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What is Literary Fiction?

What type of fiction do you write?

Depending on who you ask, fiction can be broken into two categories: Genre and literary. However, not everyone supports the idea of literary fiction. For this group, fiction can be separated into two camps: Good fiction and bad fiction which, of course, relies on the reader’s opinion.

You’ll find that’s also the case when it comes to literary fiction. Although we’ll attempt to break down the differences between genre and literary fiction in this post, keep in mind that the lines between the two can and often do blur.

Let’s kick things off by defining the characteristics of genre fiction and then literary fiction.

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What are the Characteristics of Genre Fiction?

Genre fiction appeals to the masses.

Genre fiction is also known as popular fiction— and that’s for a good reason. Genre fiction is more appealing to a wider audience. It’s written for the mainstream reader, especially those who are already fans of a specific subset of fiction (a.k.a. genre). Many readers gravitate to a particular genre, such as mystery, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, young adult, action, history, and so on. Genre fiction gives the fan access to their favorite type of storytelling.

Genre Fiction Follows a Specific Formula

What is literary fiction

Books that belong to a genre must follow the rules of that specific drama. A sci-fi story must contain advanced technology. Young adult must focus on a coming of age story and often uses a protagonist aged between 12 to 18. Romances must feature a love story.

Of course, as the writer, you can do whatever you choose, but just know that the reader of that genre comes in with basic expectations, and it wouldn’t be the best idea to ignore those expectations. If you do, then congratulations! You’re venturing into literary fiction (but more on that later).

Genre Fiction Uses Conventional Storytelling

Piggybacking off the last point, genre fiction keeps to a loose script. It also follows the predictable ebb and flow of conventional storytelling. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back.

Another way to think about it is to remember the basic plot diagram of a story:

Genre fiction stories start off with exposition that is interrupted by conflict. Rising action follows until the climax of the story followed by falling action and a satisfying resolution.

Genre Fiction is Entertaining

While not all genre fiction stories can be deemed as such, most of them fall into the category of fun escapism. That is, they provide an entertaining adventure that helps the reader forget about their own cares.

Genre Fiction is Plot-Driven

Because they must abide by a certain formula, most genre fiction stories are hopelessly plot-driven. Sure, they contain interesting characters, some of which the reader may fall in love with or hate to the core, but the plot is always in the driver’s seat. That plot, dictated by the genre, might be a love story, or it may be a whodunit, but it’s always the most important factor in the story.

Genre Fiction Often Features a Happy Ending

And they lived happily ever after… Or at least until the next book in the series comes out.

One of the most poignant characteristics of genre fiction is a tidy ending where burning questions are answered and the characters relax into their new normal. Most popular fiction resolves with a happy ending because the readers demand such.

Genre Fiction is Easier to Sell

It’s called popular fiction for a reason. Genre fiction is an easier sell. Fans of a specific genre are often drawn to reading more books that tell the same type of story. They’re always on the lookout for different interpretations of that basic story.

To Sum It Up

In a nutshell, genre fiction is considered popcorn for the soul. It may not be earth-shattering literature, but at the same time, the stories presented in genre fiction can be inventive, spellbinding, and beautifully done.

Does genre fiction have merit? Certainly! However, genre fiction is less likely to win prestigious literary awards or appeal to book snobs.

What are the Characteristics of Literary Fiction

Literary fiction doesn't follow a formula.

Unlike genre fiction, which follows a loose but predictable narrative, literary fiction doesn’t adhere to any rules. Anything can happen which can be both exciting and unnerving for the reader. Sometimes, literary fiction takes a common theme in genre fiction and turns it on its head. For example, the idea of good overcoming evil is challenged in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four .

As a side note , Nineteen Eighty-Four walks a fine line between literary fiction and genre fiction as David Barnett points on in this article for the Guardian . What we now consider classic literary fiction was often viewed as genre fiction by its contemporary critics.

Literary Fiction Uses Creative Storytelling

Because literary fiction isn’t bound to the strict standards of a specific sub-genre, every author is free to make up their own rules as they go along. The reader is never quite sure where the adventure will take them.

Free from rules, the literary fiction writer is able to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable and sometimes the results are extraordinary. See Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler . Written in the second person, this postmodernist metafiction is about your attempt to read a novel. However, you’re constantly prevented from doing so. It’s not very often that you can read a novel about you reading a novel.

Literary Fiction Explores the Human Condition

While genre fiction (as a whole) seeks to distract the reader through light entertainment, literary fiction is much more introspective in its objective. Literary fiction as a whole wants to make sense of the world around us by exploring the human condition.

An example of this is Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance , which is a haunting tale of India in the 1970s and 1980s. Through the lives of four principal characters, Mistry explores the simple hopes and palpable misery that we teeter between in this life. Although I read the book years ago, those characters are still with me, and that’s one of the hallmarks of literary fiction— the ability to create memorable characters. Because genre fiction is so focused on plot, it can’t compete with the intense character studies contained within a work of literary fiction.

What is literary fiction

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Literary Fiction May Be Difficult to Read

Stories that explore the human condition aren’t exactly fun reads. By nature, they have to deal with a difficult subject matter with unflinching honesty. It can be a tad uncomfortable to think about these issues when you, as the reader, simply want to escape.

Literary fiction may rely on symbolism or allegory to convey a deeper meaning. There’s almost always a deeper takeaway than the story itself reveals.

Literary Fiction is Character-Focused

While genre fiction is inextricably tied to the plot, literary fiction has the same relationship with the character. The characters must be explored and defined and the impetus that moves the story forward. Literary fiction doesn’t just show the characters in action, it also shows how every action changes the character.

Literary Fiction Often Has an Ambiguous Ending

In literary fiction, endings are usually sad, abrupt, or left up to your interpretation. Sometimes, nothing is resolved, which leaves the reader desperate to find meaning in it all.

Literary Fiction is Award-Friendly

You know how those artsy movies (that no one’s ever heard of) end up getting awards and accolades? Then, because it’s so celebrated, you end up seeing the movie, only to realize that you would’ve preferred watching the latest Thor movie?

That describes a lot of literary fiction. Because it often pushes boundaries and employs a unique perspective, works of literary fiction get more awards. Critics love that kind of thing. However, receiving an award doesn’t necessarily mean that the book is worth your time or money. As with all things art, creative genius is in the eye of the beholder.

To Sum it Up

If genre fiction is popcorn, does that make literary fiction more serious and substantive?

Not necessarily. Literary fiction provides a fresh way to tell stories and it ignores standard formulas. It stands alone and is not scared.

Final Thoughts

The term "literary fiction" is controversial and for good reason. As more “literary” writers venture into genre fiction, the lines of distinction have blurred. Sometimes, it’s not always clear. Perhaps, it is genre fiction that’s just pushing its own boundaries.

Or, maybe literary fiction is a genre all its own.

What are your thoughts? Do you write literary fiction? Or do you write genre fiction? Let us know in the comments below!

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Guides • Understanding Publishing

Last updated on Feb 07, 2023

What is Literary Fiction? The Ultimate Guide in 2024

Literary fiction is a category of novels that emphasize style, character, and theme over plot. Lit fic is often defined in contrast to genre fiction and commercial fiction , which involve certain tropes and expectations for the storyline; literary fiction has no such plot-based hallmarks.

Though it's a tough category to define, you can certainly spot literary fiction once you know what you're looking for. Intrigued? In this short guide, we’ll unpack this elusive category and give you tips for writing with literary readers in mind.

Literary fiction is not a standalone genre

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You will rarely see novels marketed as ‘literary fiction’, or even shelved that way in a bookstore. This is because literary fiction still shares some features with genre and commercial fiction, though they’re presented more subtly in lit fic. But even when it’s shelved alongside commercial fiction, literary fiction has a few telltale signs, as you’ll soon see. 

It’s considered a prestige category

Literary fiction novels are often seen as prestige items in a publisher’s list: cutting-edge works of ‘serious fiction’ by artists of the written word. As a result, literary fiction — even from debut authors — will often get an initial hardback release. If you see a new hardcover on prominent display at the bookstore, it’s almost guaranteed to be literary fiction.

This strategy not only gives it a chance to be seen by plenty of devoted readers, it also increases the book’s chances of being reviewed. According to the editor of The Bookseller in 2018, some literary editors will only review novels launched in hardback .

Books in this category are also privy to publishing’s biggest prizes, such as the Booker Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. So if you see a sticker on the cover boasting that it’s been nominated for a prestigious award, you’re likely looking at a work of literary fiction.

Style and theme take priority

Another key quality of literary fiction is its attention to style, which in turn underscores major themes. Of course, when thinking of literary fiction, people tend to imagine ‘highbrow’ or difficult prose. This has led to generations of aspiring literary authors packing their prose with run-on sentences, florid metaphors, and other rhetorical bells and whistles. 

While this stereotype is certainly true of some novelists (James Joyce, for example, was no stranger to run-on sentences), many literary authors favor concise prose over fancy linguistic flourishes. Take it from George Orwell, who lived by the maxim “never use a complicated word when a simple one will do” — or Hemingway, whose famously lean prose has taught generations of writers that less is more. 

Basically, though you may associate literary fiction with insufferable purple prose , it doesn’t have to be that way. The defining feature of literary fiction isn’t one specific style of prose, but rather its impact on the reader, and its ability to deliver or embody the book’s theme.

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Themes are explored in depth

Indeed, literary fiction isn’t all style over substance: meaningful themes are just as important in this category. After all, what use is an interesting voice if you don’t have anything to say? 

Literary fiction commonly examines ‘serious’ concepts like politics, social issues, and psychological conflict. But what makes the themes in literary fiction stand apart from those in genre fiction is the level of detail and narrative weight they’re given.

For example, Orwell’s Animal Farm is defined by its commentary on political structures. The plot and characters are just small parts that build the novel’s overarching metaphor for the Russian Revolution, as seen through Orwell’s satirical lens. 

As you can probably guess, the level of nuance required to explore serious themes calls for a great deal of time and effort on the author’s part. After all, it’s not easy to have a strong take on a weighty topic, and (crucially) understand how impacted characters would think, feel, and react — so if you intend to write literary fiction with big themes, make sure you’ve thought deeply about the real-world consequences.

They often drill into a single theme

Now, one might argue that The Hunger Games also tackles serious themes of social inequality — so how come it’s not considered literary fiction? Well, because this dystopian novel more strongly foregrounds elements of romance, coming of age, and an action-packed plot. The social themes, in many ways, are garnishes rather than the main course. 

Literary Fiction | The Hunger Games

In short, genre fiction’s focus on story means that it will rarely explore themes in as much depth as literary fiction. This thematic intensity doesn't make literary fiction “better” than genre fiction, or vice-versa — it just goes to show that there are many different approaches out there to meet the varied needs of different readers.

Character studies are its bread and butter

While authors of genre fiction certainly can’t ignore character development , their equal (or greater) focus on plot gives them less opportunity to drill deep into a character’s inner life. What’s more, most genre fiction has a protagonist who is lovable by design.

Meanwhile, in literary fiction, you’re much more likely to encounter morally gray and flawed characters , and find yourself absorbed by their history and psyche. That’s not to say every character in this category is inherently evil, incredibly flawed, or unlikable — they're just far more likely to be approached in a more complex way that exposes their faults, thus giving you the tools to dissect them.

Take The Catcher in the Rye as an example. J.D. Salinger’s hero is Holden Caulfield, a seventeen-year-old boarding school drop-out. Holden isn’t necessarily likable — in fact, he often alienates others by judging superficial characteristics extremely critically — but readers are intrigued by the book’s psychological insights into his personality. Though Holden is quick to judge others, particularly those he views as “phony”, he’s far from perfect himself; this makes trying to understand his behavior even more compelling. 

Instead of making Holden likable, Salinger makes the reader empathize with him despite his personality and actions — something that’s arguably much harder to do as an author. This challenging, thought-provoking nature is a definite hallmark of literary fiction. 

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The tone is often realistic and introspective

What do Of Mice and Men, Mrs Dalloway, The Remains of the Day have in common besides their dark elements and focus on longing? While none of these books would be mistaken for nonfiction , they are all grounded in a certain realism — their writers have taken special care in exploring the emotions and reactions of their characters in very specific settings.

Considering this, it won’t surprise you that literary fiction tends to rely on internal conflict of a character to drive the plot. In Of Mice and Men, for example, migrant farm worker George Milton is torn between his survival instincts and his loyalty to his simple (yet dangerous) friend, Lenny. While the novel arguably does have a villain — the landowner’s cruel son — the story’s true conflict takes place in George’s mind.

Literary Fiction | Of Mice and Men

You might also look to Mrs Dalloway as a good example of realistic introspection. In this book, readers follow a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, culminating in her finally reconciling herself with life in the present — despite her strong attachments to the past.

The Remains of the Day creates a similar air of realism by exploring the human psyche: we follow the butler of a grand English estate as he comes to terms with how his unhealthy devotion to his work, subsequent repression, and his fears of intimacy have held him back for years. 

It’s about the journey

But while the resolutions of all these stories may be melancholy and uncertain, sad endings alone don’t make them lit fic — it’s about the characters’ journeys to get there.

Good literary fiction feels so real because there isn’t that certainty of a happily ever after. After this, the characters will continue on their journey, and readers can only imagine where they might go. They want to wonder what will happen to the characters based on what they’ve learned through the story, rather than simply arrive at an ending that’s wrapped up in a bow. 

That literary fiction writers allude to this “to be continued” reality in their novels, makes them that much more believable. 

But it can also be fanciful!

Literary fiction isn’t all dark character studies about people living on the verge of despair, mumbling to each other in a studio apartment. On the contrary, literary fiction can absolutely be fantastical while simultaneously presenting people and themes in a believable way — and what better way to study human nature than by throwing your characters into highly unusual situations? 

Plenty of literary fiction writers actually specialize in playing with genre tropes and devising the most inventive concepts. One recent example of fantasy-infused literary fiction is Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi , which follows Piranesi — a man who seemingly lives alone in a vast, statue-filled labyrinth that periodically floods to dangerous levels. Let’s be honest, not much besides the human insight is realistic in this novel (unless you happen to holiday in similar dangerous labyrinths). But the outlandish premise makes the perfect playground for Clarke to explore themes of personhood and isolation.

You might also point to Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black , a novel which is equal parts literary fiction and Gothic horror. Arthur Kipps is a young lawyer investigating a creepy house on a remote island — one that belonged to his deceased client.

Literary Fiction | The Woman in Black

Through Kipps’s seemingly supernatural experiences at the house, readers are asked to consider bigger questions about sanity and objectivity. While the harrowing events in this novel are hardly realistic in the way that a Sally Rooney novel might be, its rich narration, focus on human psychology, and themes of isolation align it with literary fiction.

Authors are more free to experiment

Writers of literary fiction benefit from the fact that their readers tend to enjoy more challenging works. In genre and commercial fiction, there is an expectation that the writer will always engage the reader, propelling them through the book with quickly mounting tension. In contrast, literary fiction readers are more flexible in their initial expectations — understanding that a slow start can still build to a satisfying reveal later. 

A great example of slow-burn literary fiction is Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin , in which elderly Iris Chase recounts her dramatic life and the events leading up to her sister's death. Though this novel has received wide critical acclaim, a lot of readers have unfortunately placed this challenging book back on the shelf early because of its slow-paced beginning. However, the novel’s unique ‘memory recall’ structure needs that time to build the twisting mysteries which ultimately make it a true page turner. 

Indeed, literary fiction readers often expect some level of experimentation that subverts the formal conventions of storytelling. Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch overturns readers' expectations by telling its story in reverse, moving backwards through the 1940s, starting in 1947. Waters’s unconventional style challenges readers by asking them to forget their curiosity about the future and try to focus solely on unraveling the past. 

Literary Fiction | We Need To Talk About Kevin

Of course, experimental or unusual structures aren’t just used in literary fiction for the sake of challenging readers. Typically, a nuanced structure works towards immersing the reader in the character or world of the book.

For example, a long stream of consciousness narrative (think Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea , in which the narrator’s thoughts gradually become harder to follow) might be a great way to make readers lose themselves in the narrator’s mental decline. Or utilizing an epistolary structure (as in Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin , which is told through a series of letters penned by a grieving mother) can really make the stakes feel tangible as readers dig through years of correspondence. 

Literary fiction is a broad and diverse genre, so it’s pretty difficult to track down an exact definition ― but hopefully, equipped with this field guide to lit fic, you’ll feel more confident identifying it when you come across it in the wild.

If all this literary talk has you feeling inspired, make sure to head over to the next part of our guide, where you can learn 10 insightful tips for writing your own literary fiction!

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writing literary fiction

Genre Tips: How to Write Literary Fiction

writing literary fiction

Ironically, the term literary fiction is often used in opposition to the term “genre,” which I guess means we have the “literary genre” and the “genre genre.” (And now that I think about it that way, it cracks me up. #sorrynotsorry :p ) Literary fiction is a somewhat contested term, used by some writers to indicate a “higher level” of writing and by others as a crack at elitism. Back in the day when what is properly considered “genre fiction” was classed only as lowbrow pop fiction for the masses, literary fiction was the domain of the “serious” writer. These days, however, when so many “genre” entries are themselves high art, the borders of what is literary fiction and what is not have become a bit mistier.

It also used to be (and still is to some degree) considered a rule that genre fiction focuses on plot (i.e., events happening to the protagonist), whilst literary fiction focuses more on character and theme (i.e., how the protagonist reacts to events). Although each of these approaches create significantly different reading experiences (both of which are legitimate and wonderful in their own right), this argument between “plot and character” has been largely responsible for creating the dualistic idea that story must be one or the other—and that one must be better than the other. Of course, the truth is story requires both plot and character. You can’t have one without the other. All stories have plot except perhaps the most wildly experimental novels (which, honestly, I would class as a genre of its own).

So if we can’t narrow down the strict definition of literary fiction as fiction that…

  • focuses on drama
  • offers existential themes
  • is artistic
  • emphasizes beautiful prose
  • crosses over into no other genre
  • values character over plot

…then how  can we determine what is literary fiction—and what is not?

5 Tips for How to Write Literary Fiction

Unlike genres such as romance and mystery , literary fiction is not defined by its beats. Nor is it strictly a milieu backdrop like fantasy and historical fiction . It can be set anywhere, anytime. It can focus on love stories, on murder investigations, on supernatural evil, on presidential assassinations, on slices of life. It can feature characters who are human, animal, or even inanimate.

It’s kind of like that old saw: “You know it when you see it.” For my money, literary fiction is primarily defined by attitude and  perspective.  Any story could be told as literary fiction; what makes it so is  how it is told.

Although literary fiction contains all the same structural pieces as any other type of story, it is more intent on the journey than the destination. It looks around.  It wants to see and observe; it wants to stop and ask questions. Usually, it does so from a slightly distanced perspective. Even if it utilizes a deep POV that puts readers right there in the characters’ heads, what is evoked is the sense of being one step back from the action, observing, commenting, noticing the deeper meaning.

