Literary fiction

Last updated

Literary fiction, in the book-trade, are novels that are regarded as having literary merit. Related terms are high culture, highbrow, and taste.


While literary fiction is sometimes regarded as superior to genre fiction, the two are not mutually exclusive, and major literary figures have employed the genres of science fiction, crime fiction, romance, etc, to create works of literature. Furthermore, the study of genre fiction has developed within academia in recent decades. [1]

High culture

The poet and critic Matthew Arnold defined "culture", in Culture and Anarchy (1869), as "the disinterested endeavour after man's perfection" pursued, obtained, and achieved by effort to "know the best that has been said and thought in the world". [2] Such a literary definition of high culture also includes philosophy. Moreover, the philosophy of aesthetics proposed high culture as a force for moral and political good. Critically, the term "high culture" is contrasted with the terms "popular culture" and "mass culture". [3]

In sociology, taste is about an individual's cultural and aesthetic patterns of preference. Taste is a way of drawing distinctions between things such as styles, manners, consumer goods, and works of art. Questions about good or bad taste concern human ability to judge what is beautiful, good, and acceptable.


The term literary fiction implies that "the work in question has superior qualities ... well above the ordinary run of written works". Thus "George Eliot's novels are literature" and Ian Fleming's are not. [4] Literary fiction often involves a concern with social commentary, political criticism, or reflection on the human condition, [5] . This contrasts with genre fiction where plot is the central concern. [6] It often has a slower pace than popular fiction. [7] As Terrence Rafferty notes, "literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way." [8] There may also be a greater concern with style and complexity of the writing: Saricks describes literary fiction as "elegantly written, lyrical, and ... layered". [9] The "superior qualities" also include "the excellence of their writing, ... originality .. aesthetic and artistic merit". [10]

Classic book

The term classic book covers works in any discipline that have been accepted as being exemplary or noteworthy. This includes being listed in a list of great books. The terms "classic book" and "Western canon" are closely related concepts, but they are not necessarily synonymous. A "canon" refers to a list of books considered to be "essential" and is presented in a variety of ways. It can be published as a collection, such as Great Books of the Western World, Modern Library, or Penguin Classics, or presented as a list by an academic such as Harold Bloom' [11] or be the official reading list of an institution of higher learning. [12]

Robert M. Hutchins' in his 1952 preface to the Great Books of the Western World declared:

Until lately the West has regarded it as self-evident that the road to education lay through great books. No man was educated unless he was acquainted with the masterpieces of his tradition. There never was very much doubt in anybody's mind about which the masterpieces were. They were the books that had endured and that the common voice of mankind called the finest creations, in writing, of the Western mind. [13]


A further related term is masterpiece: a creation that has been given much critical praise, especially one that is considered the greatest work of a person's career or to a work of outstanding creativity, skill, profundity, or workmanship. [14] Historically, a "masterpiece" was a work of a very high standard produced to obtain membership of a guild or academy in various areas of the visual arts and crafts.

Since 1901 the Nobel Prize in Literature has frequently been awarded to the authors of literary fiction masterpieces. This annual award is presented to a writer from any country who has, in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction". [15] [16] Though individual works are sometimes cited as being particularly noteworthy, the award is based on an author's body of work as a whole.

The International Booker Prize is a similar British award given for outstanding literary fiction translated into English. This complements the earlier Booker Prize, which is awarded to fiction in the English language. For both judges are selected from amongst leading literary critics, writers, academics and public figures. The Booker judging process and the very concept of a "best book" being chosen by a small number of literary insiders is controversial for many. [17] Author Amit Chaudhuri wrote: "The idea that a 'book of the year' can be assessed annually by a bunch of people – judges who have to read almost a book a day – is absurd, as is the idea that this is any way of honouring a writer." [18]


The distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is doubtful, because some works of genre fiction are considered works of literature. Major writers of literary fiction, like Nobel laureate Doris Lessing, as well as Margaret Atwood, also publish science fiction. Doris Lessing described science fiction as "some of the best social fiction of our time," and called Greg Bear, author of Blood Music, "a great writer." [19] Other major literary figures have also written either genre fiction or books that contain certain elements of genre fiction. For instance, the novel Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky contains elements of the crime fiction genre. [20] [21] [22] Gabriel García Márquez's book Love in the Time of Cholera is a romance novel. [23] [24] Frankenstein and Dracula are examples of gothic horror novels. Graham Greene at the time of his death in 1991 had a reputation as a writer of both deeply serious novels on the theme of Catholicism [25] and of "suspense-filled stories of detection." [26] Acclaimed during his lifetime, he was shortlisted in 1966 [27] for the Nobel Prize for Literature. [28] John Banville publishes crime novels as Benjamin Black, and both Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood have written science fiction. Furthermore, Nobel laureate André Gide stated that Georges Simenon, best known as the creator of the fictional detective Jules Maigret, was "the most novelistic of novelists in French literature." [29]

In an interview, John Updike lamented that "the category of 'literary fiction' has sprung up recently to torment people like me who just set out to write books, and if anybody wanted to read them, terrific, the more the merrier ... I'm a genre writer of a sort. I write literary fiction, which is like spy fiction or chick lit." [30] Likewise, on The Charlie Rose Show , Updike argued that this term, when applied to his work, greatly limited him and his expectations of what might come of his writing, so he does not really like it. He suggested that all his works are literary, simply because "they are written in words." [31]

See also

Related Research Articles

Horror fiction Genre of fiction

Horror is a genre of speculative fiction which is intended to frighten, scare, or disgust. Literary historian J. A. Cuddon defined the horror story as "a piece of fiction in prose of variable length... which shocks, or even frightens the reader, or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing". Horror intends to create an eerie and frightening atmosphere for the reader. Horror is often divided into the psychological horror and supernatural horror sub-genres. Often the central menace of a work of horror fiction can be interpreted as a metaphor for the larger fears of a society. Prevalent elements include ghosts, demons, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, the Devil, witches, monsters, dystopian and apocalyptic worlds, serial killers, cannibalism, psychopaths, cults, dark magic, Satanism, the macabre, gore, and torture.

John Updike American novelist, poet, short story writer, art critic, and literary critic

John Hoyer Updike was an American novelist, poet, short-story writer, art critic, and literary critic. One of only four writers to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once, Updike published more than twenty novels, more than a dozen short-story collections, as well as poetry, art and literary criticism and children's books during his career.

Short story Work of literature, usually written in narrative prose

A short story is a piece of prose fiction that typically can be read in one sitting and focuses on a self-contained incident or series of linked incidents, with the intent of evoking a single effect or mood. The short story is one of the oldest types of literature and has existed in the form of legends, mythic tales, folk tales, fairy tales, fables and anecdotes in various ancient communities across the world. The modern short story developed in the early 19th century.

Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past. Although the term is commonly used as a synonym for the historical novel, it can also be applied to other types of narrative, including theatre, opera, cinema, and television, as well as video games and graphic novels.

Canadian literature Field of literature from Canada

Canadian literature is the literature of a multicultural country, created by Indigenous people and by people of other ancestral backgrounds, in languages including Canadian English, Canadian French, Indigenous languages, and many others such as Canadian Gaelic. Influences on Canadian writers are broad both geographically and historically, representing Canada's diversity in culture and region.

Crime fiction Genre of fiction focusing on crime

Crime fiction, detective story, murder mystery, mystery novel, and police novel are terms used to describe narratives that centre on criminal acts and especially on the investigation, either by an amateur or a professional detective, of a serious crime, generally a murder. It is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as historical fiction or science fiction, but the boundaries are indistinct. Crime fiction has multiple subgenres, including detective fiction, courtroom drama, hard-boiled fiction, and legal thrillers. Most crime drama focuses on crime investigation and does not feature the courtroom. Suspense and mystery are key elements that are nearly ubiquitous to the genre.

