Let’s begin with what Literary Fiction is not: Genre fiction.
Genre fiction includes, for example: Romance, Crime, Thriller, Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy. There will be many subgenres within any particular genre.
Some authors of genre fiction have a very specific niche, and stay within this, whilst others move around within different subgenres, or even genres.
Particular novels may blend two or more genres, with varying degrees of success.
Genre novels adhere, at least to some extent, to conventions and formulas. There will be strong reader expectations, such as the crime being solved, by the detective in a Murder Mystery, and a happy ending in a Romance.
It doesn’t necessarily follow that genre writing is not high quality, or lacking originality. The standard of genre fiction varies widely, and it’s a misconception that genre is automatically inferior to Literary Fiction.
Equally, it’s wrong to assume that Literary Fiction is merely pretentious, and not as genuinely enjoyable to read as genre fiction.
Identifying a Literary novel in a bookstore or library should be relatively straightforward, aside from the section in which you discover the book.
In precisely the same way that a genre and subgenre can usually be established, at a glance: The cover.
Book cover trends vary over time but, whatever the current design trends might be, the tendency is for covers to Do What It Says On The Tin.
It’s how marketing works, and the most immediate way to communicate instantly to potential readers, whether your story is likely to appeal to them.
One vital aspect of Literary Fiction is the tendency to address deeper themes.
It’s true that there is genre fiction out there that also does this, but with Literary Fiction, there’s more focus upon this.
Without the restriction of having to stay within genre rules and guidelines, there is greater opportunity to explore the themes thoroughly – and, often, although not always, at a slower, more reflective pace.
The boundaries are set by the writer, and not the market.
Literary fiction can be successful, and make money, but the tendency is for it to be less popular and commercial than genre fiction.
That’s a major down side. It’s more challenging to market a work of fiction that is less conventional, and doesn’t tick any of the standard boxes.
Character development can be emphasized – something that particularly appeals to me, personally.
I believe characters to be the heart of great fiction.
The quality of prose will be of a high standard.
This is probably one of the few definite requirements.
It often does mean a poetic style, although not necessarily. The style may be more precise than poetic. And we’re not talking purple prose, either – but genuinely fine writing.
For an example of what I would consider to be quality poetic prose, refer to “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath.
Literary fiction is often experimental.
It sometimes has a lack of plot, in the ordinary sense, although not always. Some genre novels have almost a literary feel to them, and are on the borderline.
Some would define Literary Fiction as effectively its own genre.
This makes sense, in some respects.
But, however Literary Fiction is or isn’t defined, it does have immense value.
Whilst not “better” than genre fiction, it can often unique perspectives, that simply wouldn’t be possible within the confines of a standard genre.