What is Literary Fiction?

What is literary fiction? Is it obscure, avant-garde experimental fiction that only literary critics and professors read? Better yet, can literary fiction be conventional? Is it fiction that sells less than commercial or popular fiction? These are questions I’ve been trying to answer lately.

Can works from authors like Stephen King be considered literary fiction? Too many literary critics and ‘experts’ say no. I’m not so sure I agree with them. Literary fiction, as the term has been commonly used since the 1960s, is stories which the language is usually heady (or heavy), literary devices are utilized more often, there’s usually a greater amount of imagery, the characters are highly developed, and the story line is more complicated and detailed. If this is, in fact, the typical criteria for literary fiction then several ‘conventional’ authors fit the bill.

Tolstoy for example, in his day, was a conventional writer, and used obvious linear narratives; John Steinbeck did the same, as did Faulkner and Hemingway. And much, if not all, of their work is considered ‘great literature.’ However, Thomas Pynchon, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, fit the above criteria for literary fiction and do not fall into what is known as commercial or conventional writers. Moreover, they are not read as widely, but are still considered great literature.

It seems that the literary boat is much larger than initially imagined, or wanted, as the case may be, for those literary snobs who tend to snub commercial/conventional writers. Like any other art form, literature is relative to the audience. Who actually decides what is ‘great literature’ and what is merely commercial stuff that simply sells well? Time seems to be one of the greatest determiners. Works that stand the test of time but were not considered ‘great literature’ in their day, are now, in fact, called great works of literature; wide audiences over time have made it so. Then there are works that literary critics have declared ‘great literature,’ time has tested these works, and they are still read and have withstood over the years, while others have not.

I say all that to say that ‘great literature’ is, I think, a relative term. Sure we can read a work and tell right away that it is more sophisticated than another (e.g. Twilight versus Infinite Jest, perhaps an extreme example but it does proves my point) and we can certainly tell when a story line contains greater detail, uses sophisticated language/style, and such.

Nonetheless, to reduce a work to merely commercial/conventional and not consider it great because of its genre (i.e. Sci-Fi, Western, etc.), style, or narrative type certainly seems to miss the point of reading what we like (remember, I said I think tastes for various works of fiction are relative to the reader). Moreover, it takes away from the joy of reading great stories and reduces those works shunned by literary snobs to would be ‘second rate’ works, when in fact they may be far greater in the long run than many previously expected.