Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, February 26, 2007

What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?

Well, I would post something about the Oscars, only I'm pretty sure nothing at all happened during the seventeen hour broadcast. Was there even an Oscars? I watched every minute and I can't be sure. I know some awards were given and some bad dresses worn, but wow.

The book industry really needs an Oscars, because let's be honest, the best part of the Oscars is the horrendous fashion choices, and the publishing industry does horrendous fashion better than anyone. One spin around a publishing function and the fashion police would lock down the venue and declare martial law. Also it would be great to see Ryan Seacrest with famous writers on the red carpet saying, "We're here live on the red carpet with.... uh... a.. great writer......... Who are you again?" A good time would be had by all.

On a completely different and entirely unrelated note, one of the most common questions I hear from authors and at writing conferences is this: How can you tell the difference between commercial and literary fiction?

This very question was addressed at a panel at the San Francisco Writer's Conference, and everyone had a different answer. Some people feel that commercial fiction emphasizes plot whereas literary fiction emphasizes characters. Others feel that literary fiction emphasizes unique prose whereas commercial fiction is more straightforward. Still others stick to the "I know it when I see it" defense, and then of course there's the "literary fiction is that which does not sell" definition. Complicating any delineation are genre busters like Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard, who write genre fiction and have plot heavy books but are considered literary. What, dare I ask, are we to make of all of this?

First off, I'd like to bust one of the myths about literary fiction -- that it doesn't have a plot. 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. It starts in one place and ends in another. The characters face challenges and evolve. Even in quiet books like GILEAD (a seriously amazing book, btw), things happen. A literary novel might not end in a shootout or with the death of an albino, but there's a plot there.

Before I get to my own definition, I think I need a caveat paragraph: I love both genre novels and literary novels, so I'm not trying to express a preference here. Also there are a bazillion exceptions to every rule in literature, so of course there are going to be exceptions to my definition.

With the caveats out of the way, here's my own delineation of the difference between commercial and literary fiction. Are you ready? With all this buildup it's not going to be very exciting. So dial down your expectations. I swear, it's kind of mundane. Should I get to the point? Ok, fine, I'll get to the point. In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.

Here's what I mean.

Most genre fiction involves a character propelling themselves through a world. The character is an active protagonist who goes out into a world, experiences the challenges of that world, and emerges either triumphant or defeated. Think about every genre novel you've ever read: sci-fi, westerns, romances chick lit, thrillers.... They are all about a character with a certain level of mastery over the world in which they are in bumping up against the challenges of that world and trying to achieve their goal. Sure, the character might have an inner struggle and be a richly rendered character, but for the most part genre novels are about the exterior -- they are about how a character navigates a unique world.

So the plot in a genre novel usually involves things happening -- action sequences, love sequences, chases, shootouts.... The best genre novels fold these action sequences with the inner life of a character, but make no mistake: genre novels are really about how a character interacts with the outer world. The things that happen are pretty much on the surface, and thus the reader can sit back and watch and see what happens.

Now consider literary fiction. In literary fiction the plot usually happens beneath the surface, in the minds and hearts of the characters. Things may happen on the surface, but what is really important are the thoughts, desires, and motivations of the characters as well as the underlying social and cultural threads that act upon them. The plot may be buried to such a degree (like GILEAD) that if you have to describe the book in a short sentence it seems plotless -- an old man writes a letter to his young son and reflects on his life. There doesn't seem to be a plot there. But there is a plot in GILEAD. It is about how the protagonist comes to terms with his life and how he reconciles his desire to leave something behind for his son with his impending mortality. GILEAD has all the ups and downs of a genre novel, but the plot points all relate to the inner mind, and the climaxes and nadirs are almost hidden in quiet moments and small-but-powerful revelations.

Even when the prose is straightforward, literary fiction is more challenging to read than genre fiction because it requires the reader to infer a great deal of the plot rather than simply sitting back and watching the plot unfold. It requires empathy to relate to characters as humans and to deduce the hidden motivations and desires that lurk beneath their actions. The reader has to recognize the small turning points and the low points and the high points based on what they know of the character and about human nature. And there's a reason very few literary novels end with a shootout (er, except for THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG) -- what happens out in the world isn't as important in literary novels as what happens within the minds of the characters, and thus the climax might be something as small as a decision or a new conviction.

So there's a reason there are genre busters like Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard, as well as the hybrid genre of commercial literary fiction. These novels tend to be told with more straightforward prose and are accessible, but they have a deeper emotional complexity. They fuse the out-in-the-world plotting of genre fiction with the in-the-mind plotting of literary fiction. The novels have traditional climaxes that also resolve the inner battles of their characters.

I will devote another post sometime to my obsession with plot, but what you see here is my belief that a literary novel should be as finely plotted as a genre novel, and anyone who ignores plot does so at their extreme peril. Just because the plot in literary fiction is harder to spot doesn't mean it's not there.

What do you think? What makes a literary novel literary?


john Levitt said...

Nathan - I think you’ve come pretty close to nailing it. I used to say, more glibly, that literary fiction uses plot to reveal its themes, whereas for the most part, genre fiction is the plot.

And I think there’s a third level: those rare works that resonate on a deep level of archetypes, where the whole becomes infinitely more than the parts. It’s like a magic trick; (or a great piece of music) I can see it but I have no idea of how it’s been accomplished. To me, Heart of Darkness is a perfect example of this - it echoes in the mind in a disturbing, dreamlike fashion, with a weight far greater than the mere words can justify.

That’s why I write genre.

Christopher M. Park said...

That's a very interesting take on the issue of what makes literary fiction. I've read plenty of literary fiction, but generally prefer genre fiction that has more of a literary bent. I've always thought that a key thing of literary fiction is that the characters are the richest elements of the book--I think that's somewhat in line with what you are saying--whereas in genre fiction, the world itself is often as-rich or richer than the characters themselves.

Personally, it really gets on my nerves when genre fiction just has flat, stereotypical characters that don't have any meaningful growth. And even those genre books wherein the character experiences growth, but not in a very original way... those are of less interest.

I know that there are still a lot of mass-market romances and fantasies and sci-fi tales that are really more situational (romance/fantasy) or idea-based (fantasy/sci-fi), but it seems to me like a lot of the best genre fiction is becoming more literary with its character development and merging of the internal vs. the external. The best of Stephen King seems to be this way, as is the best of writers like Orson Scott Card and Robin McKinley.

Each of those writers has a number of books that are just all about the external plot, but their best works also seem to really go to a much deeper level (ENDER'S GAME, SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD/XENOCIDE, SUNSHINE, THE SHINING, THE STAND).

What is your thought on books like these? I've never really been clear on whether they are creeping over towards the literary fiction end of the pool, or whether they are simply stellar examples of great genre fiction.


My blog on writing

Lauren said...

Great post, Nathan! I found myself nodding at what both you and the commenters have said so far.

One thing I always notice about literary fiction is that it's very intertextual. It may be built on religious or mythological symbolism; it may incorporate archetypes from other types of literature; it may reflect on the nature of storytelling itself; it may be a response to or a retelling of another story or fable. There's always something that makes it impossible to read in a cultural or literary void, and that something is usually a major element of the story or structure that contributes to the overall theme.

While this can be seen in genre fiction as well (I was just perusing the "Good Girl Lit" site the other day and noticed that their books are chick lit retellings of Bible stories), I would say that it's certainly not expected in the way it is in lit fic. When I read lit fic (which, up until recetly, was pretty much all I read. Reading author and agent blogs has turned me on to tons of genre authors!), I come to it with the expectation that there's always another layer (or seven) bubbling under the surface story.

Anne-Marie said...

Nathan- I think you've said it right in your post today. The line between commercial fiction seems more defined to me than the line between genre and literary fiction, because I think some of genre writers that I love to read (like Ian Rankin and P.D. James, to name but two)fall into the category of literary fiction.

I was mentioning on a writer friend's blog the other day that I believe there are three types of writers. The first have a beautiful turn of phrase and can play with words beautifully, but essentially I can read their work, appreciate the beauty of the language, but not get into any of it because I don't care about what is happening or who it's happening to(Salman Rushdie's The Ground Beneath her Feet is one such example to me, with apologies to those who think otherwise).

The second type of writer tells a great story and the writing is good but not essential, like the commercial fiction of Dan Brown, for example. It's a great ride, and you're not meant to get deeper than the ride, although some of his work has raised a lot of cultural and spiritual questions for me outside of the actual writing.

The third writer, I think, is the one who combines the two, and maybe that's what literary fiction does, whether it has a genre or not: the writing is beautiful, and the story is compelling. Ian McEwan is one of the writers that comes to mind.

I think I already am the second type of writer, and I'm striving to be capable of being the third kind.

Oh, and about the Oscars- one of our radio station personalities had the best review of it all. Dreadfully boring, she said, as everyone was far too pleasant. I don't think I've ever seen such a polite show before. *Yawn* indeed.

Rob Brooks said...

I think you've come about as close as possible. It's a tough one define, and unfortunately, a lot of the time it probably does come down to "I just know it when I see it." I think in some respects, commercial fiction can be literary as well--there can be actual events pushing the story along in an actual plot, but there may also be a story beneath that inside the characters.

That;s a good way to describe it--the plot is below the surface in literary fiction. Makes sense. It's still there, it's just not the most noticeable part of the story.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, thanks for this post; it was interesting and well-written.

