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literary fiction vs genre fiction

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  #1  
Old 09-04-2015, 12:29 PM
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Default literary fiction vs genre fiction


I know the definitions, but what are the differences between the two? How do you know which category a story fits into?

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Old 09-05-2015, 01:05 PM
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If it is the kind of book children will hate but has a moral so well obscured by erudite attempts at maturity thus reaching a minuscule commercial audience it is literary fiction. Whether or not a moral was put in deliberately if the story is written well enough to compell any audience to read it voluntarily it is genre. Personal opinion. Nothing more.

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Old 09-06-2015, 05:39 AM
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When I’m thinking about literary fiction vs. genre fiction, especially when trying to define literary fiction, I usually fall back on “I know it when I see it.” Lord knows, I’m no expert, but here’s a stab at it.

I think most genre fiction has an easily identifiable protagonist who experiences and is involved in some kind of challenge in his or her unique world. They’re trying to achieve a goal, they’re up against an identifiable antagonist or “villain,” and they come through it either victorious or defeated. The characters can be deep and thoughtful and well realized, but the story is more about big things involving action that are happening to and around the character.

As for literary fiction, or what I consider good literary fiction, there is definitely a plot; unlike what a lot of people think. But to some degree, it is more about what’s going on in the minds of the characters and their more subtle motivations. The plot is more below the surface and often involves desires more than big goals. Things happen to and around the character that are challenging, but they aren’t necessarily huge events. Or maybe a better way to put it is that the events are extraordinary to the character, but they are things that can happen to people “in the real world.” And the resolution may be about a decision or a change of heart or coming to some understating about life, more so than a big victory over an adversary.

I think the discussion usually falls apart when people try to take sides and say one is better than the other; when it’s about snobbery vs. reverse snobbery; that literary fiction is boring and pretentious and without a plot, or that genre fiction is simplistic and “low-brow.”

I think it’s really a matter of personal taste and recognizing that when it’s well written, it’s probably more about a difference in emphasis than anything else.
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Old 09-06-2015, 07:39 AM
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Hello.

I've been thinking about the difference between Lit and entertaining fiction for a number of years.

PhD Holders (and those seeking a PhD in Lit.) study Lit. and successful writers write entertainment. Dead writers wrote Lit. and live ones write in styles, language and issues of the times they live in.

Further, politics about "worth" come into play:

"Why are you reading that garbage when you could read something worthwhile?"
"No thanks. I want something easy to read, easy to understand and that's exciting."

Reminds me of Medicine still operating in Latin. Better to keep it mysterious or there will be no need for Doctors. Or, what would a PhD Lit. Professors teach if it was easy to understand? They'd be out of their jobs. Maybe the study of Lit. belongs more at home in the History Department than the English Department.

As usual, the Hustle on this planet never ends.

Have a nice writing day.
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Last edited by wrc; 09-06-2015 at 08:09 AM.. Reason: this edit mode is better for writing and the little box is a waste of time.
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Old 09-06-2015, 08:18 AM
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Thanks for giving this discussion a go!

Binx, you said that literary fiction has a plot, but didn't say if genre fiction has a plot. Since folks talk about plot holes in genre fiction, I have the feeling that you are using "plot" to mean something specific, but I'm not sure I understand your meaning. Would you please try rephrasing? I think it might be important. Thanks!

Motley Crew and wrc, what you both are saying pretty much describes how I see the differences, but I'm trying to get a real handle on it. I'm thinking of challenging myself to write one piece of literary fiction. In order to do that I need a good grasp of what I'm shooting for. So anything specific that you can add will be helpful. And thanks for participating!

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Old 09-06-2015, 10:54 AM
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the way I see it
a genre is the flavour or the mood of the story
literary is the choice of idioms words we use
fiction is the opposite of true to life
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Old 09-06-2015, 11:05 AM
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Originally Posted by Nacia View Post
the way I see it
a genre is the flavour or the mood of the story
literary is the choice of idioms words we use
fiction is the opposite of true to life
Thanks for participating!

