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WHAT IS LITERARY FICTION?


Picture of Trust by Hernan Diaz winner of the pulitzer prize
Pulitzer Prize's are Amongst the Most Coveted Prizes in Literature. But do They Always Get it Right?

Literary fiction is the type of fiction that wins all the major literary awards (think Pulitzer, National Book Award, Booker, etcetera), but that sell, more often than not, very few books, at least compared to genre fiction like Romance, Young Adult, Thrillers, Fantasy, and so on. I kid! (sort of). Writers of literary fiction know what I’m talking about. This isn’t to say genre fiction isn’t worth reading or lesser somehow. I’m just saying it’s . . . different.


Here are the last five years of the National Book Award for Fiction:


2023 - Blackouts – Justin Torres

2022 – The Rabbit Hutch – Tess Gunty

2021 – Hell of a Book – Jason Mott

2020 – Interior Chinatown – Charles Yu

2019 – Trust Exercise – Susan Choi


Here are the last five years of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction:


2023 – Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver, and Trust, by Hernan Diaz

2022 – The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family – Joshua Cohen

2021 – The Night Watchman – Louise Erdrich

2020 – The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead

2019 – The Overstory – Richard Powers


Image of Barbara Kingsolver's Demon Copperhead
2023 Saw the First Year When Two Novels Won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

And here are the bestselling books for those years for Adult Fiction:


2023 – It Ends with Us – Colleen Hoover (she has been dominating the last few years)

2022 – It Ends with Us – Collen Hoover

2021 – The Four Winds – Kristin Hannah

2020 – Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens

2019 – It Ends with Us – Collen Hoover


Collen Hoover It Ends With Us
Colleen Hoover is the It Writer. From Self-Published to Having Multiple Titles on the NYT Bestseller List at The Same Time

I’d bet if you went out and asked 100 fiction readers (and perhaps even writers) which books or authors they know, they’d be able to list the bestselling authors, but only about 3 would be able to list the big prize winners. (I know there’s a lot of you right now cursing me, as I haven’t actually gone out and done a survey to back up my claims, but I stick by them). Does this mean anything? Well, probably not for the majority of readers. But for readers and lovers and writers of literary fiction, we’re often snooty, so it may matter for us. At least some of us, anyway.


Cover photo of Louise Erdrich's The Night Watchman
Literary fiction may involve a concern with social commentary, political criticism, or reflection on the human condition." - Wikipedia

According to Wikipedia (I love Wikipedia, for good or bad), “Literary fiction [is], mainstream fiction, non-genre fiction, serious fiction, high literature, artistic literature, and sometimes just literature are labels that, in the book trade, refer to market novels that do not fit neatly into an established genre [. . .] or, otherwise, refer to novels that are character-driven rather than plot-driven, examine the human condition, use language in an experimental or poetic fashion, or are simply considered serious art.


Literary fiction is often used as a synonym for literature, in the exclusive sense of writings specifically considered to have considerable artistic merit. While literary fiction is commonly regarded as artistically 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.”


Also, Wikipedia: “Literary fiction may involve a concern with social commentary, political criticism, or reflection on the human condition. This contrasts with genre fiction where plot is the central concern. It may have a slower pace than popular fiction. 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.’ Other works may be more concerned with style and complexity of the writing: [Joyce] Saricks describes literary fiction as "elegantly written, lyrical, and . . . layered.”


I can’t say I disagree with anything said there. I write literary fiction. I love reading literary fiction. I still read genre fiction (though I’m wrapping up Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool, Gillian McAllister’s Wrong Place Wrong Time is next in line. I like to keep abreast of everything out there, even if I end up putting the book down and moving on.


Picture of Richard Russo's Empire Falls
Russo's Empire Falls Won the Pulitzer in 2002.

For me, it’s always been literary fiction that’s made me think of a book’s content long after I’ve read the last page. That’s important to me. I want to be challenged. I want to learn something “deep,” whatever that means. I recently read Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall, which was a great, fun read. But I don’t remember anything about it. Not really. I mean, there was a plane crash, and some twists and turns, but that’s about all I remember. It didn’t leave an impression on me the way, say, Less, by Andrew Sean Greer did. I read Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot, which, as a writer, I thoroughly enjoyed, but it didn’t hit me like Anna Burns’s Milkman or the late Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing. Genre fiction serves, in my opinion, a different purpose than literary fiction. For me, a book is not a book is not a book.


A few years ago, Anthony Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize for All the Light We Cannot See. I read the book, liked it a lot, but something was missing for me. It didn’t feel like a novel that should have won such a prestigious prize. Was it literary fiction? I think so, but (and this is just my opinion), not completely so. To me, it felt like a WWII novel with a great story that was worth reading. I know other writers who feel the same way, though I’ll keep their names to myself. A few have even written reviews about why it shouldn’t have won. This year’s Pulitzer went to Hernan Diaz’s Trust, as well as Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. It was the first time two novelists won the coveted prize. I haven’t read Kingsolver’s Copperhead yet, but Trust was a novel that had me wondering why it won. Again, I enjoyed it, but the Pulitzer? I scratched my head on that one.


For me, the definition of literary fiction is simple (and I’ll state it simply, as I’m a simple guy): it’s important fiction. It’s fiction that’s trying to say something; fiction whose author wants her readers to ask questions of the nature of whatever—politics, the meaning of life, what pain in marriages really feels like, what it means to be human, and things of that nature. It’s literature that you read that forces you to jump in a car or plane or boat or train to see the world that’s out there for yourself. It’s writing that opens your eyes to the suffering of others, a book filled with words that make you feel what its like to be someone else, to experience something else, to think like someone else. It’s writing that sticks with you the way Gorilla Glue sticks to, well, anything.


Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t me bashing genre fiction. Whenever a Dennis Lehane novel comes out, I’m throwing down my credit card. (Yes, some have said his novels are literature, but he’s well established in the Crime fiction genre, though also in Urban fiction, Noir, etc.). When it comes to sales, Romance dominates. As does Fantasy, YA, etc. But there’s just something about a novel you think about long after you read that last line that’s different. I want to remember books; I don’t want to pick them up like a peanut butter cup, eat it, and then wonder where it went. I want the taste to linger for as long as it can. And that, for me, is what literary fiction does. For me, anyway.

 

Cully Perlman is a writer and Substantive Editor. Contact him at Cully@novelmasterclass.com to talk about editing your novel, and getting it ready for literary agents, Indie publishers, or self-publishing platforms.

 

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