What Is a Literary Novel?

The definition of literary

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Sanjida O’Connell, a literary author based in the UK. Her latest book is out in paperback, Sugar Island.


The Literary Novel. We all know one when we see it, although deciphering what it is or telling someone else how to spot one is problematic.

In a tautological definition, literary works are often defined as those that win literary awards, such as the Booker Prize for Fiction. Which would rule out any novels written before 1969 being classed as literary. Another definition is that this type of fiction is “writerly”—clearly nonsense since every book is, by definition, writerly—someone wrote it, after all!

Recently a number of critics, publishers and publicists have suggested that literary fiction is simply a genre, like crime or chick lit and should be marketed as such (to ever decreasing readers, according to April Line in her guest post here, Why Isn’t Literary Fiction Getting More Attention.

I am defined and marketed as a literary author, although I have never won the Booker. I didn’t set out to be in this genre, but now 15 years since the first of my four novels was published, I’ve been wondering exactly what it is that makes a book literary.

First, for me, is that it should be Intellectual. A literary novel is about ideas. It has an overarching theme distinct from the narrative and a leitmotif running through it. The theme of my first novel, Theory of Mind (perhaps too densely cluttered with ideas), was on the nature of empathy viewed through the prism of a young boy with Asperger’s syndrome, a sociopathic boyfriend, a robotics expert and the emotional life of a bunch of chimpanzees.

A.S. Byatt, who famously won the Booker for Possession and who “wept and wept” when her publishers asked her to remove chunks of Victorian prose and poetry, said that she had accepted her novel would only be read by academics and that she imagined she would certainly “fall into the intellectually challenging box.”

Linked to their intellectual side, I think literary works have Depth. Of course, novels with great plots usually have sub-plots too, but I’m talking about the interweaving of ideas, themes, plot, and sub-plots. My third novel, The Naked Name of Love, took me ten years from concept to publication and that, plus the Big Ideas (God, evolution and love), helped give it depth. My fourth, Sugar Island (out in paperback this March), was written much more quickly and I believe it has less depth. It wasn’t just the time it took to write but also the themes. Sugar Island deals with slavery, with freedom and free will, and because as a society we find slavery abhorrent, there is perhaps less to explore since the issues are so much more black and white for us than they were at the start of the American Civil War.

Critics often say that literary novels are about Character and commercial “mainstream” fiction is about plot. This seems a bit of a simplification. I do think literary novels should have fantastic characters, but the best books all have fantastic plots too. For me, in a literary work, the plot stems from the characters. The main character behaves in a particular way because that is who he or she is and it is their key character traits that drive the plot. Thrillers, for instance, can often have a plot that is external to the character. I’m exaggerating, but in this genre almost anyone could be the “hero” and go through the same process. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a classic example of a pulse-quickening, page-turner, but would seeing into Robert Langdon’s soul help move the plot along?

And last but not least is Style. I think we all expect a classic novel to be written in such beautiful prose it makes you want to weep, pause and stare at the sky or feel the words rolling through your mind like pebbles smoothed by the sea. Again, this is not to say that novels in other genres do not need to think about style but the prose can be more workman-like if plot is the driver. Take Stephanie Myers’ Twilight Saga. Supremely popular, these books do not fit into the literary fiction category. They do have interesting characters, they contain ideas (about the nature of vampires and vampire-human hybrids), they reference literature (Tennyson, Wuthering Heights, Romeo and Juliet), but they are predominantly plot-driven, the prose is on the workman-like side, the characters are not deep and the books lack depth. They’re still a great read.

So what I’m saying is literary books are not better than any other type of book and elements of what makes literary fiction literary are found in most novels. But if literary fiction is what rocks your world, then go for Wuthering Heights.

How do you define literary fiction?


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Sanjida O'Connell

Sanjida O'Connell

Dr. Sanjida O’Connell is a writer based in Bristol in the UK. She’s had four works of non-fiction and four novels published: Theory of Mind, Angel Bird (by Black Swan), The Naked Name of Love, and Sugar Island (John Murray).

