“What’s that?”: On Literary Fiction Part 1

Picture of old books







And that’s how a little old lady taught me to understand the message and the genius of literary fiction.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…
One day at work, I told this little old lady at my bar that I was a writer. 

“Oh, really.  What do you write about?” she said.


“No, I mean, what kind of writing is it?  Mystery, romance…”

“Literary fiction.”

“Oh,” she said, glancing at her soup spoon.  “What is that?”

Writing as long as I have, I’m used to this.  “Kinda like Stephen King without the horror or the suspense.  Like The Body or Shawshank Redemption.  Stories about everyday life.”

“Oh,” she replied, suddenly enthralled with her vegetable soup.

I became a bit disappointed that she didn’t want to hear more about me or my writing or my ideas (like any young writer’s ego would be) and so I shrugged it off.

But writing about the moment now, I’ve realized a few things that were wrong about this response.  First, I misrepresented what literary fiction was.  It’s much more vast, complex, and creative than any such bite-sized comparisons such as ‘stories of everyday life’ or ‘King without the horror’.  Second, it addressed style instead of form; or more specifically, my own style instead of the overall form of the genre, which is what I think she was asking.  Third, it doesn’t answer the question at all.

And finally, fourth, and the most nagging, why did I respond with this canned answer?

For now, it’s time to address the little old lady’s question, “What is that?”  What is literary fiction?

Some answers.

Literary Fiction is the study of the human condition

It was something she knew before I did—all fiction is about the human condition.  Every genre depicts the human condition, every piece of writing shows our fingerprints.  And no matter how small or corny or pulpy the genre is, it’s going for the big questions, because art itself goes for the big questions—why are we here, who are we, how am I different?  From E.L. James’s whipping and grunting to G.R.R. Martin’s killing and grunting, it’s all fiction and fiction deals with the human condition.  The only difference between all the other genres and literary fiction is one of focus.  Genre fiction diffuses the focus into plot points, suspense, fantastical settings, and other worlds.  Literary fiction just has itself and focuses on life internally and externally.  It is a part of all genres and when stripped of their rules, still retains itself.

Literary fiction is all about the language

This is what people imply about literary fiction as a ‘hard’ read by calling every book that isn’t literary fiction an ‘easy’ one.  Language is a code your brain deciphers into mind images.  The general rule is that genre’s language is more utilitarian while literary fiction is more poetic, complex, and daring.  It is an art form in itself.  The Great Gatsby, one of the best examples of the novel in American literary history, is just a really, really good play if it wasn’t for the beautiful, complex language, both in its word usage and its sentence structure.  Where genre fiction focuses on plot or actions or characters while using language as a vehicle to tell it, literary fiction is framed in the beauty and complexity of language.  Language is more than a vehicle in literary fiction, it is an art form itself.

Literary fiction goes deep

Moby Dick is just another one of Herman’s sea voyages if it wasn’t for the Why of Ahab’s madness.  Literary fiction stops to contemplate, observing and judging.  It delves deep into the minds and consciences of its characters.  Genre fiction can get deep, but risking either losing the pace of the plot or losing the readers’ attention, who themselves don’t expect to be asked such deep questions in the middle of a court case or a dragon fight.  Literary fiction was built for being deep.

Literary fiction kicks ass

There’s something about scanning a row of books in the Fiction section of a bookstore and looking for that subtitle ‘A Novel’ that sends my heart aflutter.  Then I’m looking at the novel’s title and at its cover and glancing at the blurb, while all the while thinking, Ooo!  It’s about a family.  What about it, what about it?!

Literary fiction is a yearning to understand, to discover, to reflect, and to witness, but above all, it’s simply a yearning.  When I tell people literary fiction is about life and everyday people, what I mean to say is that, through this art form, these dramatic, fucked up, conflicted characters are nothing like me but are just like me; and the way it’s told to me through their actions, their words, and their descriptions is more beautiful, more complex, and more surreal than anything I could ever do, say, see, or feel but is exactly as I can do, say, see or feel in this world I’m living in right this second.

In other words, I am literary art.  We all are.  And we are better than one romance, one mystery, one science fiction, one non-fiction, or one fantasy.  We are all of that.  We are better.


So that’s literary fiction .

So why do I still feel a little unsatisfied?  It’s because there’s that question unanswered still—why did I use that canned answer for that little old lady when she asked me ‘What’s that?’.  Why use Stephen King and ‘everyday people’?  But I know the answer, don’t I?  And I know it’s a difficult one to answer, probably the most difficult one I’ve ever had to answer.

That, my friends, is the rest of the story.

Next Wednesday.


Please leave a comment, on this piece, my blog, or any suggestions! Thank you!



4 thoughts on ““What’s that?”: On Literary Fiction Part 1

  1. I definitely benefitted from this post…and learned. I feel literary fiction is simple and magnificent at the same time. When we are treated to the skeleton of human condition, we discover magnificent aspects of ourselves and of humanity. I am probably someone who thought I knew what literary fiction was and this post taught me that I was missing some essential points! I think I even have a new frame of mind for my next literary fiction read. And hey who knows. Now that you’re doing this blog, that little old lady may just stumble across this post or someone who read it. Six degrees of separation isn’t just a saying you know. 😉


  2. I enjoyed this post so much. I have not been writing perhaps as long as you have been but one thing I always struggled with is to know what exactly is this genre that keeps calling me back to it. I know that it is literary fiction but being able to define it without writing a story to do so has always been a challenge. This post strips away some of the elitist overtones and reminds us that writing is about storytelling and literary fiction chooses to tells the story of a moment or a condition, putting its focus and intensity on those elusive intervals in the human experience. It was a lovely piece. Thank you!


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