What’s the deal with literary fiction? That’s a question I asked myself repeatedly for several years, probably up until two or so years ago. Why are sci-fi and fantasy (and other styles of fiction) sometimes looked down on? Also a good question. Today, I’m sharing my thoughts on these topics.
Before I delve in, some context might be helpful. My opinion on this topic stems from my experience in the literary world. My background is somewhat eclectic (to match this blog, I suppose), but suffice it to say, my writing “training,” as it were, is technically in literary fiction, and my interest lies in the speculative (which is the bulk of what I read). I like to think of it like a classical musician turning to rock-n-roll—because that makes me sound much cooler than I am.
I’ll also add that there’s nothing wrong with liking literary fiction—that doesn’t make you a snob. I do take issue with the idea that fiction that isn’t literary fiction somehow is lesser, though—especially if the claim isn’t supported with something beyond opinions: This is what I mean when I say snobbery.
What Is Literary Fiction?
So, for those wondering, what even is literary fiction? It sort of depends on who you ask. Some may include some speculative fiction in the literary camp (literary publishers do now seem to be publishing things that incorporate the fantastical—more on that later). However, generally, when I’m referring to literary fiction, I mean strictly realistic, character-focused fiction. And I’m referring to the genre of literary fiction, not using literary to necessarily mean the fiction has literary merit since this seems to imply that anything not in the genre of literary fiction doesn’t have literary merit.
In practice, this means stories that take place in the real world that are focused on a person’s (or multiple people’s) life and their inner psychology. These stories often manifest as “Person who lives in real city/town has internal character problem stemming from particular backstory.” These characters are meant to be your everyday person living everyday life. And literary fiction often is meant to have well-developed side characters and pays close attention to writing style, often with lyrical style.
Okay, that’s a definition most literary writers would agree with. It’s an objective characterization.
However, personally, I would adjust this definition. This definition isn’t really that helpful to distinguish literary fiction from sci-fi/fantasy (SFF). A lot of characters in SFF have an internal problem stemming from their prior life experiences. And many side characters in SFF are well-developed. Plenty of SFF also pays attention to writing style. While SFF writing style is not typically lyrical, plenty of literary fiction doesn’t have lyrical style, and Ray Bradbury—with plenty of SFF stories in his bibliography—has an intensely lyrical style.
In my opinion, literary fiction is better defined by its realistic setting (typically set in or near the current year) and focus on the character’s internal life with little or no of the writing’s focus on plot.
And frankly, in some ways, it’s more helpful to define literary fiction based on what it’s not. It’s not fantastical, and it does not give much story attention to plot. To me, it often feels like literary fiction is set up in opposition to SFF (and other genres—like romance or western). As in, literary fiction is meant to be not those things.
The Source of The Divide
Well, in the 1900s, SFF got super popular. So popular that publishers scrambled to publish any SFF they could get their hands on. The supply simply couldn’t meet the reader’s demand. As a result, publishers started publishing lower-quality SFF, and SFF became a genre known for its low quality and tropes. As demand leveled out in the mid- and late-1900s (it happened at slightly different times for fantasy and sci-fi), the quality rose again, but decades later, SFF is still recovering its reputation. I guess news travels slow.
This has led to the coining of the term sci-fi ghetto. SFF works are looked down upon simply because of their genre. The irony of this is that so many books that have shaped the literary cannon are firmly sci-fi or fantasy in their content. The Iliad and The Odyssey recount tales of epic battles, extraordinary journeys, and gods and heroes with supernatural powers. In The Divine Comedy, Dante’s story evokes the sort of journey we might expect in high fantasy. Frankenstein centers on a lab-created creature going rogue. Lord of the Rings is a huge reason (if not the reason) why fantasy exploded in popularity. Shakespeare incorporated all sorts of fantastical elements in his works. The list goes on and on and on. Feel free to list more examples in the comments.
Very few works in the literary cannon fit into today’s definition of literary fiction.
That being said, there is some literary fiction that is surrealist. And my observation (take this with a grain of salt) is that literary publishers are now opening to publishing literary fiction that draws on the speculative. The stories may include fantastical elements and give some of the writing’s focus to plot.