Sound interesting? Then let’s take a quick overview of how to write literary fiction.

Story Structure in Literary Fiction: Understanding How to Intertwine Inner and Outer Conflict

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

The notion that “literary fiction” is synonymous with “plot-less fiction” is a misconception. What’s true is that literary fiction is not as dependent upon or hemmed in by specific  beats  as are genres like romance and mystery. However, the basic structural arc underlying a story’s plot becomes all the more important in supporting and unifying the often sprawling and sometimes abstract events and motifs within a literary story.

What’s also true is that the plot in literary fiction is often less concerned with its story’s external conflict (even if it’s rip-roaring) and more concerned with the characters’ internal conflict . You might say literary fiction is more interested in character arc than structure. But (surprise!) that, too, is a false paradigm. Why? Because the mechanics of character arc are inherently structural.

Plot structure can be viewed as the emergent of character arc. The entire arc of what we recognize as story is merely the externalized structure of the natural and inevitable pattern of human transformation. In short, if a literary story creates a magnificent character arc, you can be sure it is also well structured.

The structural beats in any story will tell you what it is about. In a literary story, those beats will focus intently on the inner conflict and evolution of the characters. Even if you’re writing your story with a relatively loose focus on structure, just double-checking that the ten major structural moments are all focused on your character’s internal journey will help you ensure both plot and character are powerfully aligned.

Those structural elements are:

  • Inciting Event
  • First Plot Point
  • First Pinch Point
  • Midpoint (Second Plot Point)
  • Second Pinch Point
  • Third Plot Point
  • Climactic Moment

For Example: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s beloved classic  The Great Gatsby is a pitch-perfect example of how external conflict (of which there is plenty, as Gatsby jets around NYC, causing and enduring all manner of havoc) can play out primarily through the lens of a character’s internal conflict (in this instance, through the observations of narrator Nick Carraway, who stands at a remove from the relational machinations of Gatsby and the other characters and who undergoes a Disillusionment Arc as a result).

>>Click here for examples of Nick’s Disillusionment Arc used in the series “How to Write a Negative Character Arc”

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (affiliate link)

Character in Literary Fiction: Backstory As the Origin of Motivation

writing literary fiction

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Genre fiction asks, “What will happen?” Literary fiction, however, is often more concerned with, “What did happen?” Its most urgent question is, “Why?”

Although sometimes this exploration may offer an external plot that is intent on uncovering revelations new to the main characters, it just as often focuses on diving deep into an exploration of the characters’ own pasts. Memories, feelings, events, old hurts, lost loves, delusions, and dreams—all are excavated and reexamined in the characters’ search for meaning.

Backstory and its motivating “Ghosts” are important catalysts for the character arc in any type of story, but in literary fiction the uncovering of how the past has affected the future is often of primary importance. Alternate timelines are a popular device in literary fiction, allowing backstory to be explored side by side with the characters’ current dilemmas. Even when a story is told in a linear fashion, it is understood that much of what we see is context for a final realization.

This emphasis on the causal effects within a character’s personal development doesn’t necessarily require a huge or shocking event in the character’s backstory. Rather, the emphasis is on the  why of how characters ended up where they did or are making the choices they are currently faced with.

For Example: Toni Morrison’s finely-wrought Beloved drops a horrifyingly shocking backstory bomb halfway through when it reveals what happened to main character Sethe’s “almost crawling” baby girl. In a different type of story, this revelation might have been played for all the drama it was worth. In this quiet exploration of the effects of slavery, the revelation is equally quiet, made all the more horrifying by its unflinching deliberateness in examining the reasons for and effects of Sethe’s choices. Although it is a huge plot moment, it is chiefly utilized as an exploration of character.

writing literary fiction

Beloved by Toni Morrison (affiliate link)

Theme in Literary Fiction: Theme as Message vs. Theme as Question

writing literary fiction

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

Although theme will emerge from any well-constructed plot and/or character arc , literary fiction is noted for its conscious exploration and execution of its themes. Heavy-handed themes that present themselves as “answers” to their readers are not welcome in any type of story, and this becomes all the more true in a literary story that very likely will be exploring its themes “on purpose.”

For example, a genre action story about a brave naval admiral may express themes of courage, duty, and honor merely through the external actions and outcomes in the plot . A literary story will go deeper in examining the character’s interiority, as he struggles literally with these questions in his own mind.

Ironically, this means literary fiction can easily come across as far more moralistic and “on the nose” than most genre fiction. The key to any successful exploration of theme is focusing less on the answers or “lessons” and more on the questions that are inherent within the character’s struggles . There is never any need to spell out a thematic premise for audiences; the outcome of the plot events will always present the author’s thesis on how certain causes lead to certain effects.

Particularly in literary fiction, which can sometimes be more open-ended than other types of stories, thematic emphasis should be less on proving a certain point and more on an honest exploration of how certain thematic questions affect the characters’ outlooks and choices. Arguably more than in any other genre, allowing characters to choose wrong and then showing the effects of those choices in the end can be especially powerful in literary fiction.

For Example:   The Remains of Day by Kazuo Ishiguro utilizes flashbacks to explore the choices of its protagonist, lifetime butler Stevens, who chose to remain loyal to his Nazi-sympathizing employer, not because he agreed with the politics but because he was so identified with his work. This raises questions he must explore in his present as he seeks to reunite with a woman he might have married, had he made different choices.

writing literary fiction

The Remains of Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (affiliate link)

Scene Structure in Literary Fiction: Controlling Pacing via Action and Reaction

That certain “attitude” of literary fiction, its focus on the interiority of is characters, and its leisurely pacing can be tricky to define, much less evoke in one’s own writing. One of the best hacks can be found in scene structure .

Scenes can be divided into two basic parts: action and reaction. These two parts are sometimes referred to as “scene” (action) and “sequel” (reaction), which can then be divided down further into three parts apiece:

Scene (Action) :

  • Goal (character wants something)
  • Conflict (an obstacle is introduced)
  • Outcome (the initial goal is either obstructed or leads to a new goal)

Sequel (Reaction) :

  • Reaction (character reacts emotionally to the previous outcome)
  • Dilemma (previous outcome has created a new problem)
  • Decision (character decides upon new goal)

Stories that emphasize external action usually put more weight upon the action half of the scene. In these stories, sometimes the reaction half may be summarized rather than dramatized to allow the narrative to return to the action as quickly as possible.

Literary stories, however, flip the script. In literary fiction, the reaction or “sequel” is usually more markedly emphasized. The action still happens , just as in any story. Indeed, literary stories can be just as full of war-time explosions, psychopathic murderers, and passionate trysts in the rain as any other type of story. The difference is that the action portion of the scene will not always be heavily dramatized. In some instances, the action may not be dramatized in the story’s “real time” at all, but rather looked back upon from the character’s reaction phase.

For Example: I first noticed the use of this technique when reading Kathryn Magendie’s  Sweetie , about a timid young girl who befriends a feral mountain child. The book’s leisurely emphasis of sequels over scenes takes nothing away from its potency or urgency.

Sweetie Kathryn Magendie

Sweetie by Kathryn Magendie (affiliate link)

Prose in Literary Fiction: When Beauty Is Truth and Truth Is Beauty

Those who love to read literary fiction or want to write it often return to the genre again and again simply for the beautiful artistry of its prose. Although beautiful prose can be found in any genre, it is a necessity in literary fiction. Not only does it help pull readers into a story in which it’s possible that, strictly speaking, not much is happening, it is also an important tool for deepening the story’s thematic exploration.

Readers of literary fiction expect more from the genre than just a good story (although they expect that too). They expect a kind of truth from the prose that is found nowhere more strongly than in poetry. Literary novels are, in their way, like beautiful prose poems. Their word choices are exquisite—every syllable chosen not just for its efficacy, but for its symbolic effect. More than that, the prose creates a mirror that is held up to both our darkest and most beautiful parts. Those mirrors are only clear when the wordcraft has been honed to communicate not just to the readers’ conscious mind, but to the parts of them that exist beyond the words.

For Example:  One of the most gorgeous books ever written, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern evokes its fantasy worldscape through prose that is, as one reviewer put it , “seductive and mysterious.” This is also a wonderful example of a “genre” story that crosses over into literary fiction.

writing literary fiction

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (affiliate link)

More than anything else, literary fiction is a style. It evokes an effect that allows it to explore life itself with a magnifying glass—to go deep in observing the tiniest details and the most tempestuous human experiences. It is a beautiful genre that can be melded with almost any other style to create unforgettable stories that appeal to many different types of readers.

Stay Tuned:  Next week, guest poster Oliver Fox will close out the series by talking about Horror!

Previous Posts in This Series:

  • How to Write Fantasy
  • How to Write Romance
  • How to Write Historical Fiction
  • How to Write Mystery

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are your thoughts on how to write literary fiction? Tell me in the comments!

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K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel , Structuring Your Novel , and Creating Character Arcs . A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

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Thanks for another wonderful post! This entire series has been helpful to me. I especially appreciate your clear and concise description of “Literary” fiction – a classification that has baffled and, at times, irritated me in the past.

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So glad you’ve enjoyed the series!

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I typically don’t read or write literary fiction, but I do recall reading some of Patricia MacLachlan’s books when I was eleven or twelve. Her writing style was full of prose, and it inspired me to use more literary elements in my own writing.

Yes, it’s hard to beat a book with beautiful prose.

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This article has helped me to see that the elements of my two novels fit into this genre of literary fiction. I appreciate your clarification, despite the “misty” nature of the concept.

I love stories that sort of blur the line over into a more literary style.

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Profound, thought-provoking, memorable. Wouldn’t these words all describe literary fiction? We all have our writing goals, and I think most of us want to write exciting best sellers. But I wonder which type of novels are read over and over and treasured on our book shelves, in our minds, and in our hearts? Which novels have we read over and over and passed on to friends and family? In my life there are few such novels. Personally, I think the literary novels create a world where you look forward to visiting everyday in your easy chair. To me, that’s something even better than excitement. That’s enchantment.

Oooo! “Enchantment.” I think you’re exactly right!

Beautifully said!

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Thank you for your well thought out, detailed post. When asked what genre I’m writing in I say ‘literary fiction’ but until now I couldn’t have provided a succinct description of what that is. Now I can. 🙂 More importantly, you’ve given me a couple things to contemplate in depth and to use as I work on my novel. Many thanks.

That’s great! Happy writing. 🙂

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This is the best article on literary fiction that I’ve found on the web. Seriously. I’m finally certain what “genre” to use when I query. Thanks.

Glad it was helpful! Good luck with the querying.

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While I was reading your description of literary fiction, with the strong character focus, and the emphasis on `why’ they act as they do, I thought to myself `hey, maybe this is secretly my genre, and I never knew!’ Then I got to the bit about beautiful prose… Nope, my prose is strictly utilitarian. But I do have a deep appreciation for beautiful writing, and I love a strong focus on characters inner lives, the `why’ behind the `what,’ if you will.

This isn’t to say that only literary fiction emphasizes character. Any genre can choose to spend a lot of exploration on the “why” of things.

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I didn’t write anything last week, but I meant to. I found your description of the various types of mysteries succinct and edifying. I am finding all of this series to be interesting and helpful. I usually try not to read literary fiction because in my experience (which I have to admit is limited) it leaves me feeling let down in the end. Maybe it’s way to close to reality. It’s usually ‘haunting’. In my opinion, literary fiction changes you, in a way that commonly called genre fiction does not. Having said that, I think that Daphne du Maurier borders on literary fiction, and I’ve read ‘Rebecca’ many times. I still find it haunting. I consider Anita Shreve to be literary, and her prose is beautiful, and I have re-read some of her books. I’m still angry with Donna Tartt over ‘The Little Friend’. I enjoyed the book, but I am still frustrated by not having a difinitive answer about how Robin died. You get my drift…

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Terrific essay, as are most you write. Writers toss around the term literary fiction, claiming that’s what they write, when it’s clear they aren’t. This essay puts it in perspective. I’ve always thought the genre is more concerned with the beauty of prose, the paradoxes in life, the humanity of people with their flaws and near perfections than it is concerned with sales or fitting into a specific genre. A book on what constitutes literary fiction would make a great addition to my reference shelf. Any ideas Ms. Weiland? And don’t tell me to try it. I’m not up to it.

Glad you enjoyed the post, Dennis! I’m not familiar with any particular guide that discusses literary fiction specifically. Perhaps someone else will chime in with a resource?

I was implying you could write one 😉

Hah. You never know. 😉

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Thank you so much for this post! I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what genre my WIP is because it mainly focuses on character, theme, and ‘stop and think’ moments though it has plenty of plot too. I now realize that it fits perfectly into the literary fiction category! You did an excellent job in laying everything out so clearly, thanks again!

Literary is such a beautiful genre. It can also be one of the toughest to write, because there are so fewer places to hide than in genre fiction. But when it’s done well, it’s simply magic.

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The more I listen to these genre essays, the more I realize that, at least for me, writing is more a continuum than a particular genre. Writing can, and probably should, have elements of many of them. Maybe not all at once, but over the course of a career I think a writer should touch all these bases. That’s the adventure of writing!

Honestly, that’s my preferred experience as well. As I mentioned at the top of the series, I haven’t written much about specific genres in the past, mostly because I don’t really experience stories *as* genres. Genres are, of course, useful when you’re hunting down a particular type of book. But good storytelling is just good storytelling.

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I think it was Matt Bird who said literary fiction is about “the workings of fate,” compared to genre stories that are about the hero’s agency. I don’t think this is a hard and fast rule, but an interesting insight nonetheless.

I’ve always loved stories that blend literary theme and style with genre plotting. It’s a spectrum in the sense that stories aren’t just one or the other, but it’s also a tug-of-war because pushing a story in one direction necessarily pulls it away from the other.

Nobody asked for books suggestions but here they are anyway: anything and everything written by Michel Faber (my personal favorite is “The Book of Strange New Things”). He has such a solid, innate sense of structure, so his books *feel* well paced, but they’re totally literary. I think the reason they keep me engaged is because I love character change, and his characters are always changing on every single page. It’s not for no reason he’s my favorite author of all time.

I appreciate that insight as well! I think there is a lot more blurring of the lines between those two approaches these days, and those stories are often some of my favorites.

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I went through a phase of reading literary fiction, which I loved. This article describes it so well, everything I appreciated about it but didn’t know how to say. I’m interested in character interiors, and in the truth and beauty aspect of literary fiction. Thanks for this wonderful series.

Truth and beauty. Always. 🙂

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Thanks again for a most helpful and interesting post. I can now reevaluate my stories which didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. It’s now another new beginning for me. mikiel

Rise, phoenix, rise!

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What makes a work “literature” has always been a bit of a mystery. You made it so clear that I now can’t believe that “what makes a work literature” was ever a question. Your books on writing and this podcast are great! Thank you!

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Wow, what a great post! I’ve been struggling to nail down the genre of my current project. It’s heavy on character, theme, and those “stop and think” moments, but it’s got a solid plot too. After reading this, it’s finally clear to me that it fits perfectly into the literary fiction

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Lauren B. Davis

How to write literary fiction.

Recently Dundurn Press, the publisher of my latest novel, “Even So,” asked me to write a blog for their “Advice To Writers” feature and they suggested the subject “How to Write Literary Fiction.” Why? Because they love to ask the hard questions!

I encourage you to go to Dundurn’s site, so you can see (and order) all the wonderful books they’re publishing, including “Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack” by Heidi von Pelleske, and the Giller-longlisted “The Son of the House” by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia.

But, here’s my answer to that difficult question:

The title to this essay begs the question, “What is literary fiction?”

writing literary fiction

Penguin’s wonderful “Frankenstein” cover

If a story is beautifully told, isn’t it literary? Certainly, there are obvious examples of literature so focused on experimentation with form as to be solidly in the literary camp, and some frothy romances or gruesome horror stories that proudly wave the genre flag. But others balance on more shifting sands. For example, while I could argue Shelley’s Frankenstein is literary fiction because of the beauty of the prose and the insight into the characters, I could just as easily insist it’s genre fiction due to the monster and the horror of it all.

writing literary fiction

As you can see, I’m love Penguin’s artwork.

Perhaps we can agree genre fiction follows a certain formula? A genre romance is likely to have a happy ending. Madame Bovary may be a romance, but it’s ending is anything but happy, so let’s put it into the literary category. Sci-fi is generally considered genre fiction, but wouldn’t Ursula Le Guin be considered literary? Crime fiction? Well, detective novels would be genre, but on what side would Sherlock Holmes fall, or Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov?

You see the problem.

But let’s agree on a couple of things.

writing literary fiction

“Portrait of an Unknown Woman, by Ivan Kramskoi (used as the portrait of Anna Karenina on Barnes & Noble Classic’s cover.

First, literary fiction is more likely to focus more on the interior world of a character than on the car chases they’re involved in. What we remember about genre fiction is likely to be the plot: the erupting volcano, the car chase, the alien invasion. What we remember about literary fiction is likely to be the character: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Jay Gatsby.

Second, literary fiction shines a light on the human condition, and in doing so it isn’t always a ‘happy’ read. It’s trying to make sense of the world, and the world, as we know, is a messy place. Whereas genre fiction aims primarily to entertain, literary fiction, it might be argued, aims less to entertain than to provoke thought, conversation, even transformation. (Although to be clear, those of us who write literary fiction hope we entertain as well.)

So, how does one write literary fiction?

Start by mining your obsessions for subject matter. Injustice. Abuse of power (from the familial to the national). The climate emergency. Racism. Sexism. Faith or the loss of faith. What really p*sses you off? What can’t you stop thinking about? Got it? Good.

writing literary fiction

“One Ring To Rule Them All”

Now, think of a person facing a situation and/or a moral dilemma involving that thing. Write about the person until you know them better than anyone else, since it is this person, and how they respond to events you create for them, who will be the beating heart of your story. You keep your gaze on the character: what they long for, what stops them from attaining whatever they long for, and how finally getting that thing — or not getting that thing — changes them. And, remember, as J.R.R. Tolkien so brilliantly portrayed, even if what they want is something quite simple like, say, a ring, that ring should symbolize something so much more!

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I’m looking forward to checking out your piece on this via Dundurn. I enjoyed Heidi von Pelleske’s novel and am curious to see what she brings into the follow-up books (two, I believe?). Have actually just begun the other you’ve recommended as well, by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, as I’ve got a review of it coming next month.

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I’m glad you liked Heidi von Pelleske’s book. So curious about The Son of the House! Hope it makes it to the top of my leaning tower of Pisa pile of to-read books quickly. #readingAsFastAsICan

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You packed a lot of wisdom into a short amount of words! Thanks for these insights on literary fiction and how it compares to other genres. I’ve read most of your books, and there’s no doubt you have mastered your craft. As you say so well above, you’ve “provoked thought, conversation, even transformation” and yes, your character development and plots have been captivating, sometimes gut-wrenching, and entertaining. I just purchased your new book Even So. Keep writing! thanks, Sophia T.

Thanks so much, Sophia!

