So, the other day on Facebook, another reading friend asked a question. He wanted to know "what is this new genre called literary fiction?" No one seemed to know, and I doubt that most folks on the forum he was asking really cared anyway. They aren't a group that is particularly interested in LF. This was my response:
"Literary fiction does not include James Patterson, Nora Roberts, romance novels, crime novels, mystery novels (well, maybe a few, they aren't necessarily exclusive, but I'm thinking of Janet Evanovich type stuff--fun, but not literary)..., or more "popular" fiction. Literary fiction focuses more on character development than plot formula, and more care is taken with the writing. It isn't being churned out as a serial, or follow up to satisfy a demanding audience like a daily soap opera. It is more "literary"! It's more serious. It usually includes classics. That's my take on literary fiction, with is mostly what I mostly read. You may disagree, but I think there is a big difference between general fiction and literary fiction. I think historical fiction takes an actual event or person from the past and uses them in a fictional way, so they can truly cover a lot. How far in the past? That's debatable, but so are all genres"
Now, I could be wrong, but I think I have the gist of what LF is. You're never going to find a "literary fiction" section at a chain bookstore or the library, but it is a "genre" that can encompass books in other genre as well. For instance, some historical fiction is literary as well. I'd say Hilary Mantel's books are literary, as well as historical fiction. But Phillipa Gregory would be strictly historical fiction: her writing is average, nothing extraordinary, her characters are almost caricatures of well known historical figures, and she certainly borders on being a romance writer.
I decided to do some pseudo-research (can it be real research if it's done on the internet?). Wikipedia says:
Despite the fact that all genres have works that are well written, those works are generally not considered literary fiction. To be considered literary, a work usually must be "critically acclaimed" and "serious". In practice, works of literary fiction often are "complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas."
The article then lists some common characteristics that can help one recognize LF:
1. Primary focus on characterization
2. Plot is secondary
3. Style (elegant, multilayered, lyrical)
4. Tone (serious)
5. Pacing (slow)
So I felt vindicated that I was pretty much on target with my idea of what LF is. Especially since that's what I mostly read. There is a short discussion there also about whether LF is truly its own genre. Amazon has a "Literary Fiction" genre, I get emails alerting me to books in that "category" I might like all the time.
A little more Google searching led me to a similarly themed blog post by Annie Neugebauer, and her contention is that literary fiction is three things: a style of writing, a genre AND a "qualifier," which is obviously where the biggest problem with people concerning the "snobby" factor. She has got some great insight on that!
You can see the original article by Annie Hamburger here.