I'm not sure I understand what you mean when you say fiction is the opposite of true to life. Fantasy fiction is less based in reality, but even that has some realism, don't you think? Opposite of true to life sounds completely unrealistic to me. Is that what you mean?
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Old 09-06-2015, 11:10 AM
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Originally Posted by poirot View Post
Binx, you said that literary fiction has a plot, but didn't say if genre fiction has a plot. Since folks talk about plot holes in genre fiction, I have the feeling that you are using "plot" to mean something specific, but I'm not sure I understand your meaning. Would you please try rephrasing? I think it might be important. Thanks!
poirot, more specifically, I said that in literary fiction, the plot is more below the surface. The implication is that with genre fiction, the plot is more straightforward and involves larger events propelled by scenes that include action, like battles, shootouts, chases etc.

That's not to say genre novels don't intertwine action sequences with the thoughts and emotions of the character, but genre fiction is more about how a character interacts with the outer world and events that move the plot along.

Originally Posted by poirot View Post
I'm thinking of challenging myself to write one piece of literary fiction. In order to do that I need a good grasp of what I'm shooting for. So anything specific that you can add will be helpful. And thanks for participating!
I wouldn't go by other people's definitions or opinions. Rather, I'd read novels or short stories that are considered literary fiction; immerse yourself in that to some degree, and then you can decide for yourself it that's something you want to pursue.

Anything is possible, but I think it would be very difficult. I think most people decide to write a particular kind of fiction based on what they know and love; so it's really more about what they have to write or must write, rather than deciding to write something based on a whim.

Originally Posted by wrc View Post
PhD Holders (and those seeking a PhD in Lit.) study Lit. and successful writers write entertainment. Dead writers wrote Lit. and live ones write in styles, language and issues of the times they live in.
They might not write blockbusters like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, but authors like Jeffrey Eugenides, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Chabon, Yann Martel, and many more, who I would consider writers of literary fiction, are still alive and quite successful. A number of their books are made into films; not that it's any benchmark of quality, but it does say something about wide appeal or at least the potential for it.

I don't think literary fiction is as popular because it's not escapist, and that's what a lot of readers want. And it can be somewhat more challenging because the plot just doesn't unfold in front of you; you can't just "watch" things happen. But it certainly can be accessible, relatable and relevant to our times. Sometimes the writing style is more poetic and less straightforward (but not always) and there are certainly readers who appreciate that.

I don't think books that are considered literary fiction are all dense, pretentious tomes that academics have to shove down people's throats. Literary fiction is just a different kind of fiction and it has a different appeal. My writing probably falls into the category, and I'm not going to stop writing it because of some concern that I won't be "successful." And I think we'd be missing out on a lot of great writing if that was the consensus.

Last edited by Binx B; 09-06-2015 at 11:20 AM..
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Old 09-06-2015, 11:17 AM
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Please stay with me, Binx. I'm trying to understand, not argue.

Genre fiction and literary fiction both have plots but literary fiction has the plot more below the surface. Is that right? Can you give examples?

In both there can be action or struggle, but in genre it's more about the main character's emotions related to the struggle. Is that right? But didn't you also say that literary fiction deals more with the emotions? I'm feeling even more confused, speaking of emotions.
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Old 09-06-2015, 11:18 AM
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Originally Posted by poirot View Post
Thanks for participating!