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The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

What this handout is about

This handout describes some steps for planning and writing papers about literary texts. For additional information on writing about drama and poetry specifically, please see the Writing Center’s handouts on writing about drama and on writing poetry explications .

Demystifying the process

Writing an analysis of a piece of literature can be a mystifying process. First, literary analyses (or papers that offer an interpretation of literary texts) rely on the assumption that stories, poems, and plays must mean something. How do such texts mean something? If an author wanted to convey a meaning, wouldn’t they be much better off writing an essay just telling us what she meant?

It’s pretty easy to see how at least some stories, for example, convey clear meanings or morals. Just think about a parable like the prodigal son or a nursery tale about “crying wolf.” Stories like these are reduced down to the bare elements, giving us just enough detail to lead us to their main points, and because they are relatively easy to understand and tend to stick in our memories, they’re often used in some kinds of education.

But if the meanings were always as clear as they are in parables, who would really need to write a paper analyzing them? Interpretations of literature would not be interesting if the meanings of these texts were clear to everyone who reads them. Thankfully (or perhaps regrettably, depending on your perspective) the texts we’re asked to interpret in our classes are a good bit more complicated than most parables. They frequently use characters, settings, syntax, formal elements, and actions to illustrate issues that have no easy resolution. They show different sides of a problem, and they can raise new questions. In short, the literary texts we read in class have meanings that are arguable and complicated, and it’s our job to sort them out.

It might seem that these texts do have specific meanings, and the instructor has already decided what those meanings are. But even the most well-informed professor rarely arrives at conclusions that someone else wouldn’t disagree with. In fact, most professors are aware that their interpretations are debatable and actually love a good argument. But let’s not go to the other extreme. To say that there is no one answer is not to say that anything we decide to say about a literary text is valid, interesting, or valuable. Interpretations of literature are often opinions, but not all opinions are equal.

So what makes a valid and interesting opinion? A good interpretation of fiction will:

  • avoid the obvious (in other words, it won’t argue a conclusion that most readers could reach on their own from a general knowledge of the story)
  • support its main points with strong evidence from the story
  • use careful reasoning to explain how that evidence relates to the main points of the interpretation.

The following steps are intended as a guide through the difficult process of writing an interpretive paper that meets these criteria. Writing tends to be a highly individual task, so adapt these suggestions to fit your own habits and inclinations.

Writing a paper on fiction in 9 steps

1. become familiar with the text.

There’s no substitute for a good general knowledge of your text. A good paper inevitably begins with the writer having a solid understanding of the work that they interpret. Being able to have the whole book, short story, poem, or play in your head—at least in a general way—when you begin thinking through ideas will be a great help and will actually allow you to write the paper more quickly in the long run. It’s even a good idea to spend some time just thinking about the text. Flip back through the book and consider what interests you about this piece of writing—what seemed strange, new, or important?

2. Explore potential topics

Perhaps your instructor has given you a list of topics to choose, or perhaps you have been asked to create your own. Either way, you’ll need to generate ideas to use in the paper—even with an assigned topic, you’ll have to develop your own interpretation. Let’s assume for now that you are choosing your own topic.

After reading your text, a topic may just jump out at you, or you may have recognized a pattern or identified a problem that you’d like to think about in more detail. What is a pattern or a problem?

A pattern can be the recurrence of certain kinds of imagery, vocabulary, formal elements (like rhyme and meter), or events. Usually, repetition of particular aspects tends to render those elements more conspicuous. Let’s say I’m writing a paper on Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein . In the course of reading that book, I keep noticing the author’s use of biblical imagery: Victor Frankenstein anticipates that “a new species would bless me as its creator and source” (52) while the monster is not sure whether to consider himself as an Adam or a Satan. These details might help me interpret the way characters think about themselves and about each other, as well as allow me to infer what the author might have wanted her reader to think by using the Bible as a frame of reference. On another subject, I also notice that the book repeatedly refers to types of education. The story mentions books that its characters read and the different contexts in which learning takes place.

A problem, on the other hand, is something that bugs you or that doesn’t seem to add up. For example, a character might act in some way that’s unaccountable, a narrator may leave out what we think is important information (or may focus on something that seems trivial), or a narrator or character may offer an explanation that doesn’t seem to make sense to us. Not all problems lead in interesting directions, but some definitely do and even seem to be important parts of the text. In the novel Frankenstein , Victor works day and night to achieve his goal of bringing life to the dead, but once he realizes his goal, he is immediately repulsed by his creation and runs away. Why? Is there something wrong with his creation, something wrong with his goal in the first place, or something wrong with Victor himself? The book doesn’t give us a clear answer but seems to invite us to interpret this problem.

If nothing immediately strikes you as interesting or no patterns or problems jump out at you, don’t worry. Just start making a list of whatever you remember from your reading, regardless of how insignificant it may seem to you now. Consider an image that stuck with you, a character’s peculiar behavior or comments, a word choice that you found interesting, the unusual way the narrator describes an event, or the author’s placement of an action in an odd context.

There’s a good chance that some of these intriguing moments and oddities will relate to other points in the text, eventually revealing some kind of pattern and giving you potential topics for your paper. Also keep in mind that if you found something peculiar in the text you’re writing about, chances are good that other people will have been perplexed by these moments as well and will be interested to see how you make sense of it all. It’s even a good idea to test your ideas out on a friend, a classmate, or an instructor since talking about your ideas will help you develop them and push them beyond obvious interpretations of the text. And it’s only by pushing those ideas that you can write a paper that raises interesting issues or problems and that offers creative interpretations related to those issues.

3. Select a topic with a lot of evidence

If you’re selecting from a number of possible topics, narrow down your list by identifying how much evidence or how many specific details you could use to investigate each potential issue. Do this step just off the top of your head. Keep in mind that persuasive papers rely on ample evidence and that having a lot of details to choose from can also make your paper easier to write.

It might be helpful at this point to jot down all the elements of the text that have some bearing on the two or three topics that seem most promising. This can give you a more visual sense of how much evidence you will have to work with on each potential topic. It’s during this activity that having a good knowledge of your text will come in handy and save you a lot of time. Don’t launch into a topic without considering all the options first because you may end up with a topic that seemed promising initially but that only leads to a dead end.

4. Write out a working thesis

Based on the evidence that relates to your topic—and what you anticipate you might say about those pieces of evidence—come up with a working thesis. Don’t spend a lot of time composing this statement at this stage since it will probably change. A changing thesis statement is a good sign that you’re starting to say more interesting and complex things on your subject. (Our Thesis Statements handout provides an example of a developing thesis statement for a literary analysis assignment.) At this point in my Frankenstein project, I’ve become interested in ideas on education that seem to appear pretty regularly, and I have a general sense that aspects of Victor’s education lead to tragedy. Without considering things too deeply, I’ll just write something like “Victor Frankenstein’s tragic ambition was fueled by a faulty education.”

5. Make an extended list of evidence

Once you have a working topic in mind, skim back over the text and make a more comprehensive list of the details that relate to your point. For my paper about education in Frankenstein , I’ll want to take notes on what Victor Frankenstein reads at home, where he goes to school and why, what he studies at school, what others think about those studies, etc. And even though I’m primarily interested in Victor’s education, at this stage in the writing, I’m also interested in moments of education in the novel that don’t directly involve this character. These other examples might provide a context or some useful contrasts that could illuminate my evidence relating to Victor. With this goal in mind, I’ll also take notes on how the monster educates himself, what he reads, and what he learns from those he watches. As you make your notes keep track of page numbers so you can quickly find the passages in your book again and so you can easily document quoted passages when you write without having to fish back through the book.

At this point, you want to include anything, anything, that might be useful, and you also want to avoid the temptation to arrive at definite conclusions about your topic. Remember that one of the qualities that makes for a good interpretation is that it avoids the obvious. You want to develop complex ideas, and the best way to do that is to keep your ideas flexible until you’ve considered the evidence carefully. A good gauge of complexity is whether you feel you understand more about your topic than you did when you began (and even just reaching a higher state of confusion is a good indicator that you’re treating your topic in a complex way).

If, for example, you are jotting down your ideas about Frankenstein , you can focus on the observations from the narrator or things that certain characters say or do. These elements are certainly important. It might help you come up with more evidence if you also take into account some of the broader components that go into making fiction, things like plot, point of view, character, setting, and symbols.

Plot is the string of events that go into the narrative. Think of this as the “who did what to whom” part of the story. Plots can be significant in themselves since chances are pretty good that some action in the story will relate to your main idea. For my paper on education in Frankenstein , I’m interested in Victor’s going to the University of Ingolstadt to realize his father’s wish that Victor attend school where he could learn about another culture. Plots can also allow you to make connections between the story you’re interpreting and some other stories, and those connections might be useful in your interpretation. For example, the plot of Frankenstein , which involves a man who desires to bring life to the dead and creates a monster in the process, bears some similarity to the ancient Greek story of Icarus who flew too close to the sun on his wax wings. Both tell the story of a character who reaches too ambitiously after knowledge and suffers dire consequences.

Your plot could also have similarities to whole groups of other stories, all having conventional or easily recognizable plots. These types of stories are often called genres. Some popular genres within fiction include the gothic, the romance, the detective story, the bildungsroman (this is just a German term for a novel that is centered around the development of its main characters), and the novel of manners (a novel that focuses on the behavior and foibles of a particular class or social group). These categories are often helpful in characterizing a piece of writing, but this approach has its limitations. Many novels don’t fit nicely into one genre, and others seem to borrow a bit from a variety of different categories; the same can be said for other forms of literature, like poetry and drama. For example, given my working thesis on education, I am more interested in Victor’s development than in relating Frankenstein to the gothic genre, so I might decide to treat the novel as a bildungsroman.

And just to complicate matters that much more, it’s important to take into account not only the larger genre(s) a literary piece fits within (like the bildungsroman and the gothic) but also the form(s) utilized in that piece. For example, a story might be told in a series of letters (this is called an epistolary form), in a sequence of journal entries, or in a combination of forms ( Frankenstein is actually told as a journal included within a letter).

These matters of form can also introduce questions of point of view, that is, who is telling the story and what do they or don’t they know. Is the tale told by an omniscient or all-knowing narrator who doesn’t interact in the events, or is it presented by one of the characters within the story? Can the reader trust that person to give an objective account, or does that narrator color the story with her own biases and interests?

Character refers to the qualities assigned to the individual figures in the plot. Consider why the author assigns certain qualities to a character or characters and how any such qualities might relate to your topic. For example, a discussion of Victor Frankenstein’s education might take into account aspects of his character that appear to be developed (or underdeveloped) by the particular kind of education he undertakes. Victor tends to be ambitious, even compulsive about his studies, and I might be able to argue that his tendency to be extravagant leads him to devote his own education to writers who asserted grand, if questionable, conclusions.

Setting is the environment in which all of the actions take place. What is the time period, the location, the time of day, the season, the weather, the type of room or building? What is the general mood, and who is present? All of these elements can reflect on the story’s events, and though the setting of a story tends to be less conspicuous than plot and character, setting still colors everything that’s said and done within its context. If Victor Frankenstein does all of his experiments in “a solitary chamber, or rather a cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a staircase” (53), we might conclude that there is something anti-social, isolated, and stale, maybe even unnatural, about his project and his way of learning.

Obviously, if you consider all of these elements, you’ll probably have too much evidence to fit effectively into one paper. In this example using the novel Frankenstein , your goal is merely to consider each of these aspects of fiction and include only those that are most relevant to your topic and most interesting to your reader. A good interpretive paper does not need to cover all elements of the story—plot, genre, narrative form, character, and setting. In fact, a paper that did try to say something about all of these elements would be unfocused. You might find that most of your topic could be supported, for instance, by a consideration of character alone. That’s fine. For my Frankenstein paper, I’m finding that my evidence largely has to do with the setting, evidence that could lead to some interesting conclusions that my reader probably hasn’t recognized on their own.

6. Select your evidence

Once you’ve made your expanded list of evidence, decide which supporting details are the strongest. First, select the facts which bear the closest relation to your thesis statement. Second, choose the pieces of evidence you’ll be able to say the most about. Readers tend to be more dazzled with your interpretations of evidence than with a lot of quotes from the book. It would be useful to refer to Victor Frankenstein’s youthful reading in alchemy, but my reader will be more impressed by some analysis of how the writings of the alchemists—who pursued magical principles of chemistry and physics—reflect the ambition of his own goals. Select the details that will allow you to show off your own reasoning skills and allow you to help the reader see the story in a way they may not have seen it before.

7. Refine your thesis

Now it’s time to go back to your working thesis and refine it so that it reflects your new understanding of your topic. This step and the previous step (selecting evidence) are actually best done at the same time, since selecting your evidence and defining the focus of your paper depend upon each other. Don’t forget to consider the scope of your project: how long is the paper supposed to be, and what can you reasonably cover in a paper of that length? In rethinking the issue of education in Frankenstein , I realize that I can narrow my topic in a number of ways: I could focus on education and culture (Victor’s education abroad), education in the sciences as opposed to the humanities (the monster reads Milton, Goethe, and Plutarch), or differences in learning environments (e.g. independent study, university study, family reading). Since I think I found some interesting evidence in the settings that I can interpret in a way that will get my reader’s attention, I’ll take this last option and refine my working thesis about Victor’s faulty education to something like this:

“Victor Frankenstein’s education in unnaturally isolated environments fosters his tragic ambition.”

8. Organize your evidence

Once you have a clear thesis you can go back to your list of selected evidence and group all the similar details together. The ideas that tie these clusters of evidence together can then become the claims that you’ll make in your paper. As you begin thinking about what claims you can make (i.e. what kinds of conclusions you can reach) keep in mind that they should not only relate to all the evidence but also clearly support your thesis. Once you’re satisfied with the way you’ve grouped your evidence and with the way that your claims relate to your thesis, you can begin to consider the most logical way to organize each of those claims. To support my thesis about Frankenstein , I’ve decided to group my evidence chronologically. I’ll start with Victor’s education at home, then discuss his learning at the University, and finally address his own experiments. This arrangement will let me show that Victor was always prone to isolation in his education and that this tendency gets stronger as he becomes more ambitious.

There are certainly other organizational options that might work better depending on the type of points I want to stress. I could organize a discussion of education by the various forms of education found in the novel (for example, education through reading, through classrooms, and through observation), by specific characters (education for Victor, the monster, and Victor’s bride, Elizabeth), or by the effects of various types of education (those with harmful, beneficial, or neutral effects).

9. Interpret your evidence

Avoid the temptation to load your paper with evidence from your text. To get your readers’ interest, you need to draw their attention to elements of the story that they wouldn’t necessarily notice or understand on their own. Each time you use a specific reference to your story, be sure to explain the significance of that evidence in your own words. If you’re quoting passages without interpreting them, you’re not demonstrating your reasoning skills or helping the reader. Our handout on Paragraph Development can offer some guidance in this process; it provides a “5 Step Process to Paragraph Development” that prompts writers to explain, or interpret, each piece of evidence they include in a paragraph. In most cases, interpreting your evidence merely involves putting into your paper what is already in your head. Remember that we, as readers, are lazy—all of us. We don’t want to have to figure out a writer’s reasoning for ourselves; we want all the thinking to be done for us in the paper.

General hints

The previous nine steps are intended to give you a sense of the tasks usually involved in writing a good interpretive paper. What follows are just some additional hints that might help you find an interesting topic and maybe even make the process a little more enjoyable.

Make your thesis relevant to your readers

You’ll be able to keep your readers’ attention more easily if you show how your argument relates to something that concerns or interests them. Can you tell your reader something relevant about the context of the text you’re interpreting, about the human condition, or about broader questions? Avoid writing a paper that identifies a pattern in a story but doesn’t quite explain why that pattern leads to an interesting interpretation. Identifying the biblical references in Frankenstein might provide a good start to a paper—Mary Shelley does use a lot of biblical allusions—but a good paper must also tell the reader how those references are meaningful. Your thesis should be able to answer the brutal question “so what?”

For example, you can ask yourself how the topic you’ve selected connects to a larger category of concern. Think broadly. Literature scholars have identified connections between literature and the following: economics, family dynamics, education, religion, mortality, law, politics, sexuality, history, psychology, the environment, technology, animality, citizenship, and migration, among others. For readers, these concerns are also crosscut race, class and gender, which makes these intersecting categories dependable sources of interest. For example, if you’ve traced instances of water imagery in a novel, a next step may be to look at how that imagery is used in the text to imply something about, for instance, femininity and/or race.

Don’t assume that as long as you address one of these issues, your paper will be interesting. As mentioned in step 2, you need to address these big topics in a complex way. Avoid going into a topic with a preconceived notion of what you’ll find. Be prepared to challenge your own ideas about what gender, race, or class mean in a particular text.

Select a topic of interest to you

Though you may feel like you have to select a topic that sounds like something your instructor would be interested in, don’t overlook the fact that you’ll be more invested in your paper and probably get more out of it if you make the topic something pertinent to yourself. Pick a topic that might allow you to learn about yourself and what you find important. At the same time, your argument will be most persuasive if it’s built on the evidence you find in the text (as mentioned in step 5).

Make your thesis specific

The effort to be more specific almost always leads to a thesis that will get your reader’s attention, and it also separates you from the crowd as someone who challenges ideas and looks into topics more deeply. A paper about education in general in Frankenstein will probably not get my reader’s attention as much as a more specific topic about the impact of the learning environment on the main character. My readers may have already thought to some extent about ideas of education in the novel, if they have read it, but the chance that they have thought through something more specific like the educational environment is slimmer.

A note about genre and form

While this handout has used the example of a novel, Frankenstein , to help illustrate how to develop an argument about a literary text, the steps discussed above can apply to other forms of literature, too. But just as, however, fiction has certain features that guide your analysis (like plot and point of view), other literary forms can have their own unique formal elements that must be considered and can also fit within certain larger genres or literary traditions. For example, John Milton’s Paradise Lost is a long poem in the epic tradition that utilizes a specific meter (unrhymed iambic pentameter); these particularities of genre and form would likely shape your analysis of that text. For more information about how to analyze poetry, see our Poetry Explications handout ; for more information about how to analyze drama, see our Drama handout .

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Barnet, Sylvan, and William E. Cain. 2011. A Short Guide to Writing About Literature , 12th ed. New York: Pearson.

Shelley, Mary. 2011. Frankenstein: Norton Critical Edition , edited by J. Paul Hunter, 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton.

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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What is Literary Fiction + Tips for Writing a Literary Fiction Book

by Gatekeeper Press | Aug 3, 2023 | Writing

literary fiction

If you’ve never actually spotted the “literary fiction” section at your local bookstore, there’s a good reason – it’s because there isn’t one. Since it’s not a recognizable genre, then what exactly is literary fiction?

And therein lies the rub: literary fiction is difficult to define. This is because “lit fic” isn’t a genre but a writing style. Most consider literary fiction to be highbrow, some might even say snobbish or irreverent – as a literary style that is heavy on prose and light on plot. If you are interested in literary fiction , this guide introduces you to the basics and its various types, along with some handy tips for writing a literary fiction book.

