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Literary Fiction: Light and Fluffy, This Fiction Genre Ain’t

Starting out our lengthy list of fiction genres is literary fiction.

If you go into Barnes & Noble or your local bookstore, you’re probably not going to find a specific set of bookshelves marked for literary fiction. These novels will be thrown in there willy-nilly with Iris Johansen’s thrillers and Jane Green's chicklit.


Editor’s Note: Neither of the mentioned names are endorsements. They’re just popular examples.


Yet they’re a very, very, very different breed of fiction from either one, as shown in this week’s Definition.

Literary Fiction:

The best way to describe a literary fiction novel is to call it a modern-day classic. It’s going to be a recently written fiction-category book that reads rather like Ernest Hemingway or Kate Chopin came back to life.

Literary fiction is also known as “serious fiction” since it addresses “serious topics” in “serious manners.” Perhaps it covers man’s struggle to create a worthwhile legacy or follows woman’s quest to define life’s true meaning. But whatever the focus, literary fiction is written to make readers think about the writer’s worldview.

Consider The House Girl, by Tara Conklin.


Editor’s Note: This isn’t a recommendation either. It’s just a novel I happened to read in 2016. If you want my honest opinion about the book, shoot me an email. The following author-approved, publishing company-posted description on Amazon isn’t Innovative Editing’s endorsement in any way, shape or form. It’s just a convenient example.


The House Girl, the historical fiction debut by Tara Conklin, is an unforgettable story of love, history, and a search for justice, set in modern-day New York and 1852 Virginia.

Weaving together the story of an escaped slave in the pre-Civil War South and a determined junior lawyer, The House Girl follows Lina Sparrow as she looks for an appropriate lead plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking compensation for families of slaves. In her research, she learns about Lu Anne Bell, a renowned prewar artist whose famous works might have actually been painted by her slave, Josephine.

Featuring two remarkable, unforgettable heroines, Tara Conklin’s The House Girl is riveting and powerful, literary fiction at its very best.

Did you notice how the novel gets called “historical fiction” in the opening sentence and “literary fiction” at the end? Believe it or not, that wasn’t a slip-up on the publishing company’s part. Literary fiction can be anything it wants to be.

As we’ll be exploring in Thursday’s Challenge and Friday’s Writing Rule, it’s more about how the character is presented to readers and with what writing style.

Truth be told, this genre typically doesn’t do as well in mainstream circles unless it gets on Oprah’s book list. Then it takes off. (Though so does every other novel, no matter the genre, that’s fortunate enough to find its way to her positive proclamation.)

That’s because literary fiction isn’t written for fun. It’s about as far from light beach reading as a reader can get without entering into the stodgy textbook realm.

This genre almost always feels heavy because it’s meant to feel heavy.

Some examples you might recognize would be:

  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera

  • Yann Martel’s Life of Pi

  • Ian McEwan’s Atonement

  • Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief

So if you’re going to write the next big literary fiction hit, you need to have a really, really, really attention-grabbing premise. Something edgy or unique enough to get you noticed by a publishing personality that matters.

And then you have to have a character strong enough to carry your literary fiction all the way.

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