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What is the difference between literary and general fiction?

A glance at the cover can offer some clues as to the genre of a book, but it can be trickier to determine if a particular book is ‘literary fiction’. And sometimes, even beyond the cover, it is hard to tell whether a novel falls into this category.

So, what constitutes literary fiction? Does the book have to be ‘serious’, too complicated to read without the help of a dictionary to be deemed literary fiction? Or can a page-turner also fall into this sometimes hallowed, occasionally ridiculed, category?

In Wikipedia, literary fiction is defined as much by what it is not rather than what it is: fiction that is regarded as having literary merit, as distinguished from most commercial or ‘genre’ fiction.

The role of literary fiction as art

For some, literary fiction is defined by its artistic integrity, with its nature as ‘literary’ determined by the fine drawing of character or landscape by the writer. It is no surprise, then, that readers are confused. For, what is artistic writing?

Sometimes, it is obvious that the language used in a book is extraordinary, evoking time, place and character in a way that is only possible in art. Some books that I have read in which this was the case include All That I Am by Anna Funder, Circe by Madeline Miller and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

These writers move beyond merely plotting engaging stories that ensure the reader is reluctant to put their books down. They create moments in which the reader has no choice but to pause over a particular phrase, to read it again or say it out loud.

But not all literary fiction is poetic in its language – sometimes it the sentences are cold and abrupt, telling another type of story, in another way, and offering the reader a different experience, the kind offered by the spare narratives of Raymond Carver and more recently, Rachel Cusk.

Fiction as social commentary

Others believe that literary fiction is defined by its role in contemporary social debate and reflection, or its ‘seriousness’; while general fiction might be entertaining, literary fiction is important. It might tackle racism, sexism, inequality or capitalism. It might bring to light past or current social and cultural injustices and investigate their source or nature, or lay bare society as it is, for the reader to consider.

In Peter Carey’s The Long Way from Home, these issues include the Indigenous experience in Australia, while in The Choke, it was poverty and social isolation that was under the spotlight. In both of these books, characters and landscape, rather than intricate plotting or a mystery to be solved, lie at the heart of the book.

But what of a page-turner like the recent The Geography of Friendship, which explored relationships and misogyny? Or the equally readable The Last Mrs Parrish, with its underlying commentary on power, control and domestic violence?

While Liane Moriarty’s books, such as Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret are not widely considered to be literary fiction, as evidenced by their covers, their characters are drawn in depth and detail and their issues are unquestionably of our time, from the social landscapes of the schoolyard to the reality of manipulative and violent relationships.

And where does Australian bestseller The Dry sit in all of this? It is plot-driven, but evocative, considered ‘literary’ by some, but excluded from literary prizes.

Is it a matter of ease of reading?

Complex ideas or an artistic and innovative approach to form are both elements that can place a book on the literary shelf in a bookshop. But they can also make works of literary fiction difficult to read. I found this to be the case with The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree and The Life to Come – both critically acclaimed novels, but which I found needed concentration and a degree of determination to finish. Each was rewarding, but no easy-read.

However, this discomfort or challenge in reading is not enough to define literary fiction, and exclude other less dense books from being categorised in this way, as many works of literary fiction as any work of general fiction. Elena Ferrante’s unquestionably literary Neopolitan novels are easily digestible, as are other popular literary novels ranging from The Great Gatsby to The Life of Pi.

Is it a matter of style?

Some might say that it is the gravity of literary fiction that holds it apart from general fiction; a sense of seriousness about its duty to inform and enlighten. But, again, this argument is not without its flaws, with humour playing a role in some of the best literary fiction, including The Long Road Home, My Family and Other Animals, Three Men in a Boat and A Confederacy of Dunces. Even the unquestionably serious The Life to Come has many moments of humour, as it satirises the behaviour of earnest millennials.

The blurring of lines between literary and genre fiction

As the distinction between literary and genre fiction diminishes every time a work of genre fiction wins a literary award in Australia and internationally, it is only becoming more difficult to determine the precise nature of literary fiction.

This year, a comic (more demurely described as a ‘graphic novel’), Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina, was shortlisted in the longlist for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Supporters hailed the inclusion of a comic in the longlist as, “Good news for comics, cartoonists and literature in general.”

However, critics did not greet the news as enthusiastically. In the Financial Times, writer and 2015 Man Booker Prize judge Sam Leith argued that the form Sabrina took meant that it should not compete with traditional novels.

“How can we ask a panel concerned with novels to judge the literary success of a graphic work independently of its artwork? It is an obvious aesthetic nonsense. Can a triumphant storyboard and dialogue be marked down for lousy drawings? Or could a graphic work with few or no written words (there are plenty; Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman is maybe the best known) win the Man Booker?”

Clearly, definition is a tricky thing, and becoming even more fraught, even for those deeply embedded in the literary world.

So, I’m sorry, I’m not sure if there is any easy way to define literary fiction. There are so many lines that blur, exceptions, and points of difference or similarity between books, with genres and categories intersecting and merging, and even authors swaying between the literary and the general.

For my two cents worth, it seems to me that the label ‘literary fiction’ reflects a writer’s investigation of a cultural or social reality, forcing the reader to look with new eyes at the world in which they live. But this also needs to be accompanied by a certain use of language which is innovative, powerful, commanding or beautiful, evoking characters or landscapes in a way that owes more to artistry than to the technicalities of writing a readable yarn.

But, unless you are responsible for working up the longlist for the Man Booker, does it really matter? The reader can find stories that are entertaining, readable and meaningful to them in any fiction, whether it is categorised as ‘literary’ or not.

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