What is Literary Fiction?

So, what is literary fiction? It is not easy to describe literary fiction because it is a unique category that avoids the usual tropes associated with well-known genres. Indeed, a literary novel is not beholden to any particular genre, and may well feature the elements of fantasy, romance, suspense, or any fiction genre, in its storytelling.

What makes literary fiction recognizable is its focus on the creative elements of writing, such as literary style, creative writing, the human condition, and deep character dives. This renegade category allows authors to push the boundaries of conventional writing and explore introspective characters, social and political themes, rich vocabulary, and broader exposition. In some cases, the reader may not even be provided with an ending to the story. Realistic fiction can also fall into the category of literary fiction.

Literary Fiction’s History

Literary fiction emerged shortly after the advent of the novel in the fifteenth century. Upon studying the evolution of literary fiction over the centuries, it is evident that the literary fiction category has historically been used to explore contemporary social issues, morality, and the human experience.

Excellent examples of historical literary fiction classics include The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. 

Types of Literary Fiction

When asking, “What is literary fiction,” you’ll learn there are different paths a writer may choose when deciding to write a literary book. These include:

Experimental Literary Fiction

For the writer that prefers to eschew convention, the experimental literary fiction style may be a perfect fit. Using this untamed form of literary fiction writing, the highly creative author is free to play with their storytelling. 

Realistic Literary Fiction

Realistic literary fiction tends to include coming-of-age stories and biographical novels. An example is Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951), which featured the protagonist’s coming-of-age issues faced during the early 1950s.

Contemporary Literary Fiction

Contemporary literary fiction novels revolve around social issues or political movements that are taking place in current times. These stories tend to be more serious and philosophical in tone and theme. These books contain literary merit, meaning it brings something valuable to the literary world.

Tips for Writing a Literary Fiction Book

Use these handy tips to guide you in writing a literary fiction book:

  • Identify a theme or topic that interests you. When a writer tackles lit fic, he or she must be willing to study the topic. Explore a theme that you find fascinating or compelling, and then bore into the depths of that theme or topic.
  • Avoid moralistic lessons. Avoid the temptation to guide your reader to a particular viewpoint. Instead lay the table with a variety of perspectives and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions.
  • Develop strong characters. Literary fiction is highly character driven. Flesh out interesting, flawed , multi-faceted characters that readers can feel. Delve into the main characters’ inner lives, their essence, and what drives them to elicit a reaction.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment. The essence of literary fiction lies in its use of unconventional styles. Don’t shy away from taking risks and pushing the envelope.
  • Protagonists don’t have to be likable . Another way literary fiction goes against the grain of other fiction genres is that the protagonist doesn’t necessarily need to be likable or relatable. Creating a despicable or frightening protagonist brings tension to the story.

Work with Gatekeeper Press to Publish a Literary Fiction Book

If you are interested in diving into the literary fiction realm, you may benefit from some professional editorial guidance along the way. Gatekeeper Press provides a range of editing services , including developmental editing , copyediting, and proofreading, to help you create a compelling, high-quality literary fiction novel. Contact us online t oday!

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writing literary fiction

What is literary fiction? How to develop a literary voice

What is literary fiction? Literary fiction explores subtleties and complexities of language, theme and symbolism and tends to be character-driven rather than plot driven. Read a definition plus tips on how to develop literary writing style:

  • Post author By Jordan
  • 16 Comments on What is literary fiction? How to develop a literary voice

What is literary fiction

What is literary fiction? Literary fiction explores subtleties and complexities of language, theme and symbolism. It often tends to be character-driven rather than plot driven. Read a definition plus tips on how to develop literary writing style:

How do you define literary fiction?

If you read the definition from Oxford Languages and the Cambridge Dictionary , combined with other definitions from around the web, it becomes clear that literary fiction is:

  • valued highly for its quality of form, endurance and playful use of language
  • writing placed into the category ‘literature’ (books culturally accepted as ‘literary’ because they have common features such as elevated writing style or dense allusion)

Examples of literary fiction include the modernist author Virginia Woolf’s book To the Lighthouse  and the novels of Nobel-winning authors such as Toni Morrison and J.M. Coetzee.

Common features of literary fiction

Demanding subject matter, themes, or interpretive framework

Often, literary fiction is more ‘demanding’ than genre fiction. Like genre fiction, (or as it’s sometimes known, commercial fiction), it may use tropes such as the Hero’s Journey , yet may depart more from expected conventions, too.

This is one reason why many describe literary fiction as cerebral or ‘difficult’. It tends to require the reader to be more active in the act of making meaning and interpreting. It doesn’t always hand a decisive, singular interpretation to the reader , wrapped in a neat bow.

Literary fiction writers sometimes have open-ended storylines, with the reader being left to decide what the ending might or could be. It often, when written in the realist tradition, has a quality of real life, of the story continuing beyond the page, as it were. It often offers a deep dive into the nitty gritty of human experiences. This type of story is very often focused on the journey, on what is discovered, than on reaching a set end point. For example in a murder story, it is important that the murderer be discovered, readers of such fiction will expect it. However, in a literary whodunnit, the murderer may never be discovered. The writer may be exploring themes such as guilt, or how the past can wound a protagonist, or philosophical questions about the meaning of life.

Here’s an interesting and useful definition from Nathan Bransford: ‘In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface, and in literary fiction the prose has a unique, distinctive style.’

A too-easy definition of literary and genre fiction is that genre fiction is more dependent and focused on plot, while literary fiction is based solely on character. While this is true of some novels in each camp, every story should tell a story, i.e. something must have happen. There has to be a sense that the character(s) have discovered something about themselves, or have been changed by an experience in a literary fiction novel, for example. 

Emphasis on context and milieu (in reception)

The themes and subtexts or references of the text (often serious rather than comedic) in literary fiction are often important.

Writing happens in a context, after all. It happens in place and time. A story’s social and historical context (aspects of reading that change over time) shapes (and shifts) how readers approach it.

Part of this is due to the way literary texts are given as set works and studied in educational contexts. Critical thinking requires learners to read more broadly, compare texts, situate them in their contexts (or create interesting new conversations between them).

A story’s literary status is not static Many books classified literary were written in past centuries. The so-called classics.

Societal beliefs and values change. Vocabularies do, too. Charles Dickens, now found on ‘Classics’ shelves, was the Stephen King of his Victorian times . The way he serialized popular stories such as The Pickwick Papers (1836) predates Kindle Vella.

H.G. Wells quote - nothing leads so straight to futility as literary ambitions without systematic knowledge.

Literary vs popular fiction: Blurring the line

Before we discuss ways to develop your literary style , we’ll briefly examine the ‘literature vs genre’ debate, and the idea of genre snobbery.

Literary is a bookstore category, not a genre

A lot has been written debating the merits of literary fiction versus genre fiction (genres such as fantasy, romance, crime, thriller).

Elizabeth Edmonson, writing for The Guardian , for example, argues that Jane Austen wasn’t writing ‘literature’ and that posterity made that decision for her. In some respects it’s true that ‘literary fiction is just clever marketing’, as her article’s title suggests.

But what are some useful differences?

Literary fiction may combine genres or create its own

Many novels classified as literary are simply tough to categorize. Experimentation, subverting tropes or narrative conventions, might weaken argument a story fits this or that genre, for example.

Sui generis (Latin for ‘of its own kind’) stories might mix fictive elements with non-fiction.

Genre fiction tends to require of writers that you know your genre and deliver on its promises. For example, the reader knows they’ll find the meet cute and happily ever after in feel-good romance. In a mystery novel the reader knows the mystery will be solved. 

Now Novel writing coach Romy Sommer shares more on knowing your genre in the writing webinar extract below:

Literary writers have explored hybrid genre often. Several of Margaret Atwood’s books explore science fiction or speculative themes, as did Kazuo Ishiguro’s  Never Let Me Go . Doris Lessing started out as a literary writing, and then also published science fiction, as well as literary novels. 

Graham Greene famously alternated between writing literary fiction and genre thrillers while the Scottish literary writer Iain Banks published science fiction novels as Iain M. Banks.

Other literary books mash up multiple genres ( David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas , for example, which mixes historical, detective, dystopian and sci-fi elements).

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Genre fiction has many of literary fiction’s hallmarks

Although some may say literary fiction is ‘art’ while genre fiction is ‘mass market’, can one say this about the epic historical quality of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings cycle?

Many essays and even whole books argue that Tolkien deserves ‘serious’ study in literary and critical establishments.

Some genre fiction also concerns itself with elements such as language and is not necessarily plot-driven (a common but false distinction used to separate genre from the literary – plot-driven equals genre, while character-driven equals literary).

Examples of writers who write or wrote genre fiction but who are literary in the breadth and depth of their work include Ursula K. Le Guin, John le Carré and Neil Gaiman.

What is literary fiction? 5 features - infographic

Literary fiction and the genre snob debate

Some argue that literary fiction goes hand in hand with snobbery or elitism.

Literary novelists may come from any number of backgrounds. Literary fiction is, however, mostly written and read by a more privileged class (people who have access to things like libraries or tertiary education). Genre fiction, with its more mass-market roots, is often seen as more working class.

Whether or not you see it as rarified, complex or overwrought, literary fiction has a great deal to offer. If you usually write genre fiction, reading literary fiction can show you ways to use language and form playfully – though not reinventing the wheel entirely does ensure the accessibility that helps genre fiction sell.

Whether your focus is primarily genre or literary fiction, here are some of the ways that you can develop your own literary style:

How to develop literary style in writing:

  • Avoid or subvert genre clichés
  • Read literary writers
  • Copy out passages from literary works you like
  • Play with form and narrative conventions
  • Go deeper with allusion and intertext

1. Avoid or subvert genre clichés

In some genre fiction, heroines are always beautiful, heroes always brave. The detective always solves the crime. People live happily ever after, and good prevails over evil. Bad guys are bad through and through.

There is nothing wrong with these clichés (or rather, tropes – story elements that recur and are recycled). Authors repeat tropes because:

  • They are familiar and recognizable and thus comforting – we know what we’re getting in a James Bond movie
  • Readers of specific genres tend to expect them
  • They often serve important story elements such as plot development, or characters’ goals, motivations and conflict

How to make stories literary – undercut genre tropes

Genre fiction often gives us tropes such as ‘innocent orphan boy must save the world’ ( Star Wars , Harry Potter ). Literary fiction often turns these commonly recycled ideas upside down.

What happens if a crime is never solved? David Lynch famously ended Twin Peaks (a very postmodern – some would say ‘difficult’ – TV show often requiring the viewer to draw their own conclusions) on a detective becoming a possible antagonist. The story thus opens out into disturbing possibility rather than providing the comfort of closure .

What if two people move mountains to be together and then discover they don’t actually like one another very much? In literary fiction this might be the premise for a tragic or comedic story.

The bleak, violent, morally ambiguous world of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is a far cry from high fantasy fiction in which good prevails. Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley crime novels are not about a cranky detective catching a criminal. Instead, they’re narrated by a sociopath.

Think of ways you could subvert or undercut what is expected of genre elements in your story. This is a common literary device, including parody (which sends up or pokes fun at typical genre ploys).

2. Read literary writers

You need to read the kind of fiction you want to write. Answering the question ‘what is literary fiction?’ is easier the more you read.

Make an effort to read some of the classic writers (such as Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Chinua Achebe and William Faulkner, for example) as well as contemporary writers.

Magazines such as The New Yorker ,  The Paris Review   and  Granta   publish short fiction by the top literary writers of today.

Prizes such as the Booker and the Nobel Prize for Literature can point you towards critically acclaimed literary novels, too.

As you read, notice the many different types of literary writers and how writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Helen Oyeyemi experiment with genre or the fantastical. On the other hand, writers such as Alice Munro and Jonathan Franzen work in a more realist storytelling – yet still literary – vein.

Reading literary fiction avidly will help you understand its conventions well. When you try to write it, start by imitating authors you love because this will help you develop your style:

3. Copy out passages from literary works you like

Copy out sentences by famous literary authors often. This is how Bach (considered one of the greatest masters of western classical music) learned musical composition .

In addition to copying passages word for word from the writers you admire, you might also try to write some passages of your own or even an entire story mimicking an author’s style. John Banville wrote Mrs. Osmond as a kind of literary-pastiche-meets-sequel after Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady .

Copying writers you love helps because you pay closer attention to the mechanics. You peel back the skin to see the bones that knit together an author’s specific writing style and voice. This helps you assimilate the elements you like, and filter them through your own voice.

4. Play with form and narrative conventions

One thing you’ll notice as you read literary fiction is how freely literary writers depart from narrative convention.

This is nothing new; many consider the 18th Century novel  Tristram Shandy  by Laurence Sterne an early forerunner of 20th Century postmodern playfulness.

In the early 20th Century, modernist writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf play with language and modify traditional narrative structures. Decades later, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest told much of its story via footnotes. In literary writing, we don’t have to reproduce traditional ideas about storytelling or ‘given’ forms.

In Latin and Central American writers introduction magical realism into some of their literary fiction. Damon Galgut’s Booker-winner The Promise is a literary novel that plays with form: it’s set over four funerals through the years, and point of view often changes between characters, sometimes within the same sentence.

Genre has its experimental writers as well such as science fiction Samuel Delany. Mark Z. Danielewski, while not necessarily a horror writer, wrote a haunted house novel,   The House of Leaves , that upends both narrative and typographical expectations.

5. Go deeper with allusion and intertexts

Intertext – literally ‘between text’ – is a literary theory term coined by theorist Julia Kristeva . It refers to the way writing exists in conversation with other writing.

A hallmark of literary fiction is that it often draws on other writing. One way it does this is through allusion (for example, the way Aslan being resurrected in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series calls to mind Jesus Christ). A character hesitating or looking back and losing everything by doing so would immediately call to mind (for those familiar with it) the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice .

Some literary texts literally rewrite or retell prior stories, from different or novel vantage points. As an example, Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) tells the story of Bertha, a secondary character in Bronté’s classic Jane Eyre (1847), from a more feminist perspective. Also have a look at how Jane Eyre fits into the Hero’s Journey from a feminist point of view. Thus although it’s a literary novel, it uses a genre trope, that of the Hero(oine)s Journey.

How can you hide easter eggs or allusions for the astute or well-read reader to discover? Or how how might you ‘write back’ to a previous story, questioning some of its blind spots, the failings or follies of its times? These are literary questions.

For a discussion on how to develop your writer’s voice, in any genre, read this guide .

If you want to start and finish writing a literary novel, get writing feedback and help developing your book on Now Novel .

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  • Tags literary fiction , writing genres

writing literary fiction

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

16 replies on “What is literary fiction? How to develop a literary voice”

Overly obsessed with patting the bottom of genre fiction.

This is a great phrase (though I’m not sure who is overly obsessed with patting bottoms here) – as long as it’s consensual! 🙂 Thanks for reading.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this essay on literary fiction! Such great points and no, I don’t think it is condescending to genre writers at all.

I’m writing my first Literary Fiction novel after attending the Iowa Writers Workshop 26 years ago.

I read/listen to mostly thriller And detective fiction. But I read/listen to James Lee Burke, Greg Iles, and other authors who really like to use language in form and meaning. I find there are many great works in genre fiction that cross the lines.

Great piece! I’m bookmarking this!

Hi Iowashorts, thank you for sharing that! It’s true, many works do blur the lines between the literary and the popular. Thank you for reading our blog and sharing your thoughts, and good luck with your novel.

This was very informative. Thank you for writing this. I want to write children’s books. Does this information apply to that genre and if it does, could you recommend some examples?

Hi Angela, it’s a pleasure, I’m glad you found this helpful. I would say it does not entirely, as literary fiction is quite far from children’s books in terms of style, format, tone and reading level typically. Children’s author Alan Durant has a good article on writing for younger readers for Penguin UK here .

What about literary faction?

What about it, DF? Please share your thoughts.

Fiction, fiction, fiction … why are so many historical and in particular espionage novels thus? It is a real shame more historical and espionage thrillers aren’t truly fact based. Courtesy of being fictional the readers’ experience is narrowed and the extra dimensions available from reading fact based books are lost. Factual novels enable the reader to research more about what’s in the novel in press cuttings, history books etc and such research can be as rewarding and compelling as reading an enthralling novel. Furthermore, if even just marginally autobiographical, the author has the opportunity to convey the protagonist’s genuine hopes and fears as opposed to hypothetical drivel about say what it feels like to avoid capture. A good example of such a “real” espionage thriller is Beyond Enkription, the first spy novel in The Burlington Files series by Bill Fairclough. Its protagonist was of course a real as opposed to a celluloid spy and has even been likened to a “posh and sophisticated Harry Palmer”. The first novel in the series is indisputably noir, maybe even a tad Deightonesque. If anyone ever makes a film based on Beyond Enkription they’ll only have themselves to blame if it doesn’t go down in history as a classic espionage thriller.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about fiction vs historical/factual books, Daniel. A very interesting read.

One thing it made me think of is how theorists of historical writing have posited that history is also written with agendas, points of view, and other imaginative or ‘invention-oriented’ (for want of a better word) principles, so that history texts presented as non-fiction do not necessarily give us ‘non-diluted’ truths (or avoid hypothetical drivel!). In some instances, history has been written by technologized victors, for example, while the side of the story in oral cultures goes untold – at least in books.

So I agree with some of what you say, but I also like how reading fiction can help a person to arrive at a sense of ‘truth and lie in an extra-moral sense’ (to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche), through the cracked mirror of invention.

to the question of why aren’t more historical/espionage books fact based? well other than the huge question of whose version of events to base the story on, I prefer to write made up worlds that are *very* similar to real places and events because of the zeitgeist, i.e. the fear of being torn down not on the merit of the story but on the ‘authenticity’ of the voice and location.

Hi Jen, thank you for sharing your perspective and contributing to the discussion. That’s true about factual writing, that it becomes a question of perspective and how one deals with multiple versions of events or possibly contradictory sources. This is one of the reasons why some authors prefer to blend factual and fictive elements (and give a caveat that a story is partially factual).

I remember a history textbook from my schooling days that had a single, ‘grand narrative’, but then used text boxes with micro histories throughout (individual people’s stories). This worked well as you got a sense of the broad sweep of history, plus a chorus-like sense of multiple perspectives and the different experiences across class and ethnicity. Alternating viewpoints would be one way to incorporate different sources like this in a narrative-only format.

Following the advice to read what you want to write, can you recommend any contemporary literary fiction written in third-person omniscient POV? I’m new and having difficulty finding that combination with my poor search abilities.

Hi James, thank you for your question. What genre are you writing? Third-person omniscient isn’t nearly as popular today as it was in previous eras as it’s fallen out of favor to a large extent as more writers adopt either limited third person, first person or multi-POV fixed viewpoints (for example, a novel with three first-person narrators whose viewpoints alternate). A contemporary example that comes to mind (though not that recent) is Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief which is narrated by Death personified. What confuses matters is I’ve seen many lists proclaiming books to be third-person omniscient when they are actually multi-viewpoint third person. For it to be omniscient, a single character or non-involved narrator must be able to know what is happening to (or has happened to) multiple characters; changing viewpoint alone does not make the POV omniscient.