I think the distinction is made mostly for practical purposes, and otherwise can be dispensed with. Read, and think, whatever you like.

Anne-Marie, just a question: according to your formula that makes Salman Rushdie what? Not a literary writer? I think he's very clearly a literary writer, just not one whose plots grab you.

I guess what I'm getting at is that the distinction between literary fiction and commercial fiction is separate from questions of quality or individual tastes.

Anne-Marie said...

Anonymous, I always thought of Rushdie as a literary writer, with a beautiful command of language nuance and such skill with a turn of phrase. I was quite surprised to read one of his novel and find that I did not feel anything for his characters- I'm happy to either like or dislike characters, but indifference is not something that I would have expected, and it really disappointed me as a reader.

I agree with you that taste is personal, but I'm not sure that what I reacted to was a matter of taste. Maybe I picked up the wrong novel to be introduced to him- like trying to judge Coldplay by X & Y when really the first two CDs were much more brilliant.

A Paperback Writer said...

Nathan, after I did my MSc in English literature in the ivory towers of Edinburgh University, I came to the conclusion that literary fiction is what professors assign (some of it has a plot, but not if it's post-modern!), and popular ficiton is what ordinary people read.
Let me paraphrase Ian Rankin on this one (sorry, anne-marie, but Rankin puts himself right out of the literary fiction category). Rankin lives in Edinburgh -- in case you hadn't noticed from the fact that all the Rebus stories revolve around the city. One day, Rankin dropped by the uni to give a reading for Fleshmarket Close (yes, yes, I know it's Fleshmarket Alley in the States, but not in Scotland) and he told a great story about how when he was a PhD student at the U of E and had been tutoring (teaching an undergrad class), he'd taken all his students to the pub to discuss Joyce's Ulysses and how the whole book made so much sense once they were blind drunk. When he awoke the next day, he couldn't remember any of what had made so much sense before, and he asked himself, "Do I want to write stuff like this or do I want to write the kind of thing my dad reads?"
He quit his PhD studies to continue the Rebus series (he'd already published the first one when this happened), and we know the rest of the story.
Therefore, I propose Rankin's definition: literary fiction is like Joyce and popular fiction is like Rankin.

Anne-Marie said...

I love the story, paperback writer! I think Rankin is brilliant, personally. I'd have no qualms calling him literary, even against his will.

Bryan D. Catherman said...


I've always loved this debate. I tend to fall back on the, "I know it when I see it" argument, but I think you've done a nice job explaining it here. Thanks!

Bryan Catherman

B.E. Sanderson said...

Interesting topic today, Nathan. As always, informative and useful.

Thank you.

whitemouse said...

Weird. I was just thinking about this recently.

To me, literary fiction uncovers a truth or brings the reader (via the main character) to an understanding about life. I wouldn't have called it plot, but I think you're right in describing it as such. There's a beginning, a progression and an ending; it's just that the buildup and resolution all happen internally.

Kim Stagliano said...

IMHO, Literary fiction makes me think long after I've closed the book. But I've read sci-fi that has affected me for 25+ years - does that make it literary? It is to me. Have you read Ray Bradbury's short story collections? They are sci-fi and yet they delve into the human condition, our frailties, fears and foibles in the most exquisite manner. Grab a copy of Farewell Summer. I dare you (aw heck, I've had my coffee I double DARE you!) not to be astounded by the depth.
So can you really put boundries on what is literary and what isn't?
Nathan, you're a delight. Love your blog.

ERozanski said...

Loved the comment that literary fiction are the books that teachers assign. As simple as it is, that is the definition I've always used.

I read over 80 YA books last year before I went on sabbatical from the library. Only one hit the literary fiction mark for me, C. Wooding's "Poison."

If you want some insight into what high school teachers consider literary fiction, check out the required summer reading lists. Books like "The Secret Life of Bees" and "The Life of Pi" have joined the ranks of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

I'm heartened that the current generation of English teachers are willing to step away from the old beloved classics and expose the students to new voices.

Demon Hunter said...

Thanks for the post! I was just trying to decipher the difference. A friend's book is debuting later this year and in my opinion, it's literary, but it is classified as commercial. Go figure. Thanks for skillfully answering my question!

Peni Griffin said...

This is an existing distinction in the traditional critical vocabulary, except that the terminology is "novel" vs. "romance." A novel is character-based; a romance in the critical sense is plot-based. This doesn't mean that novels have no plot (Defoe is critically presumed to have invented the English novel and nobody has ever accused him of that) or that romance has cardboard characters. The Lord of the Rings is a heroic romance with strong characters and Jane Eyre is a novel with a strong plot. It's the same distinction you make here with an established terminology.