This brings me to a theory I have about literary fiction: Literary fiction is all about the zeitgeist, and it’s a moving target. Literary fiction today is not what it will be in fifty years. Of course, this is true of any type of genre—genres morph (contrast The Divine Comedy with Lord of the Rings). At its core, though, SFF has stayed the same: It’s about advanced technologies (sci-fi) or the fantastical (fantasy) or some combination therein. However, what’s literary seems to sway based on the crowd writing it.
What do I mean by that?
Where Does Literary Fiction Come From?
This bit is also based off my observations (so also take it with a grain of salt). From my perspective, a lot of literary writing is produced by people operating in academia (professors). And since these are the people who are setting what is high-brow writing—they create assigned reading lists, instruct students on what is good writing, and generally shape the next generation’s writing—they are naturally shaping what the literary genre is.
While it’s certainly true that SFF is also based off the crowd writing it (as is any writing shaped by its writers), SFF writers seem to be less of a homogeneous crowd. If you go looking for SFF writers in academia, you’ll be lucky to find one at your average university (though I do think this is changing).
Okay, that’s a lot of information. Basically, literary fiction is intentionally separated from SFF, and I think part of the reason this separation is maintainable is because literary writers are often the ones shaping the next generation of writing.
Here’s where things get interesting. To me, literary fiction at the moment feels fairly agenda-driven. Of course, this is not true of all literary fiction, but a lot of what’s being published at the moment feels like it has a particular narrative behind it. That’s fine, of course, there’s a place for agenda-driven writing, but I wish that the writing would essentially confess to be as much. Sort of like you know reading Animal Farm or 1984 that the story is designed to make a point, and I don’t know that it pretends to be otherwise.
Naturally, all writing has an agenda because every writer has an agenda. We all have beliefs and values. There is, however, a difference between a story that has naturally arising themes and stories designed for a theme. On one hand, there’s drafting/planning a story, realizing your stories contains certain themes, then honing those themes to be more cohesive. On the other hand, there’s taking a theme, then writing a story specifically to fit that theme.
And I can’t help but feel like literary fiction has turned more toward the latter. A lot of it feels very homogeneous in its themes and ideas. Meanwhile, to me, SFF still feels like its driven by the story and characters first and foremost.
Why I Can’t Seem to Get into Literary Fiction
Finally, I want to talk about the idea of speculative fiction’s being realistic. My comments here are going to be super subjective, but I’ve tried to organize this post so that it’s clear what’s my own observations/opinions and what is objective.
As you probably noticed in the above definition of literary fiction, this writing is meant to be focused on reality: realistic settings, characters you could meet in real life (no aliens or wizards), and situations that could happen (mostly abiding by real-life norms). For example, a literary novel set in Germany typically couldn’t have a character get arrested for breaking a law that doesn’t exist in Germany. There is some wiggle room in this: The writer could invent a fake German town, and the writer could even perhaps have the law be somewhat fake, if it feels realistic, but generally the writer would be doing research on German law to have the character arrested for something actually illegal.
To all that, I say, “Fair enough.” I’m generally more interested in fantastical settings than realistic ones, but if realism floats your boat, then I totally understand the appeal of literary settings. Where the genre loses me is when it comes to characters.
I rarely feel a connection with literary characters. If the idea is that the characters are supposed to be realistic, shouldn’t they be relatable? Maybe this is just me, but I struggle to relate to literary characters. That feeling of being interested in a character, of rooting for them, of seeing a bit of yourself in them? I don’t often feel that way when it comes to characters in literary fiction, which makes me wonder how realistic they actually are. Even if I can’t relate to their precise lives, shouldn’t their underlying emotions, desires, and problems feel relatable?
This is more of a pondering than a fully formed thought since I’m not sure why this is the case. Maybe it’s just me.
Those are my thoughts on literary fiction versus speculative fiction. I’ve thought about this topic quite a bit, and it’s something I felt was relevant to talk about on a blog that focuses on SFF.
What do you think about literary fiction? Do you relate to its characters?