More than a “catch all” for non-genre fiction, this genre is more than “regular” fiction.
Renee Frey, Authors 4 Authors Publishing
As writers, we discuss artistic and literary fiction versus commercial or genre fiction. But what exactly is this difference? Why does it exist?
For most readers, especially people with degrees in literature, literary is what we would consider the “high art” of writing: the best examples of literary devices such as symbolism, theme, characterization, and others with descriptive language.
This also includes the “classics,” or books that are considered part of the canonical collection that define a group’s cultural literature. If it was part of your reading in education, it’s probably literary.
As there are several different components of literary fiction, let’s look a little closer at each to help understand the genre as a whole.
First of all, the idea of canon is already under scrutiny—but let’s not get into that here. Basically, as societies and cultures evolve and change, the literature used to define and exemplify them changes as well. And in a global setting, where there is easier and faster cultural exchange, the aesthetics used to evaluate writing are no longer an aesthetic, but rather a cultural preference. So when I talk about classics in this blog, I’m referring to Western civilization cultures whose primary language is English.
This means if you take into account the diversity present in the United States, for example, you can quickly and easily see how Shakespeare is less relevant than Zora Neale Hurston or Sandra Cisneros.
Overall, something usually becomes a classic if it is the best example or representation of its type. That’s how the best science fiction or fantasy stories become classics. Take Lord of the Rings, for example. While the series is shelved in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore, it is considered a classic because of how it pioneered the genre and established the tropes, traditions, and standards for fantasy.
It helps if subsequent works refer to a work—because then, in order for a reader to really understand the story as a whole, they need knowledge of what preceded it. That’s how Shakespeare, Byron, Dickens, Stevenson, and other authors found their homes as classic writers.
What we consider a “classic” is growing and expanding with the body of literature. And, as mentioned before, as we translate and read other culture’s classics, they often get added to our own canon.
Modern Literary Fiction
For works written more recently, they are usually evaluated on their literary merit and artistry. Only time will tell if the book can stand the test and become a classic. In these cases, the prose quality weighs heavily. To give an example, a Cinderella retelling that is considered commercial would have very accessible language, a definite tie to the original story, and attempt to connect with most readers through real and believable characters. A literary rendition, however, might play around with different points of view, non traditional language and story structure, or otherwise experiment with the form and function of the story.
Another way to think of it would be to compare commercial photography to new art. The two may draw from the exact same subject, but with very different results.
Fiction that does not fall into a specific genre is considered general fiction. That is not the same as literary fiction. While literary fiction will sit on the general fiction shelf, it is the quality and artistic aesthetic of the prose that determines if it is literary or not.
So does that mean that literary fiction is boring?
Quite the opposite! Due to its elevated prose and language, literary fiction often has multiple layers of meaning—-more than you would usually find in commercial fiction. Literary fiction can be fun to analyze and discuss in depth, and often makes a great book for a book club or online discussion.
If you haven’t yet, consider picking up a literary fiction work! It may surprise you!
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