I don't even have an English major and I know this from randomly reading litcrit about books I like. It just goes to show that knowledgeable people can labor to reinvent the wheel while the lucky person is already tooling along on her bike.

The bottom line is - categories are not real things. The book is real; the category is a convenient concept for discussing and cataloging things. The moment you forget this, you start the pointless subjective hairsplitting and wind up saying things like: "Elmore Leonard is literary fiction because I like him and I'm too highbrow to read commercial fiction." (You know who you are.)

Anonymous said...

Hello Nathan:

Ah, the poor soul who asked that question at the writer's conference...

A few years ago, I asked the same question to a panel of editors (of university presses no less). After eyes rolled and throats cleared, one of the gentlemen stood and spoke.

I didn't understand a word he said. I expect other frightened writers didn't either. I nodded and retreated back into my commercial fiction corner. I was an outcast.

Nevertheless, I learned a valuable lesson. Poetic souls dwell in literary fiction. I am not a poet, nor will I ever be. And there's nothing wrong with that (as Jerry Seinfeld would say).

Simple prose for intricate plots are magic in my world.

Thanks for your blog. You're terrific.

Conduit said...

Strangely, I was musing on this the other day. When the term literary fiction is used I can't help but think of middle-class navel gazing, thirty-something self-pitying angst, chin-stroking, self-satisfied, pretentious old tosh.

BUT ... I know I'm as incorrect in that generalisation as those who would never deign to read something as low-brow as Stephen King.

At the same time, I'm not a fan of genre fiction, either. I think I need elements of both. Literary genre, if you like. James Ellroy's American Tabloid, for instance, or Arthur C. Clarke's 2001.

That's why there's so little out there I like. The last book I really enjoyed in both a visceral and cerebral way was Sarah Langan's The Keeper.

On Salman Rushdie - the only novel I've read is The Satanic Verses, several years ago. I was enthralled as I read it, but when I finished I couldn't decide whether I thought it was a brilliant work of genius or pretentious twaddle. I still can't make up my mind on that one!

Anonymous said...


I think, like the others, that you nailed it. I've heard a lot of nonsense about literary fiction - some it quite mean (as if it's snobbery to assert that one's writing fits into that category) - but your definition should be in the encyclopedia!
I tried to get away with calling my manuscript "literary sci fi" in my query letters, and got no comment one way or another. When I said in a blog that I wrote a piece of "literary fiction that happens to be set in the future," wow, did I get shot down! They said I wrote sci fi and if it was well written and developed, then it was GOOD sci fi.
I may know better now - or maybe I need another re-write???

JanW said...

I think there is another side to this, at least from this novice fiction writer's perspective (moi). Until I started writing, I never gave much thought to the categories and read all sorts of different books, as much for the cover art as anything else! I'll confess, I even troll the remainder warehouses and pick randomly for exposure to things I might not pay full price for. Variety is the spice of life, so they say.

What became my dilemma was trying to peg the 'genre', or non-genre, of my first book. I just had a story to tell. It is now in a file. There are people (my friends now), place, and interactions amongst them all. Frankly, I don't care much what label it gets. I'd just like someone to consider it a story worth reading and publish it. So when I sub it, I just say it's mainstream and trust that some deconstructionist will eventually tell me what label it requires.

Anonymous said...

I've always considered literary authors to have brilliant style of writing - always enough to hold you even if you don't like the story itself - you still want to read on.

Jen said...

I feel eminently unqualified to comment on this......which has never stopped me before.
I get very confused about the different genre and subgenre in fiction. At one point, I was so frustrated with the whole thing that I took the cretin's point of view and said "I don't know Literature but I know what I like."
The idea that "Literary Fiction" is required reading is interesting to me.
I remember getting into an argument with my English teacher about what was "Literature". He insisted that Frank Herbert's "Dune" was popular sci fi and therefore, ergo, towit NOT literature.
I told him that I'd rather read Frank Herbert's religious metaphor than James Joyce's ramblings. Being a smart a**, I reminded him that Shakespeare was considered "Popular" in his day. I asked him if it was the writing that made Literature or time?
I got an "A" in that class. We never did agree.
Yes, I was a pretentious little twit. I'm all humble now that I've lost my mind, gotten older and read "Reader's Digest".

Anonymous said...

Nathan said: “Now consider literary fiction. In literary fiction the plot usually happens beneath the surface, in the minds and hearts of the characters. Things may happen on the surface, but what is really important are the thoughts, desires, and motivations of the characters as well as the underlying social and cultural threads that act upon them. The plot may be buried to such a degree (like GILEAD) that if you have to describe the book in a short sentence it seems plotless …”

Indeed, fiction with a “literary” bent, must have a strong inner world. The outer world may be flying around or dead still, but the inner world better be transforming for the literary label to apply.