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60 Comments on "What Is a Literary Novel?"

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Jessica A. Kent
4 years 3 months ago
I’ve often attempted to characterize literary fiction; you’ve done well in capturing the elements of what make literary fiction what it is, and how it stands apart.  I’ve always gravitated towards the idea of developing really great characters, putting them in a room together, and seeing what happens – plot based on how character conflict moves it along, not characters created to move along the plot.  I see that as a big element.  Also probing those deep thoughts or constructing intellectual space within the novel (i.e., Melville’s chapters upon chapters of whale biology and whiteness) is elemental for literary fiction. … Read more »
Sanjida O'Connell
4 years 3 months ago

 Thank you! Very insightful comments.

Where I get stuck is exactly with your last comment, how challenging to make a piece of writing.  My tendency is not to explain too much but let the reader work it out herself – readers are intelligent, right?

But publishers seem to want more explanation to make the work accessible to a lower reading level and therefore more commercial.

Bonnee
4 years 3 months ago

I get confused by the term every time I hear it, it sounds like it’s doubling up on itself. But fair enough, I think I get where you’re coming from. I don’t think it’s a matter of whether or not it’s better than other genres in writing, because let’s face it; the bottom line is whether it is an individual reader’s preference, and whether the individual book is written to that reader’s taste… right? 

Sanjida O'Connell
4 years 3 months ago

 Right!

But I guess novels that are ‘literary’ may be more likely to stand the test of time. I’m thinking of novels that we view as ‘classics’  now but may not have been viewed as literary when they were written, e.g. Dickens; Austen. We’ll just have to hang around a few more decades and see what’s still in print…!

Stuart Ayris
Stuart Ayris
4 years 3 months ago

This is a wonderful article. Thank you for defining a genre that is a mystery to many but a joy to those who write within it. Cheers!

Sanjida O'Connell
4 years 3 months ago

 Thank you Stuart!

Laura Lee
4 years 3 months ago

I have written what I believe to be a literary novel, but is is published by a genre publisher.  So one element that you miss out of your definition of what is considered “literary” is that a publisher has not labeled it as something else for marketing purposes.

Sanjida O'Connell
4 years 3 months ago

 That’s true. I’ve been told by my publisher that they don’t like publishing books that could fit in more than one genre so tend to choose the genre they want to market the book in.

Jean Ryan
4 years 3 months ago

Gorgeous writing.

Sanjida O'Connell
4 years 3 months ago

 So kind of you, Jean. Thank you.

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florence fois
florence fois
4 years 3 months ago
  Thanks Sanjida, I enjoyed this thoughtful post on what literary fiction is or is perceived to be by modern readers. I was disappointed that you selected Stephanie Meyers as the representative of “pop” fiction instead of Rowlings. Classically educated during a time when educators believed it was important for every child to have a superior education, we read Silas Marner in third grade while they now assign this magnificent book to college students. I do agree that literary novels are more thought provoking, but as the post you sited above, I cannot see why we feel the need to… Read more »
Sanjida O'Connell
4 years 3 months ago
 Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Florence. I picked the Twilight Saga simply because it’s very popular and I’ve read all the books in the Saga. I found I couldn’t get past page 1 of JK Rowlings first book. Great that children are reading, but I agree, it would be refreshing if younger children were encouraged to read classics too. I too feel sad that literary fiction isn’t read by more people but I certainly don’t think it’s because readers aren’t bright enough. It’s a matter of taste and time – and marketing by the publishing industry. At a book… Read more »
Anderson-rita
Anderson-rita
4 years 3 months ago

It is refreshing when one thinker can, so distinctly, clarify for us essentials that we can sense but not distill into words. Currently, I am working toward a PhD, but I have an MFA in Creative Writing and I taught English for years; in the interim, I have written four literary novels–and I am surprised every time when someone says, “What’s that?” Perhaps the next time a fellow teacher or a learned friend who is not familiar with the term, let alone its components, asks me I will have an able answer.