Hello, James! I am newish, too. I’m not too keen on the modern trend of writing in the first person, either. Two years ago, when I began my Mediocre American Novel, I thought I was writing in third-person omniscient. I soon realized that I was using third-person limited. The POV sometimes changed rapidly, but the reader never received information hidden from the characters.

Thank you for joining the conversation, Kathy! I love ‘Mediocre American Novel’, haha. I’m guessing it’s a riposte to the idea of the ‘Great American Novel’.

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Writing Tips Oasis - A website dedicated to helping writers to write and publish books.

How to Write Literary Fiction: 5 Unmissable Things Your Story Needs

By Georgina Roy

how to write literary fiction

Literary fiction is hard to define, because many writers, published authors, editors and agents have a different definition for it. And if a type of novel is hard to define, then it gets even harder to write, because how can you be sure that what you’re writing will fit the genre? But, literary fiction, while often wrongly defined and described as eccentric (and even boring), puts great books on the shelves. Below, you will find the things a literary fiction novel needs to be classified as such when it hits the bookstore shelves.

Many writers think that to write literary fiction, is to write a story that has no plot. This is a very common misconception. Literary fiction needs to have a plot just as much as a genre novel. The only difference between the plot in genre fiction and the plot in literary fiction is that the plot in genre fiction is easily perceived, while the plot in literary fiction can, and most often is a lot more subtle. The plot in literary fiction can move at a slower pace, and sometimes, it can be in the mind of the protagonist, or in his or her emotions. In this case, the resolution, climax and the end of a literary novel can be quite anticlimactic, especially if the ending is focused on the emotions and thoughts of the protagonist, instead of a specific event.

2. Deep characterization

Characterization is important in both genre and literary fiction. However, genre fiction stories are focused on plot, action and thrill a lot more than literary fiction stories. This is why the strength of a literary novel lies in deep characterization, expressed by a writing style that many would call elegant. The protagonist and the other characters of a literary novel need to be explored a lot deeper, even if they are only supporting characters with minor roles in the overall plot.

3. Exploration of themes and ideas

A literary fiction story can have a plot that would fit in a genre: science fiction, mystery, speculative fiction, or any other genre. However, in literary fiction, often the plot revolves around a specific theme or idea, and said idea is explored deeply and from many aspects, from how it affects the protagonist, to how it affects the other characters, and even the world, if the theme is universal. It is that deep exploration of ideas and themes that leaves the reader feeling like they have learned something new about humanity, and what it means to be human.

4. Opinion without preaching

It goes without saying that some, if not most, of your opinions will show in your writing. However, while a genre novel might not be the right place for the characters to reflect on themselves, their behavior or the world in general, a literary novel could thrive that way, if the execution is done the right way. What you have to remember is that you should never preach in your writing, even in a literary fiction story. It’s still fiction, a form of escape, and the language and writing style should reflect that. If your novel reads like a textbook, or a guide, then the readers will not want to read it.

5. Elegant language

A literary fiction novel, as we said above, needs to have a plot around which the writer can explore ideas and themes that are universal. These key elements are accompanied by an elegant writing style that, while lyrical and elegant, is still be easy to read. The best way to achieve this is to avoid slang and the passive voice, and use a variation of short and long sentences in your prose.

What did you think about our post on how to write literary fiction? Please tell us more in the comments box below!

Image credit: Graham F. Scott/This Magazine on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

Georgina Roy wants to live in a world filled with magic. As an art student, she’s moonlighting as a writer and is content to fill notebooks and sketchbooks with magical creatures and amazing new worlds. When she is not at school, or scribbling away in a notebook, you can usually find her curled up, reading a good urban fantasy novel, or writing on her laptop, trying to create her own.

The Self-Publishing Advice Center

Self-Publishing Literary Fiction: A How-To Guide for Litfic Authors

  • February 6, 2023

Orna Ross

Orna Ross, Director of ALLi

We've all heard the widespread false news that self-publishers cannot succeed in the literary fiction genre. Orna Ross, director of the Alliance of Independent Authors , and an award-winning self-publisher of literary fiction and poetry, dispels the myths and gives guidance. With thanks also to Melissa Addey , Roz Morris and Hannah Jacobson of BookAwardPro .

What is Literary Fiction?

Literary fiction (litfic for short) is the genre of storytelling that explores the most complex social and psychological characteristics of the human condition, in original, expressive, and sometimes experimental ways.

The most defining quality of literary fiction is its original and skilful use of language.

NY Book Editors define literary fiction as a type of fiction that “doesn’t adhere to any rules. Anything can happen which can be both exciting and unnerving for the reader. Sometimes, literary fiction takes a common theme in mainstream fiction and turns it on its head.” Sometimes it's just an old story told uncommonly well.

Readers who enjoy literary fiction (or litfic for short) appreciate a writer's style and technique, and enjoy stories told in subtle, nuanced and original ways. That's utterly part of their pleasure in the work, what makes a book “good” for them.

Other readers, those who most appreciate plot, pace, and known patterns, can find litfic boring, puzzling or too much like hard work.

Literary fiction, historically and culturally, is often associated with a certain level of prestige, intellectual engagement, and artistic merit. It's seen as a form that challenges and engages rather than adheres to specific market-driven conventions.

This is why it is typically thought of as being more “highbrow” than other genres, appreciated more for its creative virtuosity than its commercial appeal. It is the stuff of which national and international literary prizes are made.

Classifying Literary Fiction

The classification of literary fiction is a topic of some debate in literary and academic circles. While it's frequently treated as a distinct category, especially in bookstores and publishing, whether it's a “genre” in the same way that, say, science fiction, romance, or mystery is a genre can be contested.

Literary is often a label that somebody else gives you. I don't think anybody sits down to write a literary novel. We write what we can, as best we can. The challenge I set myself as a writer is to write something that's honest and true, using the words, characters, and construction, that can capture everything I want to say (which, as my family can attest, is always a lot!).

As a reader that's what I most appreciate in a book, too. What Jane Austen defined as “only a novel. Only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

We often define literary fiction by comparing it to what it is not: popular fiction, commercial fiction, mainstream fiction and genre fiction.

All of these create confusion.

Popular fiction: Many litfic works are highly popular, many books that are categorized as popular fiction fail to win readers.

Commercial fiction: By this logic, if a “literary” work sells millions of copies it would then move into the “commercial” category?

Genre fiction: 

Mainstream fiction:  Things get even more blurred when considering differences between literary and mainstream fiction, works that do not fit neatly into a specific genre category but appeal to a broad audience due to their general themes and accessible narratives.

Distinctions can be fluid, and a book might be categorized differently depending on who's making the classification.

Is Literary Fiction Just Another Genre?

All fiction belongs to a genre of some sort, as you discover when you first self-publish and have to assign a category to your book. Is literary fiction just another genre, once that is given privileged attention just because it's the kind of fiction people in publishing like to read?

Yes and no.

Litfic is a genre, with its own specific characteristics and conventions. In the publishing industry, it is treated as its own category, as evident in how books are marketed, where they're placed in bookstores, and the categories used in literary awards. And readers often approach literary fiction with different expectations than they would a genre or mainstream book.

On the other hand, unlike clearly defined genres like “cosy mystery”, “steampunk”, or “paranormal romance,” literary fiction encompasses a vast range of topics, settings, and approaches and resists such categorization. The emphasis on internal landscapes over external markers makes it less tied to specific tropes or settings.

So literary fiction both is and is not a genre. It embraces all genres, as well as being a genre in itself.

Often, it embraces multiple genres in one book. My novels are historical murder mysteries, multi-generational family sagas, women's fiction, and more.

Literary Fiction “Versus” Genre Fiction

  • Genre Fiction is predominantly driven by plot, often adhering to established patterns and nuances of its specific genre. Less like to stop for discursive asides, less likely to deliberately puzzle and challenge the reader, the storytelling is immediate and approachable. Whether it's heart-tugging moments in romance or edge-of-the-seat moments in thrillers, the pacing in mainstream fiction keeps the reader eagerly turning pages to find out what happens next.
  • On the other hand, Literary Fiction thrives on character-driven narratives. These tales often play with and transform genre expectations, pushing the boundaries of conventional storytelling techniques. Such writings are usually nuanced, avoiding clichés both in plot structure and language. Here, the narrative isn't just about the external journey but dives deep into the protagonist's inner world, the storyline, and the broader societal context. It may also rely on symbolism or allegory to impart a deeper takeaway.

This isn't about a hierarchy in writing quality. It's about distinct styles and approaches to storytelling.

It's worth noting that each genre has its own essence, and classifying one as superior to the other is plain wrong. Just as we wouldn't say a crime writer is inherently better than a romance writer, we shouldn't perceive mainstream fiction writers as any less skilled than those who write litfic.

Both styles of writing presents their own challenges and each requires a specific set of skills.

A writer's progression in their craft doesn't mean transitioning from genre to literary fiction. A genre writer honing their skills won't evolve into a litfic writer unless they were to make an active choice to do this, and most won't want to. Rather, they’ll perfect their own skills and talents in their own sphere.

By distinguishing literary fiction from genre fiction in this way, it's often implied (whether intentionally or not) that literary works have a higher value or are more intellectually “worthy'” than other forms of fiction. This creates an artificial hierarchy that can undervalue genre fiction, and create undue pressures for literary fiction authors.

Over time, what is considered “literary”can change. Books that were once deemed popular fiction in their time are now studied as literary classics. How many book prizewinners of 50 years ago are still read today? Similarly, many genre fiction authors have pushed the boundaries of their genres, incorporating deep thematic elements, complex character developments, and innovative narrative techniques.

It's hard to categorize creativity.

Reading and writing are inherently fluid and subjective experiences, and deeply personal. What resonates as “literary” for one person might be different for another. The terminology, though helpful for publishers, booksellers (which we are when we become indie authors) can sometimes constrain our understanding and appreciation of the vast landscape of fiction as writers and readers.

The market is usually driving these distinctions rather than the content of the book or the work of the author.

Qualities of Literary Fiction

Less escapist.

In contrast to more escapist genres, where the primary goal might be to entertain or provide a temporary departure from reality (such as through fantastical worlds, thrilling events, or idealized romances), litfic tends to anchor its narratives in realities that are either recognizable or relatable. These realities might be rooted in the mundane, everyday experiences or in larger societal issues that are difficult to grapple with.

More true to life.

Emotions are usually mixed, characters often ambivalent, and situations a mix of good and bad–just like in life. And crucially, the characters' may not all live happily ever after.

Rather, litfic resolutions invite readers to imagine what happens in the afterlife of the book. Readers enjoy pondering the characters' futures in this way. They want the story to have a resolution, of course, but nothing too tidy, clichéd or unrealistic.

This truer-to-life quality is one of the things that attracts readers.  Literary fiction readers need to be more open-minded and patient than the average reader, and appreciative of slow-burn storytelling that for them is as impactful and memorable as fast-paced plots are for others.

Attention to language.

For literary fiction writers, the way a scene is depicted can be as significant, if not more so, than the scene's content itself.

Oscar Wilde, when asked how his day's work had gone, spoke of spending the morning taking out a comma and the afternoon putting it back in. This quote is also sometime attributed to Flaubert, a notoriously slow writer. “I have just spent a good week,” he wrote to a friend midway through Madame Bovary, which took seven years to compose. “Alone like a hermit and calm as a god, I abandoned myself to a frenzy of literature. I got up at midday, I went to bed at four in the morning; I have written eight pages.”

Litfic writers can relate, as they work on crafting their sentences with meticulous care, using evocative language, intricate metaphors, and lush descriptions.

This is why literary fiction generally takes longer to write and why thinking in terms of word-count, which works so well for genre fiction writers, may not work for us.

Marketing Literary Fiction: The Challenges

Marketing literary fiction as an indie author poses unique challenges compared to other genres.

Here are some of the main difficulties and considerations:

  • Undefined Target Audience : Unlike specific genres with well-defined target audiences (like YA or legal thrillers), literary fiction often appeals to a broad spectrum of readers, making it challenging to identify and target a precise demographic.
  • Branding and Positioning : Creating an author brand around literary fiction can be more nebulous than, say, being a romance or horror author. The eclectic nature of literary fiction can make consistent branding a challenge.
  • Less Defined Tropes : Genres often have specific tropes or elements that readers expect. Literary fiction doesn't have such clear-cut expectations, making it harder to market based on content.
  • Lack of Series Potential : Writing series is a marketing advantage that indie authors have perfected. While genre fiction revels in series, and some literary fiction series are available, litfic is typically standalone.
  • Competition with Trade Published Works : Many established literary authors are backed by major publishing houses with heftier marketing budgets and industry connections. For indie authors, competing in this space can be daunting.
  • Reviews and Critical Acclaim : Literary fiction often relies on reviews, literary awards, and critical acclaim for visibility and validation. For indie authors, accessing major reviewers or getting nominated for prominent awards can be a significant hurdle.
  • Distribution Challenges : Many bookstores, literary festivals, or events may have a bias towards traditionally published books, making it harder for indie authors to get physical shelf space or invitations to literary events.

Despite these challenges, many indie authors have found success with literary fiction by leveraging social media, building strong reader communities, engaging in book clubs, participating in indie author events, and employing creative marketing strategies that highlight the unique qualities and depth of their work.

Sometimes litfic authors get in our own way. We can be particularly resistant to marketing and promotion, have untested negative beliefs about self-publishing litfic, and repeat  assumptions that we haven't tried and tested for ourselves.

There are many myths about self-publishing literary fiction but most of them are untrue.

Self-Publishing Literary Fiction: Mislabelling

writing literary fiction

ALLi Campaigns Manager Melissa Addey

The term “literary” has an intrinsic value judgment to many people, associated with “quality”. Thus, authors might label their work as literary with the belief that it conveys a certain level of professionalism, rather than aligning with the conventions and expectations of the literary fiction genre.

When readers pick up a book labeled as literary fiction, they come with certain expectations—complex characters, thematic depth, nuanced prose, and often a more introspective or contemplative narrative. If the book does not deliver on these expectations, readers might feel disappointed or misled.

Says ALLi's Campaign Manager, Melissa Addey:

“Often authors use literary to mean ‘good quality', which is not what literary fiction is. I searched for litfic as a genre on our member database and out of 200+ who had ticked literary as their genre, many did not seem to fit the genre. This is problematic. It implies the possibility of mis-selling books to the wrong readership, which causes a raft of problems.”

Authors who inadvertently mislabel their work might face backlash from readers or critics who feel the work doesn't “measure up” to literary standards. This can affect reviews, future sales, and the author's overall reputation.

As well as leading to less effective promotional campaigns, misplaced bookstore shelving, incorrect targeting of review outlets and more, implicit in confusion of “literary” and “quality” is the problematic assumption that genre fiction cannot also be of high quality. This can perpetuate snobbish attitudes toward genre fiction and undervalues the craft of genre fiction writing.

The Place of Prestige: Awards and Editorial Reviews

A paid editorial review from a brand name like Blue Ink or a prize win might not move the needle for genre readers, for litfic readers it can (sometimes) make a difference. On the other hand, litfic readers are a discerning lot and they are used to being oversold to, with ecstatic reviews,  and book blurbs.

Will it make a difference for your book? There is no way to be sure without testing and trying. Invest in an editorial review. Seek out awards to enter and don't hold yourself back by thinking your book's not good enough. Let somebody else be the judge of that.

writing literary fiction

Hannah Jacobson, Book Award Pro

“When it comes to winning prestigious awards, the challenge for self-publishing authors is twofold,” says Hannah Jacobson, ALLi's new Awards Advisor and founder of ALLi Partner Member, Book Award Pro . “Awareness and navigation. Firstly, awareness that your book could suit the award requirements; secondly, actually navigating your book through the submissions process, which can be lengthy and cumbersome.

“For example, the Pulitzer Prize openly accepts self-published works. However, many indies are unaware of this openness…and thus never navigate their works through the process. How unfortunate! Lack of awareness leads to no submission, which leads to lack of recognition in these award programs. It is a vicious cycle, but one we can certainly break. Show up, give your book every chance to gain recognition (whether through smaller awards or famous ones), and the literary world will take notice.”

Many significant literary awards are now opening up to indie authors.

These include:

  • The Premier’s Literary Awards
  • The Arnold Bennett Prize
  • The Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards
  • The British Book Awards
  • The Commonwealth Book Prize
  • The Rathbones Folio Prize
  • The Jhalak Prize
  • The Lambda Literary Award
  • The Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year
  • The Pulitzer

writing literary fiction

  • ALLi's awards rating page (currently being updated)
  • ALLi's Ultimate Guide to Winning Book Awards: Tips and Tools  (blog post)
  • ALLi Prizes for Indie Authors , our short guidebook, packed full of tips and advice for preparation and submission. ALLi members can download a complimentary ebook copy of Prizes for Indie Authors  in the Member Zone. Navigate to  allianceindependentauthors.org  and log in. Then navigate to the following menu: BOOKS > SHORTGUIDES. Other formats are available to members and non-members in  ALLi’s Bookshop

Prestige in other forms can give you a leg up in this category too, says Melissa Addey.

Consider MAs and PhDs. You can even get a studentship for a PhD in Creative Writing, which in the UK means you get paid approx. £17,000pa (and all your fees paid) for 3 years. A ‘full-time' PhD actually takes up about 2/3 full-on days plus some thinking time per week. Or writer residencies in prestigious places is another option. I was one for the British Library, which opened many, many doors for me. Try to align yourself to some high-level institutions Also grants from prestigious funding organizations, the chance to lecture at a university or well-known educational establishment can all boost your profile and help you to reach the right readers. It takes research, a lot of applications and some practise, but there is definitely a spiral of success that happens, whereby people don’t want to be the first in line to give you a grant/opportunity, but want to join in once someone else has!

Consider targeting literary festivals where literary fiction takes prime focus. Again, don't assume they don't welcome indies, many do. For example the very prestigious Hay on Wye, which has multiple events in the UK, Peru, Spain, Columbia, Mexico and Texas, is open to indie authors. Check out our resources on the Open Up to Indie Authors campaign page (log in needed)

Research their themes and styles, then pitch yourself as a speaker, workshop facilitator or as part of a panel.

Marketing for Self-Publishing Literary Fiction Authors

What, then, is the best way for a self-publishing literary fiction author to market and promote their books?

Literary Fiction Covers

As in every other genre, covers are crucial and your cover should be the very best you can buy. Melissa recently had an author lament that no-one reads their books because they are too literary.

“I read one of the books and actually, it would appeal more broadly because although it is very well written and literary it is also engaging, but its cover is almost deliberately off-putting to a wider audience. It looks like a really ‘classic’ textbook that you’d be set at school and some people are going to be very turned off by that. Have something that looks like thought went into it … but don’t assume there might not be a bigger audience than you’re giving readers credit for.”