I'm not sure I understand what you mean when you say fiction is the opposite of true to life. Fantasy fiction is less based in reality, but even that has some realism, don't you think? Opposite of true to life sounds completely unrealistic to me. Is that what you mean?
what I mean is if fiction is to be successful it has to remain within the boundaries
of nothing like real life
that s the true meaning of fiction it is imagined therefore it is nothing to do with reality
otherwise fiction is a scapegoat to a reality that has gone pairshaped
does that make sense?
a true fictionist remains totally indifferent to what life is about
fiction is not credible but more manageable ie manage ideas/ a truth that is not real
so to make the difference between reality and imagination
otherwise a realist loses the credential of being that because fiction is now imitating life
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Old 09-06-2015, 11:27 AM
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Originally Posted by Nacia View Post
what I mean is if fiction is to be successful it has to remain within the boundaries
of nothing like real life
that s the true meaning of fiction it is imagined therefore it is nothing to do with reality
otherwise fiction is a scapegoat to a reality that has gone pairshaped
does that make sense?
a true fictionist remains totally indifferent to what life is about
fiction is not credible but more manageable so to make the difference between reality and imagination
otherwise a realist loses the credential of being that because fiction is now imitating life
I'm still puzzled.

What about fiction that is specifically written to capture the essence and lessons of a particular time? Is that still the opposite of true to life? The best example I can think of are the Little House on the Prarie books. I read that Laura wanted the times that she grew up in to be remembered, as she saw them disappearing. I'm sure there's others. They are fictionalized events, as it were. Where do they fit in?
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Old 09-06-2015, 11:55 AM
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Originally Posted by poirot View Post
Genre fiction and literary fiction both have plots but literary fiction has the plot more below the surface. Is that right? Can you give examples?
In my opinion, yes. Explaining it beyond that really requires more work than I want to do. It would involve trying to describe or provide examples of novels or short stories that are available for you to read yourself. It depends on how much you really want to understand this. If you truly want to write literary fiction, I can't adequately explain it you, and it would be foolish for me to try.

Originally Posted by poirot View Post
In both there can be action or struggle, but in genre it's more about the main character's emotions related to the struggle. Is that right?
Something like that. But to me it's more a matter of degrees and emphasis. In genre fiction, the characters emotions are often secondary to the action or what's happening in regards to bigger events that involve battles, or murders, or alien invasions etc.

Originally Posted by poirot View Post
But didn't you also say that literary fiction deals more with the emotions? I'm feeling even more confused, speaking of emotions.
Yes, I did. In comparison to genre fiction, where a characters emotions are often less important than the action or events.

Originally Posted by poirot View Post
I think it might be important. Thanks!
You are welcome. But nothing I've said here is important. At best, when considering something as big and varied and nebulous as literary fiction vs. genre fiction, the expectation should probably be that a conversation like this is simply a springboard for you to do you own investigation, and that will probably require a lot of reading if you are really serious about getting a satisfactory answer for yourself.

Regardless, I think you're way ahead of people who have made up their minds by going on preconceived ideas and impressions, who dismiss literary fiction out of hand, but haven't really made any effort to understand what it is or can be.

Last edited by Binx B; 09-06-2015 at 12:00 PM..
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Old 09-06-2015, 12:14 PM
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Fair enough, Binx. Can you recommend a good starter example of literary fiction? Or an author?

Thanks!
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Old 09-07-2015, 06:42 AM
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Hmm. That's a tough one, poirot.

Maybe you could start with some short stories. Have you read Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Flannery O'Connor?

Or maybe you could try something more recent, like Jennifer Egan's, A Visit from the Goon Squad which is kind of novel short story collection hybrid that is pretty accessible. Or maybe some stories by T.C. Boyle or Amy Hempel.

I'd be more inclined to ask someone who knows you and is familiar with your current tastes.

Here's one of Amy Hempel's short stories online. It's one of my favorites. Pretty well known, and it's been anthologized many times:

http://fictionaut.com/stories/amy-he...lson-is-buried

Another of my favorites is Why Don't You Dance, by Raymond Carver:

http://www.greathill.com/blog/wp-con...-You-Dance.pdf
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Old 09-07-2015, 07:02 AM
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Thanks, Binx!
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Old 09-07-2015, 07:11 AM
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In fact, it's only literary critics that put your work in one category or the other, after it has been published and is selling.
So don't worry, just write and have a good laugh about what they call it once it has become a bestseller.
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Old 09-07-2015, 07:28 AM
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I don't know much about the process, but it seems like if a literary critic has read your work, then it's probably something that has been traditionally published. And if so, your agent and publisher have likely already categorized your work, and you probably would have had to categorize it yourself to some degree just to get it in front of the right agent in the first place. So I don't know if you can practically ignore all categorization when it comes to selling your book.