Sanjida O'Connell
4 years 3 months ago

 Thank you, that’s very kind of you. It sounds as if you are far more qualified than I am to comment as I didn’t study English past age 18.
Best wishes with your books.

Court Merrigan
Court Merrigan
4 years 3 months ago

Seems to me that “literary” is just another genre. 

Sarah Allen
4 years 3 months ago

Fabulous breakdown of what makes a literary novel. I’ve heard the character thing before as well, but I think you’re four pillars make a lot of sense. 
Sarah
Allen

(my creative writing blog)

Sanjida O'Connell
4 years 3 months ago

 Thanks so much, Sarah.

Cherry Odelberg
Cherry Odelberg
4 years 3 months ago

Yes.  That says it well.  That remains my goal; to write literary fiction.

Sanjida O'Connell
4 years 3 months ago

 Thank you. Good luck with your writing, Cherry!

April Line
4 years 3 months ago

This makes me so happy.  Thank you, Sanjida.  

Warmly,
-April Line

Sanjida O'Connell
4 years 3 months ago

 Aw, you’ve made my day! Thanks!

Kelly
Kelly
4 years 3 months ago

I’m not convinced that ‘literary’ novels are necessarily more likely to stand the test of time, or become ‘classics’. Is Dracula a literary novel? Or Frankenstein? What about Journey to the Center of the Earth? This may be a simplification, but I tend to agree with Stephen King’s reassessment that literary novels are about extraordinary people in ordinary (real-life) circumstances, and genre novels are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.  

Sanjida O'Connell
4 years 3 months ago
 That’s a really interesting quote, I hadn’t heard it before. Thanks for bringing it to our attention, Kelly. I think if a novel stands the test of time, we do tend to class it as literary – whether it is literary is debatable. But that’s not to say that all the literary fiction being published now will still be around in a few years time. This might be because it isn’t ‘good’ enough or for reasons that are more to do with marketing. For instance, Anne Enright published just over 200 books. It was only when she won the Booker… Read more »
Josh Hogg
4 years 3 months ago

Terrific post. You do a great job highlighting some of the components of literary fiction. I also think literary fiction is about depth and subtleties.

Do you think literary fiction is making a comeback? With self publishing, do you think ‘genre’ fiction will push literary fiction further into obscurity?

Sanjida O'Connell
4 years 3 months ago

 Thank you!

Wow, what a terrific question. I have a feeling, sadly, that self-publishing may well push literary fiction further into obscurity, as you say. If you look at the people that have self-published and then been picked up by publishers, they tend to be writing thrillers or fantasy, not literary fiction.

Rubbermonster
Rubbermonster
4 years 3 months ago

I think literary fiction has been difined by its wholeness in covering all the elements mentioned.  It has unfortuneatly also been married with erudite snobery for many years, making the young reader standoffish.

Sanjida O'Connell
4 years 3 months ago

 I agree. When I was growing up I didn’t read any classics because I didn’t see why they were ‘better’ than the books I was reading. They also seemed to be ‘establishment’.

I changed my mind when I read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Now I would consider myself a very eclectic reader.

I guess encouraging younger readers to read anything – and then introducing other genres they may not have read yet – may be the way forward.

Ashen Venema
4 years 3 months ago
A curious controversy. I wonder whether ‘literary fiction’ defines what it means to define. Inspirational or imaginative, maybe.  When writing uses a ‘bottom up’ approach, where a protagonist steps into a scene that shapes his/her character , and equally has an impact on the environment, a story usually taps into existential themes. Done well, the psychology convinces. A ‘top down’ approach could be seen as a plot into which players are placed to make the story work. The former is a meditation, the latter more like  a light-hearted escape, which can be fun. Most novels are somewhere in-between. Personally, I like writing that… Read more »
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the left room» Blog Archive » genre vs literary (again)
4 years 3 months ago

[…] is better and why”, but it can also take a step back and look at things from a higher level. Such a post has been discussed a bit today, in which Dr Sanjida O’Connell, accepting that “literary […]

Richard Monro
Richard Monro
4 years 3 months ago

This is a definition that works for me if Jessica Kent’s comments about challenging the reader with words and inspire the reader with it imagery are added to the mix.