As it's common for literary fiction releases to be slower, try and keep an eye on current trends. With slow releases, a new cover can make readers feel this is a new and interesting read (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy was fully re-covered as each new book came out, to match the current trends around the time of each publication date).

Roz Morris, literary fiction author says,

“I’ve come across many literary indies whose covers are letting them down. They want to be taken seriously and I've tried to kindly suggest they could present their work professionally – and they reply that the quality of their words is all that matters. But literary novels have to communicate a well honed aesthetic sense. Nuance is everything. A terrible cover will send the message that the writer has no sensitivity. If anything, the covers for literary fiction have to be even more polished than genre covers.”

writing literary fiction

Roz Morris covers, designed by Roz Morris.

Book Descriptions

Use a different kind of blurb: ones based on plots and questions ( how will he ever…?) are unlikely to strike home. Depth and complexity should be reflected in the blurbs.

Give a light plot blurb ‘intro’ and then focus on the themes and ideas being explored within the text and the likely emotions or the ‘thought journey’ the reader will experience.

Literary fiction often features characters who are morally ambiguous and possess personal flaws, captivating readers with their intricate backstory and inner psychology. They may even be evil or unlikeable. The blurb should hint  their complexities and imperfections are revealed in a nuanced manner, allowing for a deeper exploration of their motivations and faults.

Author Collaborations

Gather a group of authors who also write literary fiction and carefully curate the quality of those books and their covers, so that you are confident that your joint reading community will appreciate this curated list. You can do this via BookFunnel by setting up invite-only promotions.

You don’t need to discount the books, you just all promote them via your own channels saying, ‘perhaps you’d like to explore these books.’ This can get a noticeable and positive response. If you create a group that works, consider planning regular such mentions, especially as members bring out new books. Literary fiction authors often write more slowly and so benefit from keeping attention on their works and having people ready to mention a new launch.

Newsletter swaps or BookFunnel co-promotions would work well here.

Book Pricing Strategies

Consider how you price your work. Readers who like literary fiction may consider very low permanent (no promotional) prices an indicator of poor quality and be put off. Also consider what formats you publish in: offering multiple formats is desirable, as many litfic authors like to read in print and without an audiobook, you can be invisible to younger generations, who like to consume their fiction in audio format.

Ensure that your books can be ordered into bookshops (and mention that on your website). Some literary readers, who tend to be thoughtful folk, pride themselves on not using the larger online retailers.

Conversely, don't assume that other tried and tested indie strategies — free book giveaways — don't work for literary fiction. As we've seen, it's a broad church and not all litfic readers want the same things.

Test and try. Iterate. Improve. Explore and experiment until you hit on what's right for you and your books.

How to Market Literary Fiction: Roz Morris Case Study in Newsletters

Roz Morris is a novelist, memoirist and writing coach. She’s taught masterclasses at international events and for The Guardian in London. She’s a story consultant for a thriller publisher in Dublin and a regular panelist on the Litopia YouTube show Pop-Up Submissions, with literary agent Peter Cox. She’s acclaimed for her own novels: My Memories of a Future Life, Lifeform Three (longlisted for the World Fantasy Award), and Ever Rest (finalist with honourable mention in the Eric Hoffer Book Award) . She’s also the secret hand behind ghostwritten books that have sold more than 4 million copies. Find her on her website , her newsletter  and you can tweet her on @Roz_Morris

headshot of Roz Morris

Roz Morris, ALLi Magazine Editor

Q. Does advertising work for literary fiction?

I’ve tried advertising but never got much traction. Literary is a broad category and the competition is too rich for me.  

I could advertise in niches for the subject of each book, but I’ve found that to be ineffective because subject niches are quite literal. For instance, one of my novels features a dual timeline and other incarnations. If I advertise in those subject areas, readers tend to want a traditional treatment, not a quirky story with an unconventional take.    

I’ve found the best marketing tool is myself. If I speak at an event or on a podcast, or if I hold a book-signing, I sell books. I can involve people in what I write and what I’m interested in, and that personal touch seems to do the trick.  

Q. How can indies translate that to a bigger audience?

I use my newsletters.   I used to be wary of newsletters as a marketing tool, but now I love them.  

To start with, I was put off by the standard advice – to offer giveaways, previews, special offers, bonus chapters and so on. Much of that is impractical for me. I have a small catalogue, so giveaways would soon bleed me dry. If I wrote about the next book I hoped to have on sale, I’d be writing the same update for years. ‘Did a bit more this month. It’s coming along. It’ll be finished, oh, I don’t know when.’ Readers would get mighty tired of that.  

So for a long time, I thought I couldn’t send a newsletter because I wouldn’t have news.

Things changed when I found myself writing a literary travel diary, Not Quite Lost . It was an unexpected thing and I wrote a newsletter to explain, including why I had doubts, because who would be interested in my diaries? Several subscribers wrote back cheering me on. It was the most personal newsletter I’d ever written, and they liked it. I suddenly saw. I could write about life between launches and book events – as a 24/7 creative person.  

I now send a newsletter every month, and only a small part of it is works in progress or sales stuff. The rest is personal adventures that arise from books I’ve written, adventures that might end up in future novels or memoirs, books I’ve recently loved and want to share, creative friends I want to celebrate. I wrote about a highway I used to drive on that had been returned to nature – continuing the spirit of my travel memoir. I wrote about meeting a friend from my teen years and discovering how we had both turned into professional creators.  

The essence of it is connection, as it is when I’m able to present my work in person.  

Is it effective? That’s impossible to measure. Some people unsubscribe, but who doesn’t get unsubscribes? Some write back every month and continue the conversation, or just say they enjoyed it.

Q. How do you attract new subscribers?

I have design experience so I create graphics for each edition of the newsletter, which I share intensively around my socials. I use them as headers, changed each month, on my Facebook page, Tumblr and Linked In, so people can see what I’ve been doing recently. They’re also in my email footers and at the end of every post on my blog. When new people sign up, I have a welcome sequence that explains who I am and what I’m about. People write back to that too. It certainly seems to generate a sense of connection.  

writing literary fiction

Q. Do you use lead magnets to attract new subscribers?

I don’t use them myself. Some literary writers offer short or flash stories as an incentive, but short form is a discipline of its own and not all novelists find it natural. I don’t, and anyway, short form fiction wouldn’t be a faithful showcase for my work.  

That’s a crucial point – whatever you offer, whether through a freebie or the newsletter content itself – should be true to the books you write. That’s the relationship you’re building.  

Above all, it’s important to own your identity as an artist. Know what’s true to you and what isn’t.  

And know that your work has value in itself. A lot of writers think the only thing they have to offer – if they can’t give special deals – is advice for other writers. I made that mistake myself, thinking my own work had to take a discreet and embarrassed back seat. (Although I’m also an editor and writing coach, so writing advice is not entirely irrelevant.)

But much of conventional newsletter theory asks what value we are offering to readers. If your newsletter is a good read, and interesting to the right people, that is value. And the literary crowd, more than anybody, appreciates the writer who has a mind they enjoy.  

You don’t need extra offers or bells and whistles and bribes. Take the long view and be yourself.  

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Author: Orna Ross

Orna Ross is a bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction and inspirational poetry, and a creativity facilitator. As founder-director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, she has been named one of The Bookseller’s Top 100 people in publishing. 

I am a UK-based British author. Of the awards noted, my books would only be eligible for the Rathbone award. However, it’s important to note that you can’t nominate your own books for the Rathbone. Books are nominated by members of the Academy. Each member can nominate up to three books. The way in would be to court a member of the Academy and persuade them that your book was worthy. I imagine that unless you’re lucky enough to know an Academy member, it is quite a closed world!

Thanks for this dose of reality!

Yep. The British Book Award has a criteria of already successful, so that’s little help when you’re trying to make a breakthrough. I’ve tried entering a book in the Booker (one I published for someone else) and the criteria are really stacked against small indie publishers – the qaulity of the book is irrelevant. The big publishers maintain their fortress walls.

Hi Steve, With the British Book Awards, Self-Published Titles is a category all of its own. However, the award is for book design and production rather than the quality of the writing . ‘The judges will be looking for exceptional design, free of typographical errors, with particular emphasis given to excellent layout and standards of typography.’ It is a completely different slant than other awards.

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Definition of Fiction

In literature, fiction encompasses written works that are defined by narratives or stories that are created, invented, and made up by the writer. Essentially, fictional works feature elements such as plot , characters, setting , and theme . These elements can be literal, conventional, and follow formulas, such as in works of genre fiction. They can also be artistic, symbolic, and unstructured, such as in works of literary fiction. Fictional works primarily take the form of novels, novellas , and short stories.

When a literary work is labeled fiction, this indicates to the reader that the written content is original and unique to the author’s imagination. This allows for expansive creative opportunities on the part of writers and encourages suspension of disbelief among readers in order to accept the “world” as it is invented and presented by the author.

For example, in Mary Shelley ’s  Frankenstein , the main character uses his scientific study of chemical processes and decay of living tissue to gain insight into the creation of life, thereby giving life to a creature of his own making.  As the reader accepts this version of fictional “truth,” they are immersed in the novel ’s world and impacted by the themes of natural laws and human interference, isolation, revenge, and societal responsibility.

Examples of Well-Known Literary Fiction Novels

The novel is an influential and impactful form of fiction writing. Novels allow writers to create entire worlds that serve as touchstones and lenses for readers to learn, connect, and understand history, culture, and what it means to exist as humans. The novel can be an important social, political, and cultural tool to bring about awareness, inspire change, and give voice to people and groups who may otherwise be silenced.

Here are some examples of well-known literary fiction novels:

  • The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
  • Giovanni’s Room (James Baldwin)
  • O Pioneers! (Willa Cather)
  • Invisible Man ( Ralph Ellison )
  • The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
  • War and Peace ( Leo Tolstoy )
  • brave new world ( Aldous Huxley )
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
  • Slaughterhouse-Five ( Kurt Vonnegut , Jr.)
  • moby dick ( Herman Melville )
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God ( Zora Neale Hurston )
  • Adam Bede ( George Eliot )
  • To Kill a Mockingbird ( Harper Lee )
  • Ulysses ( James Joyce )
  • To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf)
  • Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
  • the stranger ( Albert Camus )
  • Beloved (Toni Morrison)
  • Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
  • Things Fall Apart ( Chinua Achebe )

Common Examples of Genres in Fiction

There are many types of genre fiction. As such, these works tend to meet certain expectations of the reader in terms of setting, characters, plot, and theme. Though some may consider genre fiction to be “formulaic” following predictable patterns , conventions, and outcomes, there is often diversity within and even overlap between genres.

Here are some common examples of genres in fiction:

  • Science Fiction
  • spy thriller
  • young adult

What Is Literary Fiction?

There is no strict definition for the term literary fiction. However, literary works share certain aspects and are differentiated at a certain level from works of genre fiction, primarily in terms of what is considered literary tradition. Here are some characteristics that are featured in most works of literary fiction:

  • use of artistic language, including advanced and/or elevated wording and imagery
  • use of literary devices including symbolism , metaphor , allegory , etc.
  • Ambiguity in plot and subplots , with no set plot “formula” or conclusion
  • Narrative that is character-focused and driven
  • exploration of historical and cultural events and patterns
  • exploration of philosophical themes, including the human condition and the power of nature

In some academic arenas, literary fiction is considered to be superior to genre fiction. Many works of literary fiction are considered to be “classics” and worthy of academic study, therefore making up much of the curricula in higher-level education and literature courses. However, this does not necessarily diminish the intellectual or lasting value of genre fiction. In fact, many works of literature can be identified and described as both literary and genre fiction.

What Is Genre Fiction?

Genre fiction is associated more with popularity and commercialism than the tradition of literary fiction. However, the expanse of readership or commercial success of a work of genre fiction doesn’t necessarily indicate that it has less literary value. Like literary fiction, genre fiction works tend to share certain characteristics, such as:

  • adherence to established formulas for plot and character arcs
  • use of more literal than artistic language
  • Spare usage of literary devices, including metaphors and allegories
  • use of symbolism that is transparent, accessible, and overt

Though critics and academics often classify genre fiction as inferior to literary fiction, genre fiction is typically far more popular among a larger scope of readers. In fact, works of genre fiction are much more likely to become “bestsellers” than works of literary fiction. In addition, though most of the enduring fictional works are literary, some genre fiction works endure across time as well.

There are now seven major genres of fiction as given below.

  • Fantasy : It involves imaginative fiction having a fictional universe, mythological character, and magical environment.
  • Historical Fiction: This type of fiction involves historical characters, situations, and events.
  • Contemporary Fiction: This genre involves modern and postmodern fiction with modern and postmodern characters, events, situations, and themes.
  • Mystery : This genre involves crime, mysterious circumstances, or puzzling situations.
  • Science Fiction : It involves science stories, experiments, space travels, etc.
  • Romance : This genre involves romantic situations, events, characters, and relationships.
  • Graphic Novels: This modern genre involves stories involving graphic images and pictures with them.

Difference Between Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction

Literature has a variety of genres even when it comes to fiction. For example, literary fiction means narratives having reflective or representatives themes, characters, situations, and themes. However, genre fiction means just dividing the same work into further subcategories through different nomenclature. For example, romance is literary fiction but it is the genre with which it is known.

Examples of Fiction in Literature

People enjoy reading fictional literary works for many reasons, including entertainment, education, escape, and even connection with others. Reading fictional literature develops imagination, empathy, understanding, and progress.

Here are some examples of fiction in literature:

Example 1:  Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

It is one thing to write as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.

Don Quixote , by Miguel de Cervantes, is considered the first modern novel. Though the novel chronicles the title character’s manic quest as an aging nobleman to become a Spanish knight, the story is also a reflection of the influence of knightly tales and other fantasy works on readers. In fact, Cervantes’s novel is both an embrace and criticism of literary romance as well as an examination of the role and responsibility of the artist in society.

Cervantes’s novel is considered a significant work of Spanish literature and a touchstone of classic literary fiction, influencing writers across time and region. As this passage indicates, Don Quixote explores the meaning and purpose of fiction and nonfiction writing as it relates to both the expectations of the reader and the implied obligation of the writer. In addition, Cervantes’s innovative narrative form in creating the first modern novel opened the gate for writers everywhere to approach fiction and imaginative expression in original, expansive, and groundbreaking ways.

Example 2:  A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel García Márquez

The news of the captive angel spread with such rapidity that after a few hours the courtyard had the bustle of a marketplace and they had to call in troops with fixed bayonets to disperse the mob that was about to knock the house down. Elisenda, her spine all twisted from sweeping up so much marketplace trash, then got the idea of fencing in the yard and charging five cents admission to see the angel .

In Gabriel García Márquez ’s short story , he embraces the genre of magical realism in which fantastic characters or mythical elements are included in a matter-of-fact manner in otherwise realistic fiction. In this story, an old man with enormous wings appears at the residence of Elisenda and Pelayo. The characters in the story accept the presence of the winged man, terming him an “angel,” though they are perplexed as to where he came from and why he is suddenly there. Rather than attempt to understand or help the angel, the characters use his presence for their own personal gain–particularly Elisenda who devises a way to profit from the people flocking to see the old man with wings.

This story features many of the standard characteristics and “formulas” of the magical realism genre, and it can therefore be categorized as genre fiction. However, this label does not diminish the story’s literary value. In fact, due to the narrative’s artistic language, use of literary devices, and philosophical themes regarding faith and humanity, most experts and readers would classify “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” as literary fiction just as readily as genre fiction.

Example 3:  Ragtime  by E.L. Doctorow

He was buried alive in a grave and could not escape, and had to be rescued. Hurriedly, they dug him out. The earth is too heavy, he said gasping. His nails bled. Soil fell from his eyes. He was drained of color and couldn’t stand. His assistant threw up. Houdini wheezed and sputtered. He coughed blood. They cleaned him off and took him back to the hotel. Today, nearly fifty years since his death, the audience for escapes is even larger.

Some writers choose to incorporate real events, places, and even people in their fictional works. In his novel Ragtime , Doctorow incorporates historical figures, such as Harry Houdini, in the plot. Rather than being simply mentioned or referred to by the narrator and other characters, the historical figures in this novel play an integral part in the story and interact with other characters that are purely an invention of the author.

This passage reflects the way Houdini, an actual historical figure, is a full-fledged character in the novel, with dialogue and actions attributed to him by the author. Though the words, actions, and thoughts of the historical figures in the novel are fictionalized and created by Doctorow, the balance between “real” events and people as they intersect with fictional characters results in an interesting portrayal for the reader of what is known and unknown about history. Doctorow effectively utilizes literary fiction to challenge the reader’s perceptions of the past, which invites the same challenge of how we perceive the present.

Synonyms of Fiction

Fiction, like all other literary devices, has no equivalent that can be replaced as its synonym . However, some words come close to it in meanings such as stories, short stories, novels, novelette, creative stories, narratives, narration, prose literature, romance, fable , or even works of imagination.

Some other similar words that could replace it in some contexts are invention, fabrications, lies, concoctions, fake news, fake stories, fibs, fantasies, fantasy, fancy, illusion , and falsehood.

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Leslie Jamison on Self-Construction as a Literary Act

In conversation with mitzi rapkin on the first draft podcast.

First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.

In this episode, Mitzi talks to Leslie Jamison about her new book, Splinters .

Subscribe and download the episode , wherever you get your podcasts!

From the episode:

Mitzi Rapkin: It seems like because your work is so personal and you were talking earlier about the self that it can never really be erased or separated from these things you’re writing about, even if you’re not writing about yourself. And I’m curious how you emerged from this book, how maybe you think you might have changed either as a writer, or an individual, or mother, or fill in the blank, and if that was different from other books?

