Skip to Content

What Is Literary Fiction & What Sets It Apart?

5 things that set literary fiction apart.

Literary fiction is also known as serious fiction, though personally I dislike both terms.

They imply that all other types of novels (genre fiction in particular) are somehow less literate and less serious.

Still, the bookselling business calls it literary fiction, so I guess we’re stuck with the term.

Literary novels generally sell in smaller quantities than genre or mainstream novels. This means publishers are less likely to take a gamble on them. But you shouldn’t let that put you off writing them.

Always write the type of fiction that you want to write.

Also, publishing your novel independently has become not just viable but (arguably) preferable. So what the publishing houses are “likely” or “not likely” to do is increasingly irrelevant.

True, the book-buying public still buys fewer literary novels, whether they’re shopping at Amazon or a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. But if a literary novel gets some positive word-of-mouth buzz, or even wins a prestigious award, sales can skyrocket.

What sets literary fiction apart from genre fiction? Five things. Let’s look at them one by one…

1. Literary Fiction Looks Different

Go into a bookstore and you can usually tell the genre novels from the literary ones instantly. Here’s how…

i) The Covers are Different

The genre novels have eye-catching covers – handsome men on the romances, dripping blood on the horror novels. Literary novels are more subtle, more “arty.”

Literary novels sometimes have stickers on the cover, too, saying that the book was short listed for the Booker Prize (or something similar).

ii) Genre and Literary Novels Often Come in Different Formats

Genre fiction usually comes in the “mass-market paperback” format. You need to be a household name to get published in hardback first.

Literary fiction usually appears in hardcover form first. Or else as a “trade paperback,” which is the same size as a hardback but has a soft cover. And then in standard paperback a year later.

Of course, these old rules are not so hard-and-fast since the rise of Kindles and other e-books.

Even for physical books, the old ways of doing things no longer apply, especially as more and more authors publish their novels independently. Indie authors are free to choose whatever format they like.

iii) The Titles Are Different

The titles of commercial fiction tend to be more direct and encapsulate perfectly what the novel is about…

  • Beastchild by Dean Koontz
  • The Lake of Darkness by Ruth Rendell.

Literary fiction titles are more offbeat, more “arty” again. But just as eye-catching in their way…

  • The Alchemy of Desire by Tarun J Tejpal
  • Instances of the Number 3 by Salley Vickers

iv) You’ll Find Them in Different Sections of the Bookstore

Genre fiction has areas of shelving all to itself (one area for thrillers, one for romances, and so on). Literary fiction appears in the “General A-Z” section, along with mainstream novels.

Apart from looking different to genre fiction, and sitting in a different part of the bookstore, what else sets a “serious” novel apart? This next one’s a biggie…

2. In Literary Fiction, Character Comes Before Plot

Literary fiction is more character-driven and less concerned with a fast-paced plot than genre fiction.

Depending on your point of view, that either makes it moving and profound. Or as dull as reading the dictionary (because “nothing exciting happens”).

But here’s the thing. Just as the best genre novels contain well-crafted characters, so the best literary novels have page-turning plots. True, literary plots are less likely to consist of car chases and explosions. But, hey, things still “happen.”

Dave Morris: Literary fiction is not the plotless, meandering indulgence its detractors would have you believe.

So it’s really just a question of…

A Difference in Emphasis

Writing a gripping plot is important in genre fiction. In literary fiction the plot can be less momentous, less frenetic, less obvious. But it still needs to be there, as the literary agent Nathan Bransford points out…

Sooooooooo much literary fiction I get in the old query inbox is plotless. It’s just a character musing about the vagaries and eccentricities of everyday existence. The prose is lush, the character detailed, but one problem – absolutely nothing is happening and thus it’s (forgive me) extremely boring. Good literary fiction has a plot.

Fans of literary fiction might consider genre novels to have less artistic merit. To be formulaic, melodramatic, and so on. And fans of genre fiction might think literary novels are boring books in which nothing ever happens.

Both views are wrong.

Literary fiction isn’t better than genre fiction in the same way that a table isn’t better than a wheelbarrow. They’re simply different products serving different needs.

Think of it like this. Each of the genres targets a specific group of readers who take pleasure from reading those types of books…

  • Horror fans like horror novels.
  • Romance fans like romantic novels.
  • And so on.

Literary fiction is just another genre. It’s simply fiction that targets a specific group of readers who like what literary novels have to offer. Not least, this emphasis on character over plot.