Loved your phrase “feel the words rolling through your mind like pebbles smoothed by the sea”. It conveys the effort and time it takes to craft and shape words that touch the soul.

Thanks for a thoughtful and thought provoking blog.

Sanjida O'Connell
4 years 3 months ago

 Thank you very much, Richard.

Christina Carson
Christina Carson
4 years 3 months ago

One thing I enjoy about what I think of when I think of literary fiction, is those authors are given increased leeway in developing plot. It doesn’t have to pound down the road or match a metronome in  6/8 time. It feels like greater latitude to spend time with descriptions or characters providing more depth of experience for the reader.

Sanjida O'Connell
4 years 3 months ago

 I think you’re right, Christina. When I read books about writing, like ‘The Writer’s Journey’, they seem quite formulaic and almost as if encouraging you to translate an action film into a novel.

What’s so great about novels, as opposed to movies, is the interiocity – if that’s the right word. Stuff going on in your characters’ heads! And, as you say, you have more leeway to develop this aspect in literary fiction.

Remittance Girl
4 years 3 months ago
I find your definition of literary fiction a very good one. However, what I would like to point out is that there have been pieces of genre fiction that have been ignored by critics (because they have been marketed genre fiction) while fulfilling all the criteria you have set out above. I think your mention of ‘depth’ and ‘big ideas’ is something that needs to be examined further. For my purpose, a novel is literary if it prompts me to reconsider the way in which I have decided the world is constructed. Complex characters pull the reader into seeing through… Read more »
Sanjida O'Connell
4 years 3 months ago
 Thanks for your comments. I don’t think literary fiction is just another genre. I think it can be marketed as such. I agree, it would be good to look at this whole issue in greater depth than I could do in a blog post. It’s certainly more complex than I have been able to describe. I also agree, you can see great writing in any genre but perhaps the literary-ness of it transcends the original genre. For instance, people like Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy in The Road are writing literary sci-fi, but tend to be marketed as literary writers… Read more »
Remittance Girl
4 years 3 months ago

 Well, that’s a shame isn’t it? It means that sci-fi readers are probably never going to read Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy so, in my view, the publishers are doing themselves and writers both a disservice.

Readers become better readers when they’re challenged. They also become more active and engaged readers. They begin to read more widely and venture outside their favourite genres.

So, all in all, the way publishers are classifying and marketing things is really not working for anyone except their shareholders in the very short short-term.

Audrey Kalman
Audrey Kalman
4 years 3 months ago
As a writer of literary fiction, I was so glad to see your post. I’m even more glad to see so many people interested in/commenting on it. I have just begun looking for a community and have had a hard time thus far finding one online. So many groups for writers (and readers!) seem to be genre-related and I haven’t yet found one specifically for literary fiction. I’d also like to add that I am also a poet, and for me literary fiction has elements of poetry, which I think is what you were describing in your “style” section. Sometimes… Read more »
Sanjida O'Connell
4 years 3 months ago

 Yes! I agree literary work can be very poetic. Two contemporary writers I love, Tobias Hill and Anne Michaels – and, of course, Charlotte Bronte – are also poets.

Good luck with finding a community – let me know if you!

Stuart Ayris
Stuart Ayris
4 years 3 months ago

 I think I have learned more from this thread than from any textbook! Thank you so much everyone. I have always considered the genre in which I write to be literary fiction and all these comments gladly confirm it for me. With my novel currently topping the Literary Fiction Review (Kindle) ranks on Amazon UK I am very pleased that my initial thoughts on literary fiction appear to have been confirmed! Phew!

Sanjida O'Connell
4 years 3 months ago

 There have been some really interesting comments, perhaps we are having a literary revivial after all.

Thank you for your comment and well done to you!

Stuart Ayris
Stuart Ayris
4 years 3 months ago

 Thank you! I agree! If anything I don’t feel quite so alone. It can be quite scary out there amongst the zombies and the vampires even if there are child wizards around every corner just waiting to save you!

Rita B. Lindberg
4 years 3 months ago

That was very spot on, thank you for the article Sanjida!

Claude Nougat
4 years 3 months ago
Excellent defnition, Sanjida, and I’m truly happy the subject has elicited so many comments. I’m not totally impartial when I say this because (I believe) I write in the “literary” genre since I don’t fit in anywhere else. When you’re “cross genre” and let the characters drive the plot, what is it? Probably literary, right? The real problem here is one of marketing. It’s very sad that publishers want to push everything into boxes just because (they think) it makes it easier to sell. Yet, historically, just about every novel that has been a blockbuster has broken genre rules. They… Read more »
marc nash
marc nash
4 years 3 months ago

Kafka, Austen & Burroughs were just writing fiction, not literary fiction, not romance/SciFi or whatever one might try and categorise Kafka as. To me the indictment is the labelling of any book with a genre, it diminishes reader, author and book alike. Literary fiction seems to me to be that genre that scoops up all the books that can’t be pigeonholed in the other genres. 

As some of your correspondents have written, scifi in particularly can meet all of your criteria. 

marc nash

ClaudiaPutnam
4 years 3 months ago

I don’t know. I recently re-read Wuthering Heights. It’s a junk novel, IMO.

Jeb Harrison
Jeb Harrison
4 years 3 months ago
Thank you, Sanjida, for striking the familiar chord that almost always creates a little cognitive dissonance for me. I feel the same way about classifying fiction as I do about classifying music. Classifications are created by the market: that combination of buyers and sellers that define commerce. It’s not that different than the physical space we call a “market”, where items are categorized to make it faster and easier for the consumer to buy what they want. While classifications or categories like literary fiction, chick lit, young adult, romance, mystery, sci-fi and ad infinitum are no less than required by… Read more »
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Casey Goodrow
4 years 3 months ago
Nice post Sanjida! Depth I think is the key. While all novels can be interpreted to the point that depth and meaning manifest, literary fiction’s ability to satisfy its reader is actually dependent on the reader’s willingness to swim deep into its pools of meaning. Non-literary novels, I think, have an easier time pleasing their readers (and thus sell more broadly) because they unfold in an easy-enough-to-digest fashion that they need not be examined and interpreted to the point that literary fiction does. That isn’t to say that “genre” fiction shouldn’t be fully digested, I think readers could do a… Read more »
Robb
Robb
4 years 3 months ago
Great blog post, and great comments too. I think you’ve defined it well. I agree that it’s not necessarily its own genre, although it can be. But any genre can also be written in a literary style. To restate what’s been said, every book contains character and plot, themes and ideas, and writing style. “Literary” fiction leans more heavily to depth of character, theme, idea, and more stylistic writing. But every book is at some point along that line, so defining exactly where a book becomes ‘literary’ is often in the eye of the beholder. And now there’s this new… Read more »
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Dane O'Leary
1 year 4 months ago
You make some really good points here. I think part of the difficult in defining literary fiction is that its features a little more abstract a vary quite a bit within the genre. Mysteries usually have some sore of ‘whodunit’ element, fantasies involve magic or creatures that don’t exist in the real world, romance deals with a developing relationship; literary fiction, however, can consist of any number of things, but its more defining characteristics relate to the execution. I find that literary works tend to put more emphasis on the conditions and attributes of plot rather than plot itself. Most… Read more »
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