But I'm not really considering the question that much from a standpoint of commercial categories, so much as the difference in approach and how you think about writing. From that angle, I think it's a worthwhile discussion.
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Old 09-07-2015, 07:37 AM
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Originally Posted by Binx B View Post
I don't know much about the process, but it seems like if a literary critic has read your work, then it's probably something that has been traditionally published. And if so, your agent and publisher have likely already categorized your work, and you probably would have had to categorize it yourself to some degree just to get it in front of the right agent in the first place. So I don't know if you can practically ignore all categorization when it comes to selling your book.

But I'm not really considering the question that much from a standpoint of commercial categories, so much as the difference in approach and how you think about writing. From that angle, I think it's a worthwhile discussion.
Agreed.
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Old 09-07-2015, 07:39 AM
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Originally Posted by Binx B View Post
. And if so, your agent and publisher have likely already categorized your work, and you probably would have had to categorize it yourself to some degree just to get it in front of the right agent in the first place.
Do you think so? I've never read a book that states on the cover 'this is literary fiction' or 'this is genre fiction' (and if I have, I didn't pay attention).
I mean, of the published writers I know (I know a few), there is not one who gives a damn about the details of the genre his work is sold as. Of course you don't have to promote a thriller as a cook book, and even ...?
What I actually mean is that you just have to write, without caring too much about the genre. Time enough to think about that once your work is finished, and if you care (or if your agent cares).
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Old 09-07-2015, 08:49 AM
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Originally Posted by Marc Haertjens View Post
Do you think so? I've never read a book that states on the cover 'this is literary fiction' or 'this is genre fiction' (and if I have, I didn't pay attention).
I mean, of the published writers I know (I know a few), there is not one who gives a damn about the details of the genre his work is sold as. Of course you don't have to promote a thriller as a cook book, and even ...?
What I actually mean is that you just have to write, without caring too much about the genre. Time enough to think about that once your work is finished, and if you care (or if your agent cares).
Certain agents and certain publishers only look at certain types of material. That's fact. A piece that doesn't fit is rejected immediately. Period.

And the discussion centers around the idea that the author does, in fact, care.
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Old 09-07-2015, 01:01 PM
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Hi poirot.

Here's my take on the differece between Lit and genre writing:

Lit is hard to understand because it rambles on and on and never gets to a point. Convoluted sentences. Big words and complex ideas. And, for me, BORING.

Genres are easy to understand. It follows a pattern developed over time. That pattern is different for each genre. Romantic work is about a love affair. Hardboiled is about vengence. Thrillers about heros surviving. Now, I know there are more elements than I said. But I think I've nailed the thrust of each example. (Having a story about a Serial Killer in a story seems like a new genre to me because it ceirtainly has a following.)

I have no idea how many genres there are. But I am convinced that the readers of each has certain expectations and that creates the pattern. And the readers of all genres want to be entertained.

I guess my question is why in the world would someone with talent and the will to write waste their time writing Literature?

What a total waste of time!

As they say in Mexico... "Oh, well..."

Have a nice writing day.
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Last edited by wrc; 09-07-2015 at 01:11 PM..
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Old 09-07-2015, 02:12 PM
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I guess I'll never get why some people can't just be content to acknowledge that we all have different preferences and tastes.

They have to go the extra step to knock something, and this case even try to discourage someone from trying to read or write something different, just because they don't appreciate it.

"Oh well," indeed.
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Old 09-09-2015, 06:50 PM
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Hi Benx.