Leslie Jamison: Yeah, it’s a great question. This semester I’m thinking a lot about the self because I’m teaching a class called “The Self”.  I’ve taught at the Columbia MFA program for about a decade, and teaching is actually a really important subplot in Splinters as well. And about what teaching means to me and how much my students mean to me. So, I’m teaching a lecture class that’s really investigating this question of self-construction on the page. Self-construction as a literary act. And how a self is always actually 10,000 selves. Elizabeth Hardwick has this amazing quote, in her book, Sleepless Nights, which was kind of a godmother text for this book. And she says, we always dream of the self as something fossilized, but the self is actually many, many minnows who are wriggling around and swimming around and trembling to escape the net. And I love that vision of the self, it’s not one thing, it’s all these little creatures trying to be free. But it’s also the net that’s trying to keep them contained. All that to say, part of the way that this book changed me and writing this book changed me, is I think I went into writing this book, you know, because I started writing pieces of it four or five years ago, pretty close to the time of the events that were happening, you know, just writing little fragments and jotting things down. And I think at that time, I was still really kind of invested in my daughter, and myself as this dyad, as this little unit of two. I was really invested in the kind of pain I had felt that had been part of my experience, the dissolution of my marriage. And so, there was a little bit of that feeling of writing in that space of pure, pure pain and pure, sort of like ferocious, motherly, this is me and my child against the world kind of energy. And I think some of that energy remains in the text. You know, Maggie Smith, when she talks about her book, You Could Make this Place Beautiful , which is also about mothering, and also about the end of a marriage, she says there are many versions of this book, and some were written from a place of fire. And you can see traces of that fire still in this book. And I think that something similar is true for Splinters , that there are still traces of that fire in it. But I think my journey and writing the book, one of them was a journey away from that place of pure pain, and a total kind of identification and spirit melding with my daughter and towards a place of recognition of my ex-husband as this beautiful and necessary force and presence in her life and a kind of recognition of their bond. And that her story is not the story of the two of us. It’s a larger story and her experience of family deserves to be a larger thing. And so, I think there’s an opening.  There are these moments in the book where I turn on myself as a narrator around pronouns, like I’ll say, my daughter, my daughter, my daughter, and then I’ll turn towards our daughter.  And I think that that’s kind of one of the journeys that the book actually helped me on in figuring out how to tell the story of her early life, which is always only going to be, from my perspective, not from the perspective of the other people involved but that sort of turning to let more in and to understand that she needed so much more than just me, that she was made of so much more than just me, that her world was comprised of so much more than just me. So, there’s a kind of an opening and a loosening that I think, I hope, the book enacts but I know was important for me as a human being, writing the book to undergo.

Leslie Jamison is the author of two essay collections— The Empathy Exams and Make It Scream, Make It Burn —a critical memoir, The Recovering , and a novel, The Gin Closet . She’s written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Oxford American, A Public Space, Virginia Quarterly Review , and The Believer.   Her new book is called Splinters . Jamison teaches at the Columbia University MFA program, where she directs the nonfiction concentration.

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​​10 Books for First-Time Literary Fiction Readers

Posted: May 5, 2023 | Last updated: July 4, 2023

<p>When it comes to book genres, there are few as polarizing as the world of literary fiction. Even many of the most avid readers of practically anything else — fantasy, romance, horror, you name it — steer clear of it. But what if literary fiction is simply misunderstood? And which books can show the genre’s beginners the best of what it has to offer?</p><p>Literary fiction, also commonly known as lit fic, is abstractly defined as writing that’s character-driven as opposed to plot-driven. Its wide array of prose and plethora of serious topics can make it intimidating for even the most enthusiastic readers. Lit fic has also historically gained a bad rap thanks to many wayward English classes where students didn’t love the books they were assigned in class and were turned off from the genre for a while.</p><p>Crystal Smith Paul, author of the novel <a href="https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250815309/did-you-hear-about-kitty-karr">Did You Hear About Kitty Karr?</a> (out now), believes one of the most important things to understand about lit fic is that it may not feel like an escape in the same way that some other genres do. However, it can be incredibly enlightening and introspective, especially for people going through hard times or trying to empathize with others who are. “While the story may be captivating, the themes in a piece of literary fiction may be difficult, uncomfortable, or unpleasant to read,” she says. “Literary fiction is generally more serious, as it focuses on the human condition versus an external action prompt or preset structure.” In lit fic, authors are trying to showcase the multifaceted nature of human behavior rather than simply how people react to stimuli. “Showing how the characters feel about their actions is often more important than the action itself,” she notes.</p><p>For Paterson Joseph, the writer behind <a href="https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250880376/thesecretdiariesofcharlesignatiussancho">The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho</a>, this is what makes literary fiction the most intimate of storytelling methods. “Thoughts and emotions inside the heads and hearts of your protagonists are laid bare to you,” he explains about why he loves the genre and thinks more people should give it a try. “Even if they are unclear to the character, you have a God-like view of them that even they themselves cannot hope to have. Literary fiction is sensual in the extreme as we feel, taste, smell, hear, and see everything in vivid detail.”</p><p>For Jenny Fran Davis, author of <a href="https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250843135/dykette">Dykette</a> (out on May 16), her real love affair with literary fiction began with Jane Eyre and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when she was young. Her advice for newbies? Find books in the genre that help you think more about what you already love. “Reading should be joyful; it should excite, challenge, thrill, and comfort you. It can, and should, be pleasurable,” she says. “Pay attention to the type of books or authors that make you feel something big, and follow that feeling. What types of characters move you? How much plot do you need to feel invested in a story? What types of worlds are most intriguing to you?”</p><p>Do you feel like you’re ready to start your journey into literary fiction? Below, authors and readers alike give their suggestions for the best books for the genre’s beginners.</p><p>—</p>

When it comes to book genres, there are few as polarizing as the world of literary fiction. Even many of the most avid readers of practically anything else — fantasy, romance, horror, you name it — steer clear of it. But what if literary fiction is simply misunderstood? And which books can show the genre’s beginners the best of what it has to offer?

Literary fiction, also commonly known as lit fic, is abstractly defined as writing that’s character-driven as opposed to plot-driven. Its wide array of prose and plethora of serious topics can make it intimidating for even the most enthusiastic readers. Lit fic has also historically gained a bad rap thanks to many wayward English classes where students didn’t love the books they were assigned in class and were turned off from the genre for a while.

Crystal Smith Paul, author of the novel Did You Hear About Kitty Karr? (out now), believes one of the most important things to understand about lit fic is that it may not feel like an escape in the same way that some other genres do. However, it can be incredibly enlightening and introspective, especially for people going through hard times or trying to empathize with others who are. “While the story may be captivating, the themes in a piece of literary fiction may be difficult, uncomfortable, or unpleasant to read,” she says. “Literary fiction is generally more serious, as it focuses on the human condition versus an external action prompt or preset structure.” In lit fic, authors are trying to showcase the multifaceted nature of human behavior rather than simply how people react to stimuli. “Showing how the characters feel about their actions is often more important than the action itself,” she notes.

For Paterson Joseph, the writer behind The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho , this is what makes literary fiction the most intimate of storytelling methods. “Thoughts and emotions inside the heads and hearts of your protagonists are laid bare to you,” he explains about why he loves the genre and thinks more people should give it a try. “Even if they are unclear to the character, you have a God-like view of them that even they themselves cannot hope to have. Literary fiction is sensual in the extreme as we feel, taste, smell, hear, and see everything in vivid detail.”

For Jenny Fran Davis, author of Dykette (out on May 16), her real love affair with literary fiction began with Jane Eyre and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when she was young. Her advice for newbies? Find books in the genre that help you think more about what you already love. “Reading should be joyful; it should excite, challenge, thrill, and comfort you. It can, and should, be pleasurable,” she says. “Pay attention to the type of books or authors that make you feel something big, and follow that feeling. What types of characters move you? How much plot do you need to feel invested in a story? What types of worlds are most intriguing to you?”

Do you feel like you’re ready to start your journey into literary fiction? Below, authors and readers alike give their suggestions for the best books for the genre’s beginners.

<p><strong>$16.73</strong></p><p><a href="https://go.redirectingat.com?id=74968X1553576&url=https%3A%2F%2Fbookshop.org%2Fp%2Fbooks%2Fthe-namesake-jhumpa-lahiri%2F11782004&sref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.shondaland.com%2Finspire%2Fbooks%2Fg43739990%2F10-books-for-first-time-literary-fiction-readers%2F">Shop Now</a></p><p>Davis encourages new lit fic readers to check out Lahiri’s debut novel, <em>The Namesake</em>, which originally appeared in a truncated form in <em>The New Yorker</em> and in a collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning short stories. The book unpacks the complexities of the immigrant experience as a family moves from India to the U.S.; there are clashes around topics like assimilation and generational trauma, both of which are still enormously relevant years after publication.</p>

1) The Namesake

Davis encourages new lit fic readers to check out Lahiri’s debut novel, The Namesake , which originally appeared in a truncated form in The New Yorker and in a collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning short stories. The book unpacks the complexities of the immigrant experience as a family moves from India to the U.S.; there are clashes around topics like assimilation and generational trauma, both of which are still enormously relevant years after publication.

<p><strong>$13.99</strong></p><p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/034549234X?tag=syndication-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C2134.g.43739990%5Bsrc%7Cmsn-us">Shop Now</a></p><p>One of Davis’ other favorite recommendations for people new to the genre is Anne Tyler’s novel <em>Digging to America</em>. After two very different families have a chance meeting at an airport when they’re both adopting infant daughters from Korea, the Donaldsons and the Yazdans become intertwined year after year, even as they set off on very divergent paths.</p>

2) Digging to America: A Novel

One of Davis’ other favorite recommendations for people new to the genre is Anne Tyler’s novel Digging to America . After two very different families have a chance meeting at an airport when they’re both adopting infant daughters from Korea, the Donaldsons and the Yazdans become intertwined year after year, even as they set off on very divergent paths.

<p><strong>$13.49</strong></p><p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/0312571143?tag=syndication-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C2134.g.43739990%5Bsrc%7Cmsn-us">Shop Now</a></p><p>The gripping, award-winning novel <em>The Long Song</em> is written as a memoir by an elderly Jamaican woman who’s living in early 19th century Jamaica while the country makes the difficult transition from slavery to freedom. It was also Andrea Levy’s final novel, as she passed away almost a decade later from breast cancer.</p>

3) The Long Song: A Novel

The gripping, award-winning novel The Long Song is written as a memoir by an elderly Jamaican woman who’s living in early 19th century Jamaica while the country makes the difficult transition from slavery to freedom. It was also Andrea Levy’s final novel, as she passed away almost a decade later from breast cancer.

<p><strong>$15.81</strong></p><p><a href="https://go.redirectingat.com?id=74968X1553576&url=https%3A%2F%2Fbookshop.org%2Fp%2Fbooks%2Fpizza-girl-jean-kyoung-frazier%2F13276280&sref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.shondaland.com%2Finspire%2Fbooks%2Fg43739990%2F10-books-for-first-time-literary-fiction-readers%2F">Shop Now</a></p><p><a href="https://www.shondaland.com/inspire/books/a32758482/jean-kyoung-frazier-pizza-girl/">Jean Kyoung Frazier’s</a> debut 2020 novella centers a pregnant 18-year-old in Los Angeles working as a delivery driver and becoming increasingly obsessed with a regular customer at the pizza shop where she’s employed. Coming in at just over 200 pages, it’s also an easier read from a length perspective compared to other books in the genre.</p>

4) Pizza Girl

Jean Kyoung Frazier’s debut 2020 novella centers a pregnant 18-year-old in Los Angeles working as a delivery driver and becoming increasingly obsessed with a regular customer at the pizza shop where she’s employed. Coming in at just over 200 pages, it’s also an easier read from a length perspective compared to other books in the genre.

<p><strong>$15.81</strong></p><p><a href="https://go.redirectingat.com?id=74968X1553576&url=https%3A%2F%2Fbookshop.org%2Fp%2Fbooks%2Fmy-education-susan-choi%2F6679890&sref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.shondaland.com%2Finspire%2Fbooks%2Fg43739990%2F10-books-for-first-time-literary-fiction-readers%2F">Shop Now</a></p><p>Susan Choi’s award-winning novel <em>My Education</em> unfurls the story of Regina, a young graduate student who falls into a complicated series of relationships involving two married professors at her university and another graduate student. Choi’s work can often feel unexpected and poignant, making it an interesting gateway for new lit fic readers who want something a little different.</p>

5) My Education

Susan Choi’s award-winning novel My Education unfurls the story of Regina, a young graduate student who falls into a complicated series of relationships involving two married professors at her university and another graduate student. Choi’s work can often feel unexpected and poignant, making it an interesting gateway for new lit fic readers who want something a little different.

<p><strong>$15.81</strong></p><p><a href="https://go.redirectingat.com?id=74968X1553576&url=https%3A%2F%2Fbookshop.org%2Fp%2Fbooks%2Fthe-great-gatsby-f-scott-fitzgerald%2F18533627&sref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.shondaland.com%2Finspire%2Fbooks%2Fg43739990%2F10-books-for-first-time-literary-fiction-readers%2F">Shop Now</a></p><p>There’s a reason why <em>The Great Gatsby</em> is considered one of the greatest pieces of American literature and is beloved by even the most reluctant English students: Its story remains glamorous and universal at the same time. “This book goes so far into the life of [Jay] Gatsby [that] it’s easy to forget his characterization is through the lens of another character,” Smith Paul explains. If you haven’t read the novel since high school, it might be worth another look!</p>

6) The Great Gatsby

There’s a reason why The Great Gatsby is considered one of the greatest pieces of American literature and is beloved by even the most reluctant English students: Its story remains glamorous and universal at the same time. “This book goes so far into the life of [Jay] Gatsby [that] it’s easy to forget his characterization is through the lens of another character,” Smith Paul explains. If you haven’t read the novel since high school, it might be worth another look!

<p><strong>$15.76</strong></p><p><a href="https://go.redirectingat.com?id=74968X1553576&url=https%3A%2F%2Fbookshop.org%2Fp%2Fbooks%2Fwe-ride-upon-sticks-quan-barry%2F10226361&sref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.shondaland.com%2Finspire%2Fbooks%2Fg43739990%2F10-books-for-first-time-literary-fiction-readers%2F">Shop Now</a></p><p>Quan Barry’s darkly funny book <em>We Ride Upon Sticks</em> straddles the worlds of both literary and slightly more plot-driven genre fiction. It’s a novel filled with magical realism that tells the tale of the 1989 Danvers High School women’s field hockey team. The town of Danvers, Massachusetts, was the site of the 1692 Salem witch trials, and after the young teens on the team partake in some witchy ceremonies themselves, a number of strange phenomena start popping up all around them …</p>

7) We Ride Upon Sticks

Quan Barry’s darkly funny book We Ride Upon Sticks straddles the worlds of both literary and slightly more plot-driven genre fiction. It’s a novel filled with magical realism that tells the tale of the 1989 Danvers High School women’s field hockey team. The town of Danvers, Massachusetts, was the site of the 1692 Salem witch trials, and after the young teens on the team partake in some witchy ceremonies themselves, a number of strange phenomena start popping up all around them …

<p><strong>$27.90</strong></p><p><a href="https://go.redirectingat.com?id=74968X1553576&url=https%3A%2F%2Fbookshop.org%2Fp%2Fbooks%2Fvictory-city-salman-rushdie%2F18485507&sref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.shondaland.com%2Finspire%2Fbooks%2Fg43739990%2F10-books-for-first-time-literary-fiction-readers%2F">Shop Now</a></p><p>Julie Sheetz, an avid literary fiction reader, adds that Salman Rushdie’s latest book is one of her favorites. “Like much of Rushdie’s work, there are elements of the fantastical and deep references that benefit those schooled in world religions and cultures,” she explains. “But at its most basic level, it’s a celebration of stories and the power of language to both transport us to other places and times while telling us something fundamental about ourselves.”</p>

8) Victory City

Julie Sheetz, an avid literary fiction reader, adds that Salman Rushdie’s latest book is one of her favorites. “Like much of Rushdie’s work, there are elements of the fantastical and deep references that benefit those schooled in world religions and cultures,” she explains. “But at its most basic level, it’s a celebration of stories and the power of language to both transport us to other places and times while telling us something fundamental about ourselves.”

<p><strong>$26.04</strong></p><p><a href="https://go.redirectingat.com?id=74968X1553576&url=https%3A%2F%2Fbookshop.org%2Fp%2Fbooks%2Fthe-kite-runner-khaled-hosseini%2F7121714&sref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.shondaland.com%2Finspire%2Fbooks%2Fg43739990%2F10-books-for-first-time-literary-fiction-readers%2F">Shop Now</a></p><p>Khaled Hosseini’s <em>The Kite Runner</em>, recommended by Smith Paul, is one of the most popular books of the last 20 years, and it’s easy to see why: It unravels the emotional tale of a young boy named Amir and his family against the backdrop of numerous tumultuous events in Afghanistan spanning many years.</p>

9) The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner , recommended by Smith Paul, is one of the most popular books of the last 20 years, and it’s easy to see why: It unravels the emotional tale of a young boy named Amir and his family against the backdrop of numerous tumultuous events in Afghanistan spanning many years.

<p><strong>$26.04</strong></p><p><a href="https://go.redirectingat.com?id=74968X1553576&url=https%3A%2F%2Fbookshop.org%2Fp%2Fbooks%2Fwhat-happened-to-ruthy-ramirez-claire-jimenez%2F18670698&sref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cosmopolitan.com%2Fentertainment%2Fbooks%2Fg42557681%2Fbest-books-2023%2F">Shop Now</a></p>

10) What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez

The Ramirez women — sisters Nina and Jessica as well as mother Dolores — haven’t been the same since middle sister Ruthy vanished without a trace in her teens years earlier. The book takes place largely in 2008 around the struggles of the Great Recession, and it’s really set in motion when the family is shocked to see a woman on a reality TV show whom they believe might be the adult Ruthy. The discovery leads them to rethink their shared past and what they need to do to finally find out where Ruthy went.

Lily Herman is a New York-based writer and editor. You can find her on Instagram .

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Announcing The Romance and Women's Fiction Workshop with Emily Colin . Learn how to write romance novels readers love -- with feedback and support from a bestselling author. Lea r n more and enroll here.

Written by S. Kalekar February 19th, 2024

25 New Literary Journals (Seeking Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry)

These are new literary magazines – they were launched about a year or less ago. Many have published at least one issue, so you can get a feel for what they’re looking for, but not all of them have; a few are accepting submissions for their first issue.

They are publishers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. They are a mix of literary and genre magazines. A few of them pay. Many, but not all, of them are open for submissions now.

