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Genre Definition: Literary Fiction

When it comes to writing, there are endless terms, names and genres to keep track of. As a new writer, this can be intimidating - especially when communicating with agents and other literary professionals. While it is not necessary to know everything, it can be helpful (if not essential) to at least know enough to properly categorise your own work. When querying an agent, for example, the last thing you will want to do is to come across as unprofessional or inept.

And that’s where we come in. Here at Grindstone, we want you to succeed, and we aim to provide you with the tools and building blocks you need, in order to construct a solid foundation for your writing career. Confidence is key, and confidence comes with knowledge and experience. So, let’s start off with a term you are bound to hear at some point (if not already), and which is often, strangely, misused.

writing advice for writers
Challenge your readers to think diffently.

Defying Literary Fiction

The first thing to keep in mind, and what is perhaps the most common misunderstanding, is that fiction and literary fiction are not one and the same. Not all fiction is literary fiction, but all literary fiction is fiction. Does that clear things up? No, I didn’t think so, but stick with me.

Literary fiction tends to be writing which, considered by critics, has with literary merit; something which revolves around a topic of philosophical value, such as social issues or political criticism. This means that there is a bigger picture than just the story and plot itself, and literary fiction often works in a way that subtly (or not so subtly) draws attention to an important topic.

How Literary Fiction Differs from Commercial Fiction

Commercial fiction, written with the intent of reaching a wider audience (and commercial success), is, in most cases, driven by its plot. It becomes a way for the reader to step away from their own lives for a moment, and to temporarily become a part of a fictional universe. Literary fiction, on the other hand, does the opposite. It revolves less around a plot and is instead more angled towards making the reader aware of bigger (and real) issues, through the development of a fictional, emotional or character driven story. Literary fiction uses the ‘fiction’ aspect of the narrative to draw attention to a subject of relevance that exists outside of the book or story.

Characteristics: Recognising Literary Fiction

While genres often overlap, there are a few things to look out for when recognising and identifying literary fiction.

  • Pace: Literary fiction is generally slower in pace than a commercial fiction novel. Since the plot itself tends to be less prominent, the focus lies with the bringing forward of its message, rather than on moving the story along rapidly.

  • Characters: Usually well-developed, complex, and with great depth. When the plot takes a backseat, you need captivating, real characters to keep the reader interested, and to help them relate to the general theme of the story.

  • Style: This genre is often written with a touch of elegance; elaborate sentences with a poetic touch, formed in an effort to convey as much in the way that they’re written, and simply with the words themselves.

  • Intention: Literary fiction will in some way broach significant subjects, which is the core aspect that makes the works ‘literary’. These subjects can be humanitarian, political, related to modern society or anything that might be considered to have literary worth.

Examples of Literary Fiction

  • Lord of the Flies, by William Golding

  • Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

  • Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

  • The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

  • The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Knowledge is Power

As a writer, it is important to constantly strive to learn and develop, and to accept the fact that no one is ever fully learned. Yes, all these genre definitions, words, expressions and grammatical terms can be intimidating, especially if you are new on the professional writing scene, but everyone started out somewhere, and everyone – at some point – had to learn everything from scratch. Knowing how to properly define your own written work is a major strength, and it’s worth the extra effort it takes to learn about different genres and such. There is no requirement to wake up one day and know it all, but knowledge is power, and the power lies in the hands of the writer who is willing to continue learning.


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