Doris Lessing British novelist, poet, playwright, librettist, biographer, short story writer, and Nobel Laureate

Doris May Lessing was a British-Zimbabwean (Rhodesian) novelist. She was born to British parents in Iran, where she lived until 1925. Her family then moved to Southern Rhodesia, where she remained until moving in 1949 to London, England. Her novels include The Grass Is Singing (1950), the sequence of five novels collectively called Children of Violence (1952–1969), The Golden Notebook (1962), The Good Terrorist (1985), and five novels collectively known as Canopus in Argos: Archives (1979–1983).

Russian literature literature from Russia

Russian literature refers to the literature of Russia and its émigrés and to Russian-language literature. The roots of Russian literature can be traced to the Middle Ages, when epics and chronicles in Old East Slavic were composed. By the Age of Enlightenment, literature had grown in importance, and from the early 1830s, Russian literature underwent an astounding golden age in poetry, prose and drama. Romanticism permitted a flowering of poetic talent: Vasily Zhukovsky and later his protégé Alexander Pushkin came to the fore. Prose was flourishing as well. The first great Russian novelist was Nikolai Gogol. Then came Ivan Turgenev, who mastered both short stories and novels. Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy soon became internationally renowned. In the second half of the century Anton Chekhov excelled in short stories and became a leading dramatist. The beginning of the 20th century ranks as the Silver Age of Russian poetry. The poets most often associated with the "Silver Age" are Konstantin Balmont, Valery Bryusov, Alexander Blok, Anna Akhmatova, Nikolay Gumilyov, Osip Mandelstam, Sergei Yesenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Marina Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak. This era produced some first-rate novelists and short-story writers, such as Aleksandr Kuprin, Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin, Leonid Andreyev, Fyodor Sologub, Aleksey Remizov, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Andrei Bely.

English novel The novel as a concept in English-language literature

The English novel is an important part of English literature. This article mainly concerns novels, written in English, by novelists who were born or have spent a significant part of their lives in England, Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland. However, given the nature of the subject, this guideline has been applied with common sense, and reference is made to novels in other languages or novelists who are not primarily British, where appropriate.

American literature Literature written or related to the United States

American literature is literature predominantly written or produced in English in the United States of America and its preceding colonies. Before the founding of the United States, the Thirteen Colonies on the eastern coast of the present-day United States were heavily influenced by British literature. The American literary tradition thus is part of the broader tradition of English-language literature. A small amount of literature exists in other immigrant languages. Furthermore a rich tradition of oral storytelling exists amongst Native American tribes.

Genre fiction, also known as popular fiction, is a term used in the book-trade for fictional works written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre, in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre.

British literature is literature from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands. This article covers British literature in the English language. Anglo-Saxon literature is included, and there is some discussion of Latin and Anglo-Norman literature, where literature in these languages relate to the early development of the English language and literature. There is also some brief discussion of major figures who wrote in Scots, but the main discussion is in the various Scottish literature articles.

In literature, psychological fiction is a narrative genre that emphasizes interior characterization and motivation to explore the spiritual, emotional, and mental lives of the characters. The mode of narration examines the reasons for the behaviors of the character, which propel the plot and explain the story. Psychological realism is achieved with deep explorations and explanations of the mental states of the character's inner person, usually through narrative modes such as stream of consciousness and flash back.

A literary award or literary prize is an award presented in recognition of a particularly lauded literary piece or body of work. It is normally presented to an author.

John Anthony Bowden Cuddon, was an English author, dictionary writer, and school teacher. He is known best for his Dictionary of Literary Terms, described by the Times Educational Supplement as ‘scholarly, succinct, comprehensive and entertaining…an indispensable work of reference.’ Cuddon also wrote The Macmillan Dictionary of Sport and Games, a two million-word account of most of the world’s sports and games through history, as well as several novels, plays, travel books, and other published works. Cuddon's The Owl's Watchsong was a study of Istanbul.

Fiction Narrative with imaginary elements

Fiction is any creative work consisting of people, events, or places that are imaginary—in other words, not based strictly on history or fact. In its most narrow usage, fiction refers to written narratives in prose and often specifically novels, though also novellas and short stories. More broadly, fiction has come to encompass imaginary narratives expressed in any medium, including not just writings but also live theatrical performances, films, television programs, radio dramas, comics, role-playing games, and video games.

