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
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).
Sanjida O'Connell

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  1. 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.  I’m a also huge on having stylistic elements in there as well.  Most commercial fiction novels are written at a high school (or lower) reading level.  Literary fiction must challenge even the most intellectual reader with words, and inspire the most creative soul with its imagery!  I would say literary fiction has got to be a book that acts upon the reader’s mind and soul, not passive entertainment.  Thanks for this post!

    •  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.

  2. 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? 

    •  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…!

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

    •  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.

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    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 classify it as better, deeper or that readers are so uneducated they are unable to appreciate something that does not involve the equivelent of a car chase in film.
    Reading choices are based more on the “time” than culture and language. Carnegie was not permitted to enter a library in Pitsburgh and thus we have public libraries today. This was also a time when the “masses” were not educated beyond third grade.
    That public education and mass media has expanded the availability of books and other forms of entertainment, does not mean that the same people who once read “literature” are not still reading it … it means that the rest of the world is reading and viewing what appeals to them.
    In an odd way, your work and the work of those who write the most thought provoking angst of the human condition, have the same readership you had 100 years ago when there was no middle class, when what was defined as the “under” class had no education and little spending power.
    I feel sad that literary writers are not seen in the same light as popular fiction writers, but they are still being read by the same small group of readers. What makes me feel sadder is the need to define this under appreciation by claiming the rest of the reading public is not bright enough to appreciate the mastery of language.
    The analogy might be that the film version of A Room With A View was not a summer blockbuster like Lethal Weapon … the joys of Masterpiece Theatre is not as widely viewed as Desperate Housewives. In a wonderful turn of events, Downton Abbey is as popular as the new Sherlock on Masterpiece, which is as well done as the new Sherlock by Robert Downey, Jr. or as complicated as The Death of Roger Ackroyd or The Black Cat in literature, unless of course, you believe that Agatha wrote down to the general reading public.
    It would be so nice to live in a world where you could make as much money as James Patterson, but it would also be nice to have more women reviewed by the “reverant” New York Times Book Review, or to see more women represented on the 100 best novels ever written as published by Random House. Count them: Not more than ten women are among the 100 best novels ever written. And to this day the real name of the “female” author of Silas Marner (on the list by the way) is not given. Looks like you are fighting two battles to be recognized, not just by the general reading public, but by the same all white male establishement who judges what is the best for the general reading public. Good luck with that J

    •  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 signing on Saturday, a woman said to me she didn’t want to buy my books because she was looking for a novel to read on the beach and she didn’t want to have to think too hard. Fair enough!

      Thanks for all the points you made.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.  

    •  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 that she published rather more.

  10. 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?

    •  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.

  11. 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.

    •  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.

  12. 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 makes me stop, where the language becomes part of the story and expresses something beyond words, where a sentence makes my heart jump. OK, imaginative, inspirational.

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  14. 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.

  15. 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.

    •  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.

  16. 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 new eyes, well-constructed conflicts allow us to examine new ways to consider big issues, and style / poetics invite readers to participate in the relativistic space where meaning is made.

    Ian Banks said that, at its best, Sci Fi examines how humans deal with change. Murder mysteries can simply be cosy procedurals, or they can ask the reader to reexamine their understanding of justice, civil society, and individual responsibility. My particular genre, erotic fiction, has the scope to examine how desire changes us and how we are changed by desire. But it is a sad fact that genre writers seldom attempt to grapple with the foundational issues these genres propose.

    So, I have to disagree with your definition that literary fiction is just another genre. I think, ultimately, literary fiction is just really good writing. It can be present in any genre. It’s more like pornography: you know it when  you see it.

    •  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 because their writing is so wonderful, rather than only as sci-fi authors.

      •  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.

  17. 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 the sound of the words is as much a part of the story as the words themselves. 

    •  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!

      •  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!

          •  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!

  18. 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 were always “black swans”, flying in from the outside, totally unpredictable and taking publishers by surprise…So blockbusters are more likely to be found in the “literary” category than elsewhere. But I’m writing “more likely” on purpose: there is of course no assurance that this is so…

  19. 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

  20. 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 the marketplace – both sellers and buyers – they should not concern the artist. Sure, I would be disappointed if one of my novels was classified as chick lit when I thought I was writing a dystopian western. I would hope that the marketers would get hip with the packaging and go barnstorm the chick lit market! By the same token think how Miles Davis must have felt when he literally set the jazz world on its ear with “Bitche’s Brew” (“brew” being the operative word). Or Dylan at Newport.

    Classifying and categorizing are also fun, and I suppose it’s a good thing the master designer of the human species made it so for without it we would have total chaos. Still, while some artists – musicians, writers, painters – may wear their classification around their neck so they know who to hang with, it’s the artists that slip around between the categories and genres to create something unique and utterly their own that I look up to. When a writer is truly channeling the muse, I think our instinct tells us that perhaps classification falls short of what we ultimately need to say about the work, which is perhaps better said with a hearty “bravo” and nothing more.

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  22. 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 whole lot more of that, actually.

  23. 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 marketing category called ‘upscale’ which tries to capture those books somewhere in the middle, or at least market some books as ‘accessible literary’ (as opposed to dense, snobbish literary, I suppose).

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  28. 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 literary fiction explores what it means to be a human in the world, the thoughts and experiences that influences our actions, how the daily happenings of our lives are driven by unseen psychological and/or emotional factors, how events have just as much internal significance and consequence as external.

    I definitely agree with you that literary fiction is largely about depth, big ideas, and characters. Then again, I’ve also ready some very eventful, almost action-packed literary fiction, but even as eventful as these works were, they never lacked that ‘literary flair’, which brings me back to how literary fiction seems to be in the execution of a book and less the content. Anyone can describe physical action, but literary fiction writers tend to put either equal or more importance on how events effect and are effected by people.

    Very insightful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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