Literary fiction is a term universally used to describe “serious fiction” that carries some type of literary merit. While the typical characteristics of fiction pieces, such as plot, are present in literary works, these works tend to place more emphasis on style and depth. Overall, literary fiction is not published as often or as widespread as genre fiction, but there is still a market for its authors and readers.
Although some critics, reviewers, publishers, and even writers describe literary fiction as having no plot, a plot generally is present. Oftentimes, the plot is overshadowed by the stronger characteristics of literary fiction. These characteristics can include an intense focus on the writing style, psychological depth, and what is going on with each character. Other kinds of fiction usually have straightforward plots driven by the characters and their actions, motives, or intentions, and readers can pinpoint these plots with little effort. Literary fiction, on the other hand, employs its characteristics to make its readers work to understand the plot.
One way to more easily distinguish literary fiction from other types of fiction is to compare those characteristics. For example, popular fiction, also known as genre fiction, tends to focus more on the narrative and plot of the story. This does not mean popular fiction lacks characteristics like psychological depth, but it does mean this kind of fiction usually does not focus as much on these traits as it does on developing the narrative and plot of the stories. Generally, genre fiction sticks to a particular genre and such focus on the narrative and plot helps readers more effortlessly recognize that genre. Examples of genre or popular fiction include romances or love stories, horrors, and mysteries.
When comparing literary fiction to popular fiction, it becomes easier to spot other, more superficial characteristics. For example, literary works tend to have less direct titles than popular pieces. “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” by J.K. Rowling is an example of a genre work with a direct title, whereas “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee is an example of a literary work with an indirect title. Another kind of surface characteristic is the language each type of fiction uses. Popular fiction tends to use more mainstream, contemporary language, whereas literary pieces use more complicated words.
Generally, literary fiction comes in the form of a novel, novella, or short story. Many literary publishers publish fewer pieces of literary works than they do popular fiction. They also tend to put out smaller quantities of those pieces they do publish. This does not mean writers should avoid literary works, nor does it mean there is no hope of becoming published. More likely, it means the publishers are merely responding to their customers’ demands.