Literature Written work of art

Literature broadly is any collection of written work, but it is also used more narrowly for writings specifically considered to be an art form, especially prose fiction, drama, and poetry. In recent centuries, the definition has expanded to include oral literature, much of which has been transcribed. Literature is a method of recording, preserving, and transmitting knowledge and entertainment, and can also have a social, psychological, spiritual, or political role.

This article is focused on English-language literature rather than the literature of England, so that it includes writers from Scotland, Wales, the Crown dependencies, and the whole of Ireland, as well as literature in English from countries of the former British Empire, including the United States. However, until the early 19th century, it only deals with the literature of the United Kingdom, the Crown dependencies and Ireland. It does not include literature written in the other languages of Britain.

A novelist is an author or writer of novels, though often novelists also write in other genres of both fiction and non-fiction. Some novelists are professional novelists, thus make a living writing novels and other fiction, while others aspire to support themselves in this way or write as an avocation. Most novelists struggle to have their debut novel published, but once published they often continue to be published, although very few become literary celebrities, thus gaining prestige or a considerable income from their work.

This article is focused on English-language literature rather than the literature of England, so that it includes writers from Scotland, Wales, and the whole of Ireland, as well as literature in English from former British colonies. It also includes, to some extent, the US, though the main article here is American literature.


  1. Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, "Popular Fiction Studies: The Advantages of a New Field". Studies in Popular Culture, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Fall 2010), pp. 21-3
  2. Arnold, Matthew (1869). Culture and Anarchy . The Cornhill Magazine.
  3. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967) Volume 1. p. 167.
  4. J. A Cuddon (revised C. E. Preston) The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (1977). London: Penguin Books, 1999, p.472
  5. Saricks 2009, p. 180.
  6. Saricks 2009, pp. 181–82.
  7. Saricks 2009, p. 182.
  8. Rafferty 2011.
  9. Saricks 2009, p. 179.
  10. J. A Cuddon (revised C. E. Preston) The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, p. 472.
  11. Bloom, Harold (1994). The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages . New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.
  12. "St. John's College | Academic Program | The Reading List". Archived from the original on May 27, 2010. Retrieved 2010-06-13.
  13. Hutchins, Robert M., ed. (1952). Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica), v. 1, p. xi.
  14. OED
  15. "Alfred Nobel will". Retrieved 20 January 2021.
  16. John Sutherland (13 October 2007). "Ink and Spit". Guardian Unlimited Books. The Guardian. Retrieved 13 October 2007.
  17. "Not the Booker prize". The Guardian. 16 October 2017.
  18. Chaudhuri, Amit (15 August 2017). "My fellow authors are too busy chasing prizes to write about what matters". The Guardian.
  19. Doris Lessing: Hot Dawns, interview by Harvey Blume in Boston Book Review
  20. Atherton, C. (2015). A/AS Level English Literature B for AQA Student Book. Cambridge Univsersity Press. p.  177.
  21. "Crime and Punishment at 150". The University of British Columbia .
  22. "Crime and Punishment". Penguin Random House.
  23. Wood, Michael 1988, April 28 Heartsick The New York Review of Books
  24. Frazier, Charles 1989 Love in the Time of CholeraPhi Kappa Phi Journal volume 69 page 46
  25. Ian Thomson (3 October 2004). "More Sherry trifles". The Observer.
  26. Lynette Kohn (1961). Graham Greene: The Major Novels. Stanford University Press. p. 23.
  27. "Candidates for the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature". 4 January 2017. Archived from the original on 11 February 2017.
  28. Robert C. Steensma (1997). Encyclopedia of the Essay. Taylor & Francis. p. 264. ISBN   9781884964305.
  29. Charles E. Claffey, The Boston Globe September, 10, 1989 Contributing to this report was Boston Globe book editor Mark Feeney.
  30. Grossman 2006.
  31. The Charlie Rose Show from June 14, 2006 with John Updike Archived February 3, 2009, at the Wayback Machine