When I am faced with a beginning writer and they want to know if they should write Lit or Genre I always tell them the truth. "If you expect to get paid and put food on the table write genre. If you're want to be considered worthwhile in your work by the rich Upper Class write Lit. The audience is for this is smaller and you might not make a dime."

I'm not starting a pissing match here. But I feel it's a disservice to tout a course that's a dead end. Especially for the beginning writer, a few of who(m) are among us. Did it ever occur to you that Lit. may be just an old genre that most readers long ago left behind?

As they say in in Mexico... "oh well..."
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Old 09-09-2015, 07:40 PM
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Default literary fiction vs genre fiction

Originally Posted by wrc View Post
Hi Benx.



When I am faced with a beginning writer and they want to know if they should write Lit or Genre I always tell them the truth. "If you expect to get paid and put food on the table write genre. If you're want to be considered worthwhile in your work by the rich Upper Class write Lit. The audience is for this is smaller and you might not make a dime."



I'm not starting a pissing match here. But I feel it's a disservice to tout a course that's a dead end. Especially for the beginning writer, a few of who(m) are among us. Did it ever occur to you that Lit. may be just an old genre that most readers long ago left behind?



As they say in in Mexico... "oh well..."

Hmm... I always considered literature to be the the product of superior writers, despite the genre they may involve. For example: Kurt Vonnegut wrote science fiction (ish). But his work is largely regarded as literature. Bukowski wrote... Umm... Smut? (A lot of other stuff too) But his work is also considered literature. McCarthy writes all kinds of stuff, and his work is also considered literature. I don't think Lit has to be boring. In fact, all of the authors above were successful in their lifetimes. Christopher Moore writes spec. fic., but he is also in the literature section at Barnes and Noble.
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Old 09-09-2015, 08:26 PM
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Hi brian.

As a grad student I was required to take a couple of Lit. classes. I love many of the writers you mentioned. The classes I took mentioned none of them. And our assigned readings were boring. To escape that reality I was reading hardboiled writers and enjoying the hell out of them. Of course, on my own time.

So, is Lit just another genre? And a boring one, at that. What thinks thee?

Nice to have you back. Have a nice writing day.
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Old 09-10-2015, 01:08 AM
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Originally Posted by wrc View Post
Hi Benx.

When I am faced with a beginning writer and they want to know if they should write Lit or Genre I always tell them the truth. "If you expect to get paid and put food on the table write genre. If you're want to be considered worthwhile in your work by the rich Upper Class write Lit. The audience is for this is smaller and you might not make a dime."

I'm not starting a pissing match here. But I feel it's a disservice to tout a course that's a dead end. Especially for the beginning writer, a few of who(m) are among us. Did it ever occur to you that Lit. may be just an old genre that most readers long ago left behind?

As they say in in Mexico... "oh well..."
It certainly doesn't have to be a pissing match.

The OP asked about something specific, literary fiction. Somehow I think you're confusing that with classic literature or "Literature" in some larger sense as a designation of merit determined by academia or the literary establishment, or something you might be forced to read in "lit" class.

But that's not what I'm talking about. Literary fiction is a term used in the publishing industry. It is not considered a genre, but it is a category under which books are currently marketed and sold. If you go to Amazon, you will see a category called "Literary Fiction."

I've already done my best to define it earlier in the thread, so I'm not going to do that again. However, there are currently successful authors who are writing it. I've mentioned a few like Jeffrey Eugenides, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Chabon, Yann Martel; but there are many more. They write best sellers.

Other writers you may have heard of who have written literary fiction recently and in the last few decades include John Irving, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, E. L. Doctorow, Alice Walker, Margarete Atwood, David Foster Wallace; the list goes on and on. They've written some great books that are anything but "boring."

I could be wrong, but I suspect from your comments that you don't read literary fiction, know who's writing it today or really understand what it is or whether or not it has any commercial potential or popular appeal. So given that, I'm suggesting it might not be good idea to tell anyone not to write it.