Suggested exercise underscoring the point and showing it’s importance to writers trying to pitch literary fiction:

Write an agent query letter paragraph summarizing the key issues main characters grapple with and the outcomes/resolutions on those issues for works of one/more of the following authors:

- Joyce
- Dostoyevsky
- Fowles
- Kafka
- Mann
- Durrell
- Lawerence (DH)
- Malraux
- Gide
- McCarthy
- Proulx
- Ondaatje
- Morrison

Have fun. You may wind up wondering how any of these authors got published.

Anonymous said...

Just noticed the word 'art' is missing.

Maybe the question shouldn't be 'is it literary?' but 'is it 'art?'

A little harder to answer, but maybe a little easier too.

Barbara Phinney said...

We were just discussion this on an authors' loop to which I belong.
I said:
The only difference between Literary and genre writing is about 100-500 years.

BTW, great post! I'm going to bookmark you.

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

wow. good point, Mr. Bransford. yes, literaty fiction needs DO need a plot to keep the story going.

one example I can think of right now is "The Kite Runner." We're in the mind of the lead protagonist, we explore his feelings and memories of the past, but the story progresses as he goes back to Afghanistan and rescue his nephew. It's totally character-driven, but has a real nice plot to keep the story going.

"Catcher in the Rye" on the other hand, really didn't have an exact plot, to be honest. It was happening over a series of days as Caulfield headed home after being expelled from school and staying at a sleazy motel in NYC....I kept waiting for something big to happen, but it never came. The novel was really more about his emotions and never had anything to drive the story forward.

I dunno.

EddieJoe said...

Literary Fiction can also be thought of as something that tends to push against the boarders of any one definition. A type of writing that is characterized by two important traits: 1) that it is difficult to talk about what it's doing until it's finished, and 2) that when it's finished the conversation surrounding it can change and evolve over time and subsequent reads.

The power of language can be thought of as the guiding force of these works. In a famous quote Don DeLillo says that he writes word by word into the void. That frightening process, burrowing forward without knowing where your language might lead or if your efforts will result in something that works, charges the work with a special tension, I think, that is hard to find in a piece of fiction that rests safely within the bounds of its genre.

Yvette Davis said...

Dear Nathan,

But what about the language? What about the quality of the language in commercial plot-driven fiction versus literary fiction? Wouldn't you say there are more/different tools used in literary fiction? For example, the author may actually know what a simile is for, etc. You might not come across that in a commercial piece.

Also, what defines commercial fiction for me is the back-cover blurb. It starts out "character X is a high school sophomore who is normal in every way except one..." then goes on to the first "doorway" - "but when character X meets a demon slayer from Y, things go horribly wrong, etc." Then, the last paragraph goes something like: "together they must race against time to stop the xx clock from ticking so that the world's ice cream supply is safe..." and so on.

Isn't that A-B-C plot the whole basis of commercial fiction these days?

And if you don't happen to write that way, does that throw you into literary fiction? If it's character-driven in other words?

BTW Yes, The Ground Beneath Her Feet was not Salman Rushdie's best effort. Try Midnight's Children.

P.S. For some reason I cannot stand Ian Rankin's writing all that much. What is it? Too many hanging modifiers?


Thomas said...

Several people have touched upon what I think of as "literary" fiction. I think it is a novel that pushes the envelope or pushes against the conventional definitions. It also takes ideas from the past and develops this "state of the art" idea.

One way to think of it is to use architecture as an example. An architect designing 6 or 7 room cape cods that are going up as part of a real estate development versus an architect that is designing homes that are unique. These unique homes take into consideration new ideas in living, new ideas in design and new ideas in enginerering and materials.

Thomas said...

In other words, it takes the ideas of literature and develops them. You could not write a serious book about politics without mentioning Marxism, whether your conception of Marxism is positive or negative. You could not write about geo-politics or foreign affairs without treating in some way, the existence of nuclear weapons. The literary novel is about literature and works with the ideas that have developed in literature up to the present day.

I am not smart enough to understand what all those ideas are. I get, to some degree, Romanticism, Realism and Post-modernism, but in a great literary novel, there is so much more of the past and contemporary thinking about how stories, plots, characters etc are develpoed that I don't understand. The point is, in a great literary novel, this stuff is there. If, in the future, I have the time and inclination to understand the ideas contained in a great literary novel, they are there to be plumbed.

Anonymous said...

Nathan: I recently submitted my work to a writer's competition back east & I listed the genre as "commercial literary fiction" (the hybrid). I came to this decision because of the 'eureka' that came from your description, i.e. more straightforward prose, accessible, but with a deeper emotional complexity.