That’s not to say that genre novelists don’t care about characterization. I’m sure that Stephen King, for example, cares deeply about his characters and tries to make the most fully-rounded characters that he can. It’s just that he has a lot less space in which to do it than his literary counterparts. Why?

  • Part of characterization is about what characters do and what they say. The genre novelist can manage both these things without holding up the plot. (Indeed, what characters do and say is the plot!)
  • But another part of bringing fictional characters to life is concerned with what they think and what they feel and what their childhood was like (and so on). And characterizing in this way does slow down the story’s pace.

Fans of genre fiction essentially enjoy a good read. And that means a concrete plot with a lively pace and plenty of twists and turns along the way.

Disrupting the flow for a few pages to describe in detail a character’s mental anguish, or an incident from their past, is risky in a genre novel. But it’s exactly what the reader of a literary novel expects.

The danger for the literary novelist is to go to the other extreme….

  • Yes, literary fans enjoy those “slower bits” in between the scenes, where the character and what makes her tick is explored in more depth.
  • But they want to be entertained, too. And that requires a gripping plot.

3. Literary Novels Are More “Meaningful”

All good novels, whatever the genre, should have a theme. A theme runs beneath the surface and is essentially what the novel is “about.”

As readers of fiction, we like the surface plot to entertain us. But we also like a deeper experience. We like the novel’s events to say something about what it means to be a human and what it takes to get by in this world.

We might not notice this happening explicitly. But we’ll sense that we’re having a richer and more rewarding reading experience, even if we can’t quite put our finger on why we are.

Anyway, just as a literary novelist has more time to characterize in depth, so they have more time to explore the ideas and insights running through their novel.

This exploration won’t take place literally. Literary novels are still novels, not academic papers. Instead, it will run “beneath the surface” of conversations, of a character’s thoughts, or of the events themselves.

The theme will form a kind of subtext to the entire novel, but one which the novelist still needs time and space to bring to the surface occasionally. (And genre novelists, remember, don’t have the luxury of much time and space, because that slows down the plot.)

Don’t worry about the specifics of theme right now. All you need to understand here is that literary novelists have more space in which to explore theme than genre novelists do. Why? Because the readers are more willing to put up with any “slow parts.”

4. In Literary Fiction, “Fine Writing” Is Essential

Both fans and publishers of literary fiction expect the writing itself to be excellent…

  • Not poetic, exactly. Though it can be.
  • Not lush and sensual and vivid with imagery. Though it can be.
  • And not difficult. Though many literary novels don’t exactly make for great beach reading.

Instead, literary writers need a masterful way with words. Their voice can be simple or ornate, but the prose must always be rich and finely-crafted and a pleasure to read.

Does that mean the genre novelist can afford to write sloppily?

Nope. But because fans of genre fiction are mainly after a page-turning plot, the genre writer can get away with more “workmanlike” prose.

5. In Literary Fiction, Anything Goes

The genre novelist is confined by the conventions (or “rules”) of their chosen category of fiction. If readers of crime novels, for example, expect a body to appear within the first three chapters, your own crime novel had better not disappoint them.

Of course, the rules can get bent and boundaries pushed. But bend or push them too far and your genre novel may no longer be recognizable as belonging to its category. Which means that a fan of that category is unlikely to find it satisfying.

In literary novels, there are no such things as rules.

You’re free to tackle any subject matter and any theme you choose. You can structure the story however you wish.

For example, you could write a novel which wouldn’t fit into any of the regular fiction genres. So instead of writing about horror or crime or romance, you write a novel about everyday suburban life.

Or you could write a novel which would fit into a genre but follows none of the conventions of that category. A crime novel in which the body doesn’t appear until the final chapter, say. Or one which isn’t about the investigation of the murder so much as the romance between the detective and the chief suspect.

Literary fiction is more likely to break the wider fictional rules, too. The ones about how to create characters, how to plot fiction, and so on. All novelists should break some of the rules some of the time. But literary novelists have more freedom than most.

  • So if your dialogue isn’t in conflict (which is one of the golden rules) but it still somehow works, go with it.
  • And if a scene doesn’t involve a character trying to achieve a specific goal in the face of opposition (which is one of the fundamental principles of plotting a novel) but the scene nevertheless feels right, keep it in.

In literary fiction, anything goes. Just so long as it works.

You Are Here: Home > Types of Novels > Literary Fiction