bored boy with book


‘What’s literary fiction?’ my partner asked me the other day.

I struggled with my reply – mainly because I’m not sure of the answer myself.  The glib reply would be ‘books that have no plot and you need a degree in English Literature to read.’  But that would be unfair to those who write in that genre as it isn’t always the case.

I recently attended the Australian Genre-Con, a conference for genre writers, in which there was more than one sly reference to ‘big L’ writers who think they’re a cut above other writers and behave like spoilt rock stars at literary festivals. It emphasized the large divide there’s always been between those who write literary and popular fiction.

Finally I told my partner that according to my perception, literary fiction deals with the big issues of life, but in a complex manner that you have to dig deep to find. It’s often about a character’s emotional journey, meaning there’s not much action, and that’s where the accusation of ‘no plot’ stems.

The Huffington Post defines the difference as this: popular or mainstream fiction is driven equally by plot and character (in some genres, eg adventure/action and thrillers, the plot sometimes takes precedence over character – my comment) and must have a premise that instantly hooks the reader, conflict that is resolved at the end and is for the most part, easily read and comprehended. Literary fiction is driven by ideas and themes and the style of prose is of paramount importance and sometimes controversial. To quote: ‘The plot isn’t the main focus in literary fiction; rather, the history, social issues, and character developments that are a part of the story take precedence.’

But not everybody agrees with that definition. Author Nathan Bransford argues that plot is just as important in literary fiction as in other genres and that good literary fiction does have a plot – it’s just harder to find. He cites Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard as genre busters  – ie they write literary fiction that also happens to be popular and sells well. There are a number of other authors who are said to fall into this category – Jane Austen,  Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Khaled Hosseini, just to name a few and novels which have transcended the literary/popular fiction barrier include classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Jane Eyre, Lord of the Flies and Of Mice and Men.

My burning question is: who decides what is literary fiction? When I visited the Goodreads list of popular literary fiction novels, there were quite a few books there that I wouldn’t have thought would be classified as literary fiction. The debate of literary vs popular fiction will never be resolved and one which I think is ultimately meaningless. I’ve heard it said that classification of books only ever happened because booksellers needed to know what part of the bookstore to place the books.

In the end writers, if they’re smart, will write what they want to write and what feels natural to them, regardless of how well it sells and readers will buy what appeals to them, regardless of its classification.  As an author, my goal is to write books that people enjoy reading. Simple as that.


What’s your view?  Do you think the arbitrary categorization of fiction into literary or popular fiction is a load of codswallop? Or not?

About the Author Robin Storey

Robin Storey is an Australian author from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. She is a certified book nerd and has no weird hobbies or unusual pets.

follow me on: