Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Literary Fiction

see also escapist fiction; Classic, Popular, & Representative Literature; science fiction

from Wikipedia, "Literary Fiction": Literary fiction, also known as serious fiction, is a term principally used for fictional works that hold literary merit, that is to say, they . . . offer deliberate social commentary or political criticism, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition. Literary fiction is deliberately written in dialogue with existing works . . . . Literary fiction is focused more on themes than on plot, and it is common for literary fiction to be taught and discussed in schools and universities.

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

Some describe the difference between them in terms of analyzing reality (literary) rather than escaping reality (paraliterary).

The contrasts between these two subsets of fiction is highly controversial among critics and scholars who study literature.

Dr. White's notes: The Wikipedia definition is adequate and representative except for these additional considerations:

Literary fiction pays careful attention to and develops language and style in contrast to popular literature, where language speaks familiarly but without conscious development of literary antecedents or influence.  (See above: "Literary fiction is deliberately written in dialogue with existing works . . . .")

Literary fiction develops mixed, complex, deep, or rounded characters in contrast to formula fiction's familiar cast of honorable heroes, sneering villains, faithful servants, and hunks or babes as love interests who resemble recent movie stars rather than people we might really know or be.

Popular and genre fiction provides familiar formulas tweaked or updated to conform to new cultural symbols (like new cars or weapons) and reward popular expectations. Popular fiction meets you where you are and rarely takes you further. 

In contrast, literary fiction consciously forces language and style to evolve to capture what has not yet been entirely absorbed or comprehended by popular consciousness, so that readers learn while they read or experience new ways of perceiving a perpetually-changing reality (whose stages of development can be learned by studying classic literature).

Comparisons / contrasts of popular and literary elements


pop or genre fiction

literary fiction

characterization virtuous hero (though perhaps with mildly haunted past); sexually attractive-elusive love-interest;
villain as unfeeling patriarch, institution, or dishonorable rival; "faithful servant" helpers to hero;
bad-guy minions repressed and scorned by villain
struggling hero attempting not to duplicate past but to capture elusive possibilities; villain as comparatively conflicted figure whose failures threaten to infect others; love interests as vulnerable companions.
plot / narrative / action    




audience appeal escapism, fantasy, problem- or puzzle-solving  
  pop or genre fiction literary fiction


Additional sources:

Novel Writing Help: What is Literary Fiction (and What sets it Apart)?

April Line, "Why isn't Literary Fiction getting more Attention?"

Moira Allen, "What is Literary Fiction? Writing Editors share their Views" Writing-World.Com

thanks to