One of the judges (a well-known agent) commented, "If you can't figure out what your novel is, then I won't take the time to read it. And it's not my job to tell you what the genre is." He dismissed my submission w/o a page read. Nice. All that work for naught.

Now I'm hesitant in using the hybrid genre in a query letter. Your thoughts are greatly appreciated.

Nathan Bransford said...

Sorry about that, anon. It just goes to show how squishy genre labels are. I can't imagine rejecting someone just because I disagreed with how they categorized their book, but I guess some agents do.

Anonymous said...

It's all opinion. It's commercial and popular if most people with the price of a book in their pocket buy it.
It's literary fiction if only a few people with the price of a book in their pocket buy it.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous who said...
"Nathan: I recently submitted my work to a writer's competition back east & I listed the genre as "commercial literary fiction" (the hybrid). I came to this decision because of the 'eureka' that came from your description, i.e. more straightforward prose, accessible, but with a deeper emotional complexity.

One of the judges (a well-known agent) commented, "If you can't figure out what your novel is, then I won't take the time to read it. And it's not my job to tell you what the genre is." He dismissed my submission w/o a page read. Nice. All that work for naught."
An agent at a writer's conference I attended said the opening line of your pitch letter is the most important sentence. If you can make a connection in the agent's mind with something familiar to him, it gives him, or her, a better reason to read your manuscript."
So, Anonymous,next time maybe you could describe your work as "in the same genre as Elmore Leonard, Cormac McCarthy, since Nathan has pointed out that these two writers also cross the commerial/literary line. Good luck!

Mistress_of_Prose said...


I think your explanation is an accurate one. I have been trying to explain this very comment to several people recently, and they are having a hard time grasping it. You explain it much better than I have been.

Toby said...

Thanks for your blog. Very funny and useful. (Must make your agency very popular with writers.)

Toby. (named after the English beer)

Mike Morrell said...

Just want to say thank you to all contributors! This blog has helped me learn.

I've just joined a "literary" book club and - being a selective and eclectic reader of whatever's on offer - had the same question: when is a good novel a "literary" novel? Google pointed me here.

I was relieved to read that there is no distinct and generally agreed boundary between "literature" and "genre" although I recognize the basic characteristics of both. Personally, I try to avoid black and white categorisation.

Now I'm going to google "Why do some novels stand the test of time" ;)


P Leifi said...

Mr. Bransford

My name is SPC LEIFI and I am in the U.S. Army and am currently training in the DC area. On June 16, 2008 while I was deployed in Iraq, a good friend Maril Delly sent me a link with your blog for no reason that I could think of, however, I saved your information.

I am published artist with Editions Limited in Santa Rosa, CA, and create vintage jazz posters for them that they sell worldwide to all the major retailers. I also have my own art publishing company that produces WW2 type posters for the families of fallen service members from the the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns.
I am currently writing several books and I have some questions about your services.
One book in particular is a novel regarding a soldier suffering from PTSD. I have taken all my military experiences and the experiences of families that I have worked with to create this book.

I don't have an online work for the art I do for my publisher, however you can do a google search on my name and some websites will come up.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Barbara Ruth Saunders said...

This explanation is thought-provoking. There's another sort of book I've seen, though - one that uses the action-orientation and prose style of genre fiction but attempts to make the kinds of "deeper" statements about life that might be expected in "literary" books. (This approach usually does not work for my taste!)

cassandra tribe said...

I dip in and read your blog from time to time and it is always interesting. Today I burst out laughing when I got to your aside about The House of Sand and Fog.

Without regret I also admit that I didn't even watch the awards show although I am given to understand that Celine Dion is now akin to a space station and we can go see her in 3D.

Look forward to reading more.

Julie said...

Full disclosure before I comment on literary/commercial: I love the Oscars. Watch every minute, every year. Like it when interviewers and MC's are NOT snarky, when all involved act like a community of supportive artists just a little embarrassed by the bling and the competitive nature of awards. Love all the clips and love making a list of movies I haven't seen and want to see. Always feel pleased when a movie that takes some brain-power beats a more "commercial" (AHA! There's my bias showing...) movie.

Sometimes I think trying to decide what the label for your fiction is is just one more way to procrastinate. And I don't think the writers whose work will last spend too much time worrying about it. They have stories to tell, and they tell them their way. If a story is boring, whether it's commercial or literary, you've got a problem.

It amazes me to see Salinger, Rushdie and Joyce getting slammed. Unique they are (I like the idea of "unique" being one line fiction must cross to move from commerical to literary)and strange they might be, but boring they are not. We should be so lucky to write even their worst books.

