What the heck is literary fiction?

John Updike
John Updike









In the books we are featuring this month that are finalists for The Best Indie Book of 2012 Awards from the Kindle Book review, five appear in the category of “literary fiction.”  Those books are:


Of these books, the only one I have read in its entirety is Melissa Foster’s Come Back to Me (the subject of my blog tomorrow). But I have sampled most of the others and know they represent fine writing on various themes. I also read Christina Carson’s fine book Dying to Know, which was a semifinalist in this category.
But, I have to say that the category “literary fiction” puzzles me.  I have asked countless authors what the term means and received different answers from each of them.  The closest I can get to a definition is that “literary fiction ” is fiction which doesn’t fall easily into genre fiction.
Again, this definition is just a starting point that raises all sorts of questions.
To begin with, do readers view “literary fiction” as one genre among others?  If so, what does a reader hope to find when she searches for literary fiction?
If a book doesn’t fit within another genre, does it by default find itself classified as “literary fiction?”
The repository of all knowledge, Wikipedia, in its article on the topic says:

Literary fiction is a term principally used for certain fictional works that are claimed to hold literary merit.

Despite the fact that all genres have works that are well written, those works are generally not considered literary fiction. To be considered literary, a work usually must be “critically acclaimed” and “serious”.  In practice, works of literary fiction often are “complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas”.

Literary fiction is usually contrasted with paraliterary fiction (e.g., popular, mainstream, commercial, or genre fiction).

The same article goes on to discuss John Updike’s take on literary fiction.
Let me pause here to say that I have read several of John Updike’s novels and believe he was perhaps the greatest wordsmith of the second half of the twentieth century.  When I read one of his books, I kept a dictionary within reach and often referred to it.  Anyway, here’s what the Wikipedia article reports about his opinion on literary fiction:
 In an interview by Lev Grossman for Time magazine, John Updike lamented that “the category of ‘literary fiction’ has sprung up recently to torment people like me who just set out to write books, and if anybody wanted to read them, terrific, the more the merrier. But now, no, I’m a genre writer of a sort. I write literary fiction, which is like spy fiction or chick lit”. Likewise, on The Charlie Rose Show, he shared that he felt this term, when applied to his work, greatly limited him and his expectations of what might come of his writing, and so does not really like it. He said that all his works are literary simply because “they are written in words”.
So, in that article we hear the king of literary fiction lamenting the fact that he is considered a literary fiction writer.
It’s a strange phenomenon to be sure.
Oh, and I know a lot of people say that literary fiction is about characters whereas genre fiction is about plot.  That’s sort of a chicken and the egg deal for me because in order to be good a book must tell a strong story using powerful characters.
The further I go in this blog, the  more confused I am becoming.
Can you help me out here?
What the heck is literary fiction?  Is it just something you know when you see it?  Is it what you look for when you go book shopping?
Literary minds want to know.






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