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Literary fiction is fiction that has value and merit in the social world.

Learn about what makes fiction ‘literary’ through descriptions and famous examples.

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Definition of Literary Fiction

You have probably heard of fiction – the branch of literature with made up stories and characters. What you may not know is that not all fiction is considered ‘literary.

Literary fiction is universally understood as symbolic or thematic fiction that critics consider to have ‘literary merit.’ In other words, it is a story that tries to be bigger than the story itself. To do this, literary fiction must comment on something that is considered significant, such as social or political issues, or the human condition.

Critics of literary fiction usually contrast it to genre fiction, or fiction that is written to be popular to a mass audience. The main difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is their reliance on plot. While genre fiction is driven by plot, literary fiction is less about its plot and more about the value of its commentary. A great way to look at the distinction is to remember that genre fiction tries to help you escape reality, while literary fiction tries to get you to open up to your reality.

Characteristics

So, what are some characteristics of literary fiction?Literary fiction can be described as layered with inner stories and subtext. Its characters tend to be complex, because the literary fiction examines character motivations and thoughts in order to get the readers emotionally invested.

For this reason, the pacing tends to be slow as to make room for such character development.The writing style of literary fiction is typically elegant, with language that is elevated or poetic, as it focuses more on discovery and truth rather than entertaining readers or solving problems. And its tone is usually serious, because the truths literary fiction grapples with try to get readers thinking about universal issues like faith, human tragedy, and purpose.

Literary Examples

You have probably read at least a couple of works of literary fiction in your lifetime; because of their literary merit, these books are often assigned by high school English teachers. Here are two examples of novels that will help to exemplify what ‘literary merit’ can look like.First, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Published in the early 20th century, Joyce incorporates autobiographical information to create the very complex and realistic protagonist, Stephen.

The story follows Stephen as he struggles through questions of faith, politics, and life as an artist. Here’s an excerpt from Joyce’s novel that demonstrates the language and thoughtfulness of Stephen:’Stephen turned towards his companion and looked at him for a moment boldly in the eyes. Lynch, recovering from his laughter, answered his look from his humbled eyes. The long slender flattened skull beneath the long pointed cap brought before Stephen’s mind the image of a hooded reptile. The eyes, too, were reptile-like in glint and gaze. Yet at that instant, humbled and alert in their look, they were lit by one tiny human point, the window of a shrivelled soul, poignant and self-embittered.

‘There are many reasons why this novel is considered to have ‘literary merit.’ Notice the multiple layers revealed in Stephen. Though he is standing with a friend, the scene takes place in his thoughts. Through his thoughts, readers can begin to see his suffering and his struggle to understand the world around him. Joyce uses Stephen’s thoughts to develop a very complex character.Also notice the elevated language (‘shrivelled soul,’ ‘self-embittered’) and poetic descriptions (comparing his friend to a serpent with humbled eyes).

This style of writing helps to establish the novel’s commentary on universal truths, truth like human suffering and questioning faith.For a second example, let’s take a look at Life of Pi by Yann Martel. This novel, published in 2001, is about a young boy named Pi who’s stranded at sea for 227 days with a tiger he calls Richard Parker. The novel explores Pi’s extraordinary survival through emotional and spiritual epiphanies. Here is an excerpt from the novel to demonstrate Pi’s questioning and suffering:’And what of my extended family – birds, beasts and reptiles? They too have drowned. Every single thing I value in life has been destroyed. And I am allowed no explanation? I am to suffer hell without any account from heaven? In that case, what is the purpose of reason, Richard Parker? Is it no more than to shine at practicalities – the getting of food, clothing and shelter? Why can’t reason give greater answers? Why can we throw a question further than we can pull in an answer? Why such a vast net if there’s so little fish to catch?’Life of Pi is considered literary fiction because of its exploration of human truths, truth like questioning faith and reason, and its deep and complex character development.

The story comes to be more about Pi and his growth as a human rather than the plot. From the excerpt, notice how elevated the language is for such a young boy (‘I am to suffer,’ ‘to shine at practicalities’). Also, notice the questioning that takes place (‘Why can’t reason give greater answers?’).

Through Pi, writer Martel unearths questioning that goes beyond the character. These questions are ones we, as humans, all ask ourselves.If you are interested in reading literary fiction, here is a short list of other critically acclaimed novels: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D.

Salinger, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Animal Farm by George Orwell, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz.

Lesson Summary

Literary fiction is a fictitious story that is considered to have literary merit by critics. In order for a book to have literary merit, it must incorporate universal themes and symbolism that reveals a human truth. To do this, literary fiction relies on character development rather than plot, unlike ‘genre fiction’ whose main focus is to solve the plot’s problems and appeal to a mass audience.

Literary fiction can be described as having a story that is layered, with elevated and poetic language, slow pacing, serious tones, and complex characters. Some great examples of literary fiction still talked about today are A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce and Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

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