One other quick thought: Taking pot shots at professors who are hoping their students will read a few challenging books before heading out to put bread on the table and read Tom Clancy (nothing wrong with that, it's true)- that's kind of crass. And it smacks of a certain ex-president who bragged about not reading at all. Jabs at academics is a popular sport in America - you don't see it abroad, and I'm puzzled by it.

kbh said...

I’m out here cruising the Internet looking for definitions for literary fiction and came across your blog. Saw your picture and convinced myself that a handsome, young, man couldn’t have much to say to me on the subject. But, your comments on the Academy Awards caught my eye. Then your acid sense of humor tantalized. Having just read about a zillion descriptions of the term, the genre, the square pegs in round holes theory – and our tendency to define something new --and be open to stretching the precedents of writing and how immediately others start deciding what doesn’t fit. I’d have to say, all stereotypes aside, you’ve offered a description I can live with. I think it nails my writing to a tee. Explains a great deal to me after years of just trying to get the voices in my head onto paper. No sarcasm intended. I’ll have to bookmark you. Maybe query you someday if I can get past my own biased self-perception of being an old white lady with a story that’s not chic lit, a mystery novel, science fiction, or strictly memoir. Thanks for that!

1bigmick said...

Would you say it's possible for a literary work to be a genre within a genre. That is, is it merely a style? Could All The Pretty Horses be a piece of literary fiction within western genre?

LeAnne said...

Oh my gosh, thank you so much for this. I now realize that my book is a hybrid rather than just straight out literary fiction. I’ve been asking myself for a while if my book was truly literary fiction with all of the things that happen in the plot, but you cleared this up nicely for me.I was feeling guilty because the emotional depth of my characters was tossed in with a mysterious plot in which a lot actually does happen, but now I see that it's just commercial literary fiction. *wanders off and picks up a pen again*

Autism Mom Rising said...

I read non-fiction and listen to literary fiction on audio. While I love the lilting turn of well written prose, if the story is not character driven my attention span fades. I make exceptions on certain fiction authors whose work is character driven and I read those books rather than listen on audio.

Robert Scott Lawrence said...

I tend to think the distinction is a bit of an artificial construct. We can all agree that there is plenty of unfortunately-written commercial fiction that makes the best seller lists, but there is also a great deal of high-quality genre fiction that has literary merit -- think Ken Bruen, James Lee Burke, Peter Robinson, to name just a few. Given 5 minutes I'm sure you, or I, or anyone who does a lot of reading could easily come up with three or four pages of great contemporary writers who have managed to get published and develop a following among the literary-minded. Andre Dubus, Michael Chabon, Jonathon Lethem, T.C. Boyle, etcetera etcetera, almost ad infinitum.

The idea of a literary novel qua literary novel always brings thoughts to mind of Mrs. Dalloway, or Ulysses, or not-so-popular-but-well-regarded-among-writer types like Lydia Davis -- where the author is pushing the edges of what is (or was) deemed to be the traditional format, and the reader is required to have (and use) some brainpower in order to keep up. Literary, in this context, means "esoteric," and is almost by default defined as having little appeal to the common reader -- so Nicholson Baker's extended experiment about breaking a shoelace would qualify as literary, while Jasper Fforde's hilarious The Eyre Affair -- chock full of literary references -- somehow comes under the catch-all category of contemporary fiction.

I agree with you that the novel in which nothing much happens, and in which the story is in the interior life of the characters, seems to be a much harder sell these days, but there are still so many great writers out there (more every day, it feels like) that I still feel like a kid in a candy store when I walk into my local bookstore (Rakestraw Books) and browse the aisles randomly picking up new novels from authors I've never heard of. For all the pap out there, the Murakamis and the China Mievilles of the world still seem to be finding a way to get published.

jim said...

I can tell you what it's not: it's not some starlit's account of how many drugs she took while pulling in an insane amount of money; it's not some "reality" star's whining about how badly he/she was treated by the producer's of their insipid show; and it's not the "life story" of Justin Bieber. (really-that's going to be published. Really) Do I sound perplexed at what does get published?

ClareWB said...

Thanks again, Nathan, for illumination. I do think, though, that literary fiction also means good--as in REALLY GOOD writing. For instance: Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay"--lots of action plus a happy ending.

Divya said...

Nathan - Your idea about the plot lying below the surface in literary fiction has really helped me out in a research paper I am doing for school, but I was advised to reference other writers or organizations which have the same idea, along with you, so that my argument has some weight. Please could you direct me to sources which also put across the idea of plot being the focus in commercial fiction and character development being the focus in 'real literature'? :)

Anonymous said...

Personally, a novel is 'literary' if it displays exceptional skill in the crafting of a story, both in the language and technique. But it should also leave us with ideas that are extraordinary, that pleasure us and give us emotional satisfaction. Great novels stay with us all our lives.

