is better to discover other words to describe these novels: elegantly written, lyrical, and perhaps layered are terms that provide the same information about the use of language and style without the chance of misunderstanding by readers.

Fans of Literary Fiction prize complex language and interesting styles. Words are important in their own right; how an author says something is almost as important as what is said.” (p.179)

Characteristics of Literary Fiction

“1. Literary style is important. Authors and readers pay attention to words and how they are woven together with elegant, often poetic language. The structure of the novel itself may be more complex, even experimental, and these novels may play with the conventions of other genres.

2. Characters emerge as more important than story lines, and the philosophical questions central to these books are often explored more through character than through story. Characters, even secondary characters, are multi-dimensional and often act in ways that are unpredictable.

3. Story lines are thought-provoking. Literary Fiction operates in the realm of ideas as well as practicalities, and these novels often consider universal dilemmas. Endings are often open or ambiguous.

4. Pacing is slower, as these are usually densely written books. Complex characters and/or story lines, as well as imaginative language and style, force readers to read more slowly in order to understand the layers of embedded meaning. There is generally more description than dialogue.

5. The tone of Literary Fiction may be dark because of the seriousness of the issues considered, but Literary Fiction may also be humorous – either light or satirical in mood. Atmosphere may carry meaning or function as a component of the writing style.

6. Although frame is less important than in some genres, these layered stories often lend themselves to elaborately portrayed background details.” (p.178)

Ref: Joyce G. Saricks (2009) The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd edn.) American Library Association: Chicago


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