Literary Fiction: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Definition of Literary Fiction
  • 1:02 Characteristics
  • 1:49 Literary Examples
  • 5:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

Literary fiction is fiction that has value and merit in the social world. Learn about what makes fiction 'literary' through descriptions and famous examples.

Definition of Literary Fiction

You have probably heard of fiction - the branch of literature with made up stories and characters. What you may not know is that not all fiction is considered 'literary.' Literary fiction is universally understood as symbolic or thematic fiction that critics consider to have 'literary merit.' In other words, it is a story that tries to be bigger than the story itself. To do this, literary fiction must comment on something that is considered significant, such as social or political issues, or the human condition.

Critics of literary fiction usually contrast it to genre fiction, or fiction that is written to be popular to a mass audience. The main difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is their reliance on plot. While genre fiction is driven by plot, literary fiction is less about its plot and more about the value of its commentary. A great way to look at the distinction is to remember that genre fiction tries to help you escape reality, while literary fiction tries to get you to open up to your reality.


So, what are some characteristics of literary fiction?

Literary fiction can be described as layered with inner stories and subtext. Its characters tend to be complex, because the literary fiction examines character motivations and thoughts in order to get the readers emotionally invested. For this reason, the pacing tends to be slow as to make room for such character development.

The writing style of literary fiction is typically elegant, with language that is elevated or poetic, as it focuses more on discovery and truth rather than entertaining readers or solving problems. And its tone is usually serious, because the truths literary fiction grapples with try to get readers thinking about universal issues like faith, human tragedy, and purpose.

Literary Examples

You have probably read at least a couple of works of literary fiction in your lifetime; because of their literary merit, these books are often assigned by high school English teachers. Here are two examples of novels that will help to exemplify what 'literary merit' can look like.

First, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Published in the early 20th century, Joyce incorporates autobiographical information to create the very complex and realistic protagonist, Stephen. The story follows Stephen as he struggles through questions of faith, politics, and life as an artist. Here's an excerpt from Joyce's novel that demonstrates the language and thoughtfulness of Stephen:

'Stephen turned towards his companion and looked at him for a moment boldly in the eyes. Lynch, recovering from his laughter, answered his look from his humbled eyes. The long slender flattened skull beneath the long pointed cap brought before Stephen's mind the image of a hooded reptile. The eyes, too, were reptile-like in glint and gaze. Yet at that instant, humbled and alert in their look, they were lit by one tiny human point, the window of a shrivelled soul, poignant and self-embittered.'

There are many reasons why this novel is considered to have 'literary merit.' Notice the multiple layers revealed in Stephen. Though he is standing with a friend, the scene takes place in his thoughts. Through his thoughts, readers can begin to see his suffering and his struggle to understand the world around him. Joyce uses Stephen's thoughts to develop a very complex character.

Also notice the elevated language ('shrivelled soul,' 'self-embittered') and poetic descriptions (comparing his friend to a serpent with humbled eyes). This style of writing helps to establish the novel's commentary on universal truths, truth like human suffering and questioning faith.

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