Chloe Sencounter said...

Hi Everyone, thoroughly enjoyed reading your comments regarding literary fiction and as a result would really appreciate any suggestions you could make on mine.

It's a kind of digital/interactive multi conciousness layered and complex theory in action. And it's meant to be witty!

The basic story involves a Middle aged woman in Britain who makes a wish to be a Fairy Godmother and grant wishes to deserving people who come to ask while she's in her favourite chat rooms on AOL.

She encourages those who'd like to make people happy, if they're GOOD, to support her.

Imagine that?

A Real Fairy Godmother?

What would YOU Do?

I love depth psychology and paralinguistics along with Neo-Stoicsm and of course... Postmodernism.

(what's life with a few ism's anyway?)

Chloe Sencounter

Diane Thomas said...

Thank you, thank you. Had been wondering the same thing myself. Love the "commercial literary fiction" designation. Gives us all someplace to put the books we can't decide about. Does raise the spectre, though, that most literary fiction is not commercial. I may be somewhat gun shy, having just come from reading a poetry blog that said that, basically, literary novelists ought to downsize our economic expectations and regard our work as poets do theirs, as something between an addiction and a hobby (my paraphrase). Ah, well, we do what we do. As for me, I had to put off writing literary fiction until I retired, was lucky to get publisihed, and now have a wonderful second career. Wish I had known at twenty this was what I wanted to do and gone the MFA track.

Paul Dillon said...


Great post! You've probably got the elevator pitch answer to "What's literary fiction?" down by now. I just finished my first novel which would not fit into any genre. When asked about genre, I have to go with literary fiction but, as you point out, that's such a nebulous term. I like your idea about the plot being below the surface. I need to work on a cool 10 second explanation.


Koala Bear Writer said...

Thank you - this is one of the best explanations for "literary fiction" that I've found. I've struggled with defining it myself but I like what say about interior/exterior plot. That and go read a bunch of literary novels - you'll get a "feeling" about what's different from genre fiction, but you've put that "feeling" into words here.

Anonymous said...

Now the question is, are there rules for writing genre fiction that do not apply to literary fiction? Specifically, is it okay if your first chapter spends a great deal of time on backstory?

Mark Beyer said...

Nathan — you've struck it spot on. There is plenty of genre fiction out there that indeed works as literature (early Peter Straub; sci-fi's Larry Niven). Plot is not paramount to literary fiction, yet its importance for story movement makes even the densest work (eg, Joyce) brings you along to the next scene.

I'll take your definition one step further: scene development drives any story, be it internal or out in the world; and good characters should, for the literary novel especially (but not exclusively), drive story movement and pacing.

Ang said...

Thank you for writing this blog!! I'm in a fiction writing class at my university, and on the first day, the teacher informed us that no genre fiction would be accepted, that we had to writ literary fiction. My first response was, "What the heck is literary fiction???" She didn't have a good answer for me; she just told me to read the stories in our text and I would see. However, even after reading your blog, I still have no clue how I'm going to write literary fiction, when I mainly read and write genre fiction. Your blog has helped clear up some of my questions. Now the only question I have left: How do I write literary fiction???

Thanks for your blog, though! It was great!

Anonymous said...

Great points!

You wrote of literary writing: It requires empathy to relate to characters as humans...

I think that the same applies to "commercial" fiction. I can't read anything unless I can relate to the characters at some level.

* said...

I think it could be classified as 'default' fiction, which would then be a sort of non-classification, or in Plato's world, it would exist as the form of fiction. One could say that it is the glove of fiction, but not the shoe, since the shoe is too close to the ground. Fiction must fly and be a flying glove, fitting or fit for the perfect hand.

RBM said...

loved reading your post... i was cud-chewing on the idea of 'what makes literary fiction literary' from the moment i got up today... there was a floating world of views in my mind... thanks to your post it is a little more crystalline in nature now... but i need to delve deeper into the question... once i come to a conclusion (which may take a long time), let's have a freewheeling chat on it... what say?

Heather said...

So often when I am searching for the answer to random questions (maybe procrastinating on writing a difficult scene...) one of your blog posts shows up and I know it will be worth my time. I was nodding throughout this post. I've been wondering what makes literary fiction vs. commercial and your explanation makes so much sense.

Linda Lee Williams said...

Some of my favorite novels combine commercial fiction with literary fiction. When I read Steinbeck's East of Eden, I realized I had landed in the sweet spot between the two. The plot hums along quietly while the characters negotiate their way through the world. The emotion is powerful, and the narrative sweeps you away. When a story draws you in for no apparent reason, you have crossed over into the literary realm.

kpinella said...

I agree with your definition. I have read such types of novels and they are an enjoyable read when they have beautiful prose and a good plot.

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