Not that it really matters. People who love and appreciate literary fiction, and want to write it are probably just as capable of assessing their chances at "putting food on the table" as any other aspiring writer. They don't need you or me to tell them what they should or shouldn't write.

Last edited by Binx B; 09-10-2015 at 01:39 AM..
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Old 09-10-2015, 01:43 AM
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Literary fiction is probably something that's thought provoking or emotionally moving in some way. Something more true-to-life, perhaps, that really resonates with a lot of readers? Something that'll stand the test of time? Just a guess, here.

What happens of one Googles "literary fiction"? What definition comes up?
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Old 09-10-2015, 01:58 AM
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The dictionary definition of literary fiction and how it's used by writers, the publishing industry and the people who read it are different. So I think we should probably be concerned with the latter, but it's not all that easy to define with a sound bite. I've made some attempt to define it, but I'm sure if you Google it, you'll find articles or blogs etc. that do a better job.

The simple and inadequate definition I often see, is that genre fiction is more plot driven, literary fiction is more character driven. But I think it's important to consider that it's a matter of degrees. That doesn't mean that literary fiction doesn't have a plot.

For most people, it's an "I know it when I see it" kind of thing. I think that probably includes the agents who are looking for that kind of book. And they are definitely out there.
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Devon (09-10-2015)
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Old 09-10-2015, 01:32 PM
wrc (Offline)
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Default to All. You were right and I was wrong.

Hello All.

When I was faced with so much disagreement for my POV on Literature I spent most of last night night searching the net.

I discovered there is a genre called Literary Fiction which I'll paste at the bottom of this message.

I've had terrible experiences in the name of Literature. In addition to Graduate classes I was required to take, before coming to WB I had joined Literature Forum. Even though I saw that everyone there was worshipping dead writers, I put one of my Short Stories up for comment. The kindest feedback was "Go back to school." And when I discovered WB I felt like a prisoner suddenly released.

And many of the writers you mentioned I had already been reading and enjoying.

So allow me to say once again, you all were right and I was wrong. But you should know that I'm committed to expanding my thinking whenever possible and so I'll also say thank you for hanging in there with me which resulted in my education. There is a magic on WB!

The following came from Query.com, which has many resources for writers... This is from a list of genres.

((((
Literary Fiction:

If you marvel at the quality of writing in your novel above all else, then you’ve probably written a work of literary fiction. Literary fiction explores inherent conflicts of the human condition through stellar writing. Pacing, plot, and commercial appeal are secondary to the development of story through first-class prose.

Multi-layered themes, descriptive narration, and three-dimensional characterization distinguish this genre from all others. Literary fiction often experiments with traditional structure, narrative voice, multi-POVs, and storylines to achieve an elevated sense of artistry. Although some literary fiction can become "commercial" by transcending its niche market and appealing to a broader audience, this is not the same as commercial fiction, which at its core has a commerical, marketable hook, plot, and storyline—all developed through literary prose. Literary fiction often merges with other fiction types to create hybrid genres such as literary thrillers, mysteries, historicals, epics, and family sagas.
))))

Have a nice writing day.
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You're not dead 'til you're dead and when you are you won't know it. So, keep on writing and having fun.

Last edited by wrc; 09-10-2015 at 01:48 PM..
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Old 09-10-2015, 01:53 PM
Binx B
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Originally Posted by wrc View Post
I discovered there is a genre called Literary Fiction which I'll paste at the bottom of this message.
Good for you. Glad you made the "discovery." Cheers, man.

Originally Posted by wrc View Post
If you marvel at the quality of writing in your novel above all else, then you’ve probably written a work of literary fiction.
I don't know what other writers of literary fiction think, but plot, characterization etc.; all the elements that make great story telling are important to me. They are the foundation. "Quality writing" is just the icing on the cake.

Last edited by Binx B; 09-10-2015 at 02:03 PM..
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