Also please remember, for new magazines, submission guidelines can evolve/change quickly, so double-check those before submitting. Macrame Literary Journal Their website says, “Here, we celebrate the works of poetry and fiction which display the DNA of the author on every page. We want to be inspired and moved by your work, motivated to reach for new heights.” They want poetry (up to 3), micro (up to 250 words), and short (up to 1,500 words) fiction. They want stories in all genres. The deadline is 1 April 2024 for their inaugural issue. Details here . Upbeat Tales This is a new speculative fiction podcast for upbeat and / or comedic tales. They pay. They post open calls on X, formerly Twitter . For their earlier call, they paid $0.01/word for stories of 100-6,000 words, and had accepted submissions via a form that was available when they were open. See the website here . Frozen Sea Their first issue was published in October 2023; they’ve published three issues so far. Their website says, “Frozen Sea is excited by a wide range of poetry. We love playing tennis without the net so of course we’ll consider free-verse, as well as the carefully-constructed corsetry of form. … A large part of our mission is to publish exciting emerging poets who do not yet have, or have recently published, a full-length collection. Feel free to send work if you don’t quite fit that category—we hope to lead readers to their next favorite poets.” Send 3-5 poems of up to 30 lines. They also publish visual art. The deadline is 1 March 2024. Details here . Spooky This is a cozy horror magazine. “Cozy horror. Fun horror. Classy horror. Dare we say, wholesome horror? … perhaps the easiest way to understand what we mean is to read stories by some of the old masters we love: Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Roald Dahl. Watch classic episodes of Thriller, The Twilight Zone, and Night Gallery. Read old horror comics. Listen to radio dramas like Suspense, Quiet, Please, and Inner Sanctum Mysteries. … In short, we’re looking to provide a space for a type of storytelling that has largely gone out of style – dark and scary, but playful and approachable with an emphasis on plot.” They have a detailed list of things they like (including high concept settings and situations reminiscent of the pulps — Androids, ghosts, aliens, old castles, vampires, dinosaurs, deals with the devil, mad scientists, Wild West gunslingers), and what they don’t. Length guidelines are up to 5,000 words (prefer 2,500-3,000 words), and pay is $0.01/word. Their next scheduled submission period is May-July for the fall/winter issue; they also open in October-December for the spring/summer issue. Issues will be available in print and electronic copies. Details here . topograph They publish fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and reviews of place, according to their bio on X . Their website says, “Topograph is an online (for now), place-based literary journal that wants to add depth and meaning to the map. We want to show what makes places distinct; uncover the historical and emotional topographies of land; and reveal aspects of where people live and have been, ugly or beautiful, that are essential to understanding those places.” And, “Show us the where. We want work in which the setting is a character. We want work that examines a place’s meaning. We want work that reveals the boundaries between places. We prefer work about places we don’t hear too much about.” They have published one issue so far. Watch for their next submission period. Details here and here . Concord Ridge This is a print-only poetry broadsheet. You can read about them here . Poems should be a maximum of 40 lines, including stanza breaks, and each line should not exceed more than 60 characters. They also accept black and white photography/visual art. They have yet to publish their first issue, though they have put together a sample issue . They pay $10 for poems and $20 for art, and are open throughout the year. Details here . Flickers of Fear They publish horror microfiction and poetry, and had a theme for their first submission call. Pay is $10 for stories of 300 words and poetry. Details here .

The Fabulist Flash The Fabulist Flash is a project by The Fabulist, a speculative works magazine. Their website says, “Debuting in 2024, The Fabulist Flash is a new digital subscription project featuring fresh, fantastical and speculative writings of up to 1,000 words, delivered to subscribers each week.” Their first submission call is closed; they expect to open again in 2024. They paid $100 for stories during their last open call in November 2023 (now closed). Details here (scroll down to The Fabulist Flash). (The Fabulist also pays for speculative fiction, when they are open for submissions; they’re currently open for visual art ). The Mersey Review Their website says, “The Mersey Review is a quarterly online literary journal obsessed with the written word, the unwritten word, the yet-to-be-written word, & the forgotten word. We love artistry, brevity, community, & incredulity. Our favourite piece of writing advice isn’t really writing advice at all, but a line from an Emily Dickinson poem:   ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant—’.” They publish flash fiction and CNF (up to 750 words), and all forms of poetry. “Feel free to be as traditional or as experimental as you like here. The main thing we’re after is engaging writing that makes us feel.” Their first issue was published on in December 2023. They are closed to submissions and reopen April 1st. Details here . Baubles From Bones This is a science fiction and fantasy magazine, and they’re reading submissions for their first issue. “We’re open to most subgenres and themes but have a particular fondness for compelling adventures, folk-retellings, stories of hope in the dark, emotional healing, love of all sorts, environmentalism, and the humanity (or lack of it) among the fantastical and speculative.” They accept fiction of 1,000-10,000 words, and pay $0.01/word; they also accept poetry and prose of up to 600 words (see guidelines), and pay $6 for these pieces. The deadline is 21 February 2024. Details here .

Prose Poems They publish prose poems and flash. Their first issue was published in November 2023. “We only publish prose poetry, but short-shorts and flash fiction are fine, as long as they are a paragraph. Each poem should be a page long, maximum. Please, do not send any other styles (free verse, formal verse), or individual poems longer than a page.” They also accept translations. Payment per author/poet is $10. Details here . Epic Echoes This is “a digital magazine that reverberates with the pulse-pounding spirit of vintage pulp fiction while resonating with the modern sensibilities of today’s diverse readers” – they want stories in various genres – “Science fiction, fantasy, mystery, crime, adventure, horror, and everything in between. We love genre-bending stories and unique takes on classic tropes. Grounded, more realistic stories are also welcome.” Their first issue was published in September 2023. They pay $10 for stories of 1,000-3,000 words, the deadline is 29 February 2024. You can read about them here and download the guidelines here .

Chismosa Literary This literary magazine accepts poetry, prose, fiction, and creative nonfiction (see guidelines). Their website says, “Our debut issue is themed “CHISMOSA.” To celebrate the beginning of our magazine, we will be awarding $100 to the piece that best captures the spirit of chismosa that lives in all writers. We want work that explores the idea that to be a writer is to gossip; it is to people-watch and eavesdrop and turn the things we observe into protagonists and plot-devices. Give us a story brimming with gossip, or write a poem to tell us about the art of eavesdropping. Tell us what being a chismosa writer means to you.” And, “We accept all genres of writing, and we encourage work that is experimental. Pieces that are heavily inspired by real people and events are encouraged.” The deadline for magazine submissions (and the contest) is 1 March 2024. Details here . The Mantlepiece This is an Iceland-based journal. Their first issue was published in July 2023, and you can read their previous issues here . They publish fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and translations. “We pay (via PayPal) competitive, professional rates for all the material published on our website and in our magazine.” Details here . Imagitopia This is a podcast and ezine from Android Press , and they only accept fantasy reprints. Sub-genres include, but are not limited to, high fantasy, low fantasy, mythpunk, urban fantasy, steampunk/gaslamp, magical realism, aetherpunk, science fantasy, solarpunk fantasy, dark fantasy, horror, slipstream, and fairy tales. They pay $0.01/word for stories up to 5,000 words. Details here , here , and here . The Garlic Press Their website says, “The Garlic Press is an online literary magazine for extra pungent poetry and prose—by which we mean vivid, mean sticky and raw, mean flavorful, biting, sharp-edged.” And, “We’re happy to accept excellent pieces from writers at any stage of their career, in any genre, in traditional or experimental forms.” They accept up to 3 poems, or up to 2 short pieces of prose (see guidelines). They plan to have open submissions through the year, with cut-off dates for issues; they’re are reading submissions for their first issue until 31 st March 2024. Details here .

Spindle House: The Deeps The Deeps is a print and digital magazine and they’re reading work for their third issue. Their tagline is, ‘dark tales for dark nights’. You can read more about them and their preferences/influences here and here . “In the stories we publish, The Deeps may refer to remote forests, dark cellars, cursed wells, frozen wastelands, uncharted caverns, foreign dimensions, or even the vacuum of space itself—and yes, also the depths of the sea.” And, “Your submission must be horror or horror-adjacent, ideally within the gothic, cosmic, or folk horror subgenres. We also enjoy a good psychological horror or urban legend.” They accept 500-6,000 words for fiction, and up to 4 poems. Pay is $0.01/word. Their submission period opens on 1 st March 2024, and will stay open till 31 st March 2024, or until filled. Details here . Big Wing Review Big Wing Review publishes essays, prose, flash fiction, poetry, spoken word, and visual art works. You can read about them here . They publish online and in print. Length guidelines are up to 4,000 words for prose, and up to 3 poems. Their last submission call was based on a theme, and they pay $5-10. They’ve published one issue so far. Watch for their next submission period. Details here and here . Solstitia Their website says this is “A twice-yearly zine that celebrates all things genre.” They’re reading submissions for Issue 1, and the theme is ‘Pets in Space’. “Our theme is a loose through-line for the magazine and not strictly enforced. We accept all genres (yes, even literary fiction) and all submission types (fiction, non fiction, poetry, art).” They pay $50 for stories up to 20,000 words. The deadline is 1 March 2024. Details here . The Wild Umbrella Their website says, “Our team met as postgraduate creative writing classmates mastering our respective crafts; since then, we have been united in the goal of discovering, promoting, and publishing the best and most interesting works of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction we can find in Ireland and beyond. It’s free to submit to us, and we also aim to pay our contributors.” They have published some work online , so you can get a feel of what they’re looking for. Watch for their next submission period. Details here . My Galvanized Friend They is a print publication and they seek submissions of prose and poetry from LGBTQ+ writers in the US. You can read about them here and here and here . “Each 40-page issue includes fiction, nonfiction, and essays between 500 and 3,500 words as well as works of poetry and original works of art by queer artists across the United States. Submissions must be LGBTQIA+ content created by LGBTQIA+ identified submitters.” The theme for their first issue is ‘Firsts’, and the deadline is 1 March 2024. They pay $25 for prose of 500-3,500 words and $10/page for up to 2 pages of poetry. They read year-round, with cut-off dates for issues. Details here . Haymaker Literary Journal This is the graduate literary journal for Kent State University. They accept poetry, short fiction and nonfiction, drama, visual and graphic narratives, and translations (from German, Italian, Spanish, and Urdu). “Haymaker was founded as a magazine to reflect our small, Midwestern college town, surrounded by farms and nature, unique among its bigger Rust Belt neighbors. We are interested in thought provoking work, grounded in that natural world. We believe the quotidian, daily world to be consequential and essential to human experiences. While these environs may sound like traditional Americana, work that expresses them need not be. We intend Haymaker to be a space for formal experimentation to exist alongside new work in traditional modes.” They are open for submissions through March. Submission is via a form. Details here . The Hog Their website says, “The Hog wants to publish writing about landscape and nature that’s bold and unruly. We don’t adhere to any firm definitions of landscape or nature writing, and welcome the speculative as well as the literary. We want to know where the land strikes you in the chest, how it changed you, or how a long-dead hand has caught at your hood from across the ages.” And, ““We don’t adhere to a strict definition of nature and landscape writing, and we’re not confined to the rural.” They accept short fiction, flash fiction, poetry and literary criticism on a quarterly issue to rolling basis. Details here . Last Syllable They publish fiction and creative nonfiction of 5,000-25,000 words, up to 3 poems, and open-genre works (song lyrics, multimodal stories, comics, and other experimental forms). They have published one issue so far. Watch for their next submission period. Details here .    Hearth Stories This is a speculative fiction magazine. They want “speculative fiction slice-of-life stories with a focus on connection, family, relationships, comfort, and the natural world. We accept works from 1,000 words up to 10,000. However, the ideal length may be something in the 1,500-3,500 word range. We do not currently accept poetry, non-fiction, or non-speculative work (there needs to be a fantasy or science fiction element present in the work).” Pay is $0.01/word for fiction. Their next submission period is 1-31 March 2024. Details here .

Bio:  S. Kalekar is the pseudonym of a regular contributor to this magazine. She can be reached  here

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February 3, 2024

writing literary fiction

Free Talk: The Art of Writing Immersive Worlds

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January 22, 2024

Free Talk: Write Like a Wild Thing – Six Lessons on Crafting an Unforgettable Story

Want to work with John Claude Bemis? John’s course, Plot Your Novel – Plot Your Scenes is now open for enrollment. Get in-depth feedback on your novel directly from John Claude Bemis. Learn more and enroll here.

February 22, 2024

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Ghost Orchid Press: Now Seeking Manuscript Queries

They pay advances and 50% net royalties. No agent required.

writing literary fiction

Haymaker: Now Seeking Submissions

A new online journal seeking fiction, nonfiction, poetry, one-act plays and visual art.

writing literary fiction

Setting the Scene for Your Story

So you can breathe life into your story and characters.

February 15, 2024

writing literary fiction

Entrepreneur Press: Now Accepting Book Proposals

An established publisher of bestselling books. No agent required.

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The Real Relationship Between Truman Capote and James Baldwin

writing literary fiction

By Chris Murphy

Image may contain Chris Chalk Clothing Coat Jacket Photography Face Head Person Portrait Hat and Adult

Another iconic American literary figure has officially entered the Feud chat. On the fifth episode of Capote vs. The Swans, airing Wednesday night, Truman Capote ( Tom Hollander ) falls deeper into the depths of alcoholic despair as he continues to be alienated from his beloved swans after the fallout from his Esquire short story “La Côte Basque, 1965.” Enter a well-timed visit from none other than legendary writer and activist James Baldwin , portrayed by actor Chris Chalk, who both challenges and comforts the struggling author. In Capote vs. The Swans, the two seminal writers trade barbs and words of encouragement, and it turns out their real-life relationship was similarly fraught.  

In the episode, “The Secret Inner Lives of Swans,” Baldwin visits Capote, who is in the midst of an alcohol-induced slumber, right as Capote is on the brink of ending it all. Chalk’s Baldwin is at once a sharpshooter and a relentless truth-teller, refusing to let Capote waste his gift. The pair bounces around New York, going from the restaurant La Côte Basque, where Capote accurately notes that his swans “would never do this—have lunch alone with a Black man,” to an underground gay bar where they commiserate about being queer writers in the mid-70s. They end up back at Capote’s apartment, where Baldwin inspires Capote to, at least temporarily, put down the bottle and pick up the pen. “Your book, it is the firing squad that killed the Romanovs,” Baldwin says to Capote in Feud. “It’s your guillotine that beheaded Marie Antoinette.” By the episode’s end, Capote has regained his sense of self and dines on a swan stolen from Central Park, prepared by a La Côte Basque chef no less.

In reality, Baldwin would most likely not have been around New York to guide Capote on his journey of self-discovery. By the mid-1970s Baldwin, like Capote, was already a prolific and celebrated author, having rose to national prominence via his lauded works like 1953’s Go Tell It On the Mountain, 1955’s essay collection Notes of a Native Son, and his controversial and groundbreaking queer novel Giovanni’s Room, published in 1956. By the time those books were published, Baldwin had long since abandoned his native Harlem for Paris ,  in large part due to the unrelenting racism in America. Baldwin would die on December 1, 1987, a few years after Capote, of stomach cancer at his home in Saint-Paul de Vence, France. 

“I left America because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the color problem here. (Sometimes I still do.),” wrote Baldwin in his essay The Discovery of What It Means to be an American , in 1959. “I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer…Still, the breakthrough is important, and the point is that an American writer, in order to achieve it, very often has to leave this country.” Abroad, Baldwin would continue churning out beloved work, including his 1962 novel Another Country, his essay collection The Fire Next Time in 1963, and the novel If Beale Street Could Talk in 1974. (Nearly half a century later, in 2018, Barry Jenkins would adapt If Beale Street Could Talk into a film by the same name, starring   KiKi Layne, Stephan James, and an Oscar-winning Regina King. ) By the time Capote’s imagined rendezvous with Baldwin occurred in the mid-1970s, Baldwin was already primarily living in Saint-Paul de Vence. Capote vs. The Swans writer Jon Robin Baitz knew as much, framing episode five as “a play, really—an imagined encounter,” Baitz told Vanity Fair . “They knew each other, but there was no real love lost between them in actuality.”

Baitz clearly did his research. Capote, it seems, was not too fond of Baldwin’s writing, at least as far as his peer’s fiction was concerned. “I loathe Jimmy’s fiction: it is crudely written and of a balls-aching boredom,” wrote Capote to literature scholar and Smith college professor Newton Arvin in 1962 . While that was certainly less than complimentary, he had kinder things to say about Baldwin’s non-fiction writing, although that too was caged in Capote’s classic brand of caustic cattiness. “I do sometimes think his essays are at least intelligent, although they almost invariably end on a fakely hopeful, hymn-singing note.”

That’s not to say Capote was the only one who had acerbic words for Baldwin. In the December 17, 1964 issue of the New York Review of Books, American theatre critic Robert Brustein wrote a scathing review of Nothing Personal, a collaboration between Baldwin and famed high fashion photographer Richard Avedon. In the review, called “Everybody Knows My Name,” Brustein rips their collaboration to shreds, beginning, “Of all the superfluous non-books being published this winter for the Christmas luxury trade, there is none more demoralizingly significant than a monster volume called Nothing Personal.” Avedon’s photos were accompanied by occasional text from Baldwin, which Brustein also went out of his way to eviscerate in his review. Baldwin’s contributions to Nothing Personal, Brustein wrote, pop up “interrupting from time to time, like a punchy and pugnacious drunk awakening from a boozy doze during a stag movie, to introduce his garrulous, irrelevant, and by now predictable comments on how to live, how to love, and how to build Jerusalem.” Harsh. 

Not so fast, said Capote. In his published response, “Avedon’s Reality,” found in the January 28, 1965 edition of The New York Review of Books, Capote defended Nothing Personal, saying that he was both “interested and startled” by Brustein’s review. “Brustein is an intelligent man: a theater critic of the first quality, one of only three this reader can read with a sense of stimulation,” Capote acknowledges. “But surely Brustein’s comments regarding the Avedon-Baldwin collaboration is as distorted and cruel as he seems to find Avedon’s photographs.”

While much of the letter is in defense of Avedon—a friend of Capote’s—the In Cold Blood author does show support for Baldwin too, disputing Brustein’s assertion that Baldwin and Avedon made the book simply for the money. “First of all, if the publisher of this book sold every copy, he would still lose money. Neither Baldwin nor Avedon will make twenty cents,” wrote Capote. “Brustein is entitled to think that Avedon and Baldwin are misguided; but believe me he is quite mistaken when he suggests, as he repeatedly does, that they are a pair of emotional and financial opportunists.” Even when they don’t like each other’s work, artists of a feather stick together.

Inside the 30th Annual Hollywood Issue

See 11 Spectacular Stars Unite for Vanity Fair’s 2024 Hollywood Issue

Bradley Cooper Opens Up About Taking a Dream to the Screen

Barry Keoghan Is Here For Hollywood’s “Fecking Good-Looking” Irish Wave

Jenna Ortega Thinks We Need More Weird Stories

Da’Vine Joy Randolph on Success and Survival in Hollywood

Lily Gladstone Looks Back on Her Breakthrough Year

Charles Melton Talks Heroes, Ambition, and Reinvention

Pedro Pascal Took All Our Questions —While Laid Up After Surgery

Barry Keoghan on Hollywood’s Irish Wave: “Fecking Good-Looking Lads, Innit?”

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“I’ve Never Seen a Movie Do Sex Like This”: Inside the Wild Ride of Drive-Away Dolls

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Chris Murphy

Staff writer.

Feud: Capote vs. The Swans Digs Far Below the Surface

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Capote vs. the Swans Bitterly Depicts the End of an Era

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Who Were the Swans? A Deep Dive into Truman Capote’s Best Frenemies

By Julie Miller

He Polarized Readers by Writing About His Late Wife’s Affairs. Now He’s Ready to Move On.

By Matthew Allan

Tom Hollander Hoped to Play Truman Capote 20 Years Ago. Finally, He Got His Chance

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The Stars of Feud: Capote vs. the Swans Celebrate the Original Influencers

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Some Authors Were Left Out of Awards Held in China. Leaked Emails Show Why.

When some books, including best sellers, were conspicuously absent from the science fiction Hugo Awards last year, writers and fans became suspicious.

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The author R.F. Kuang is shown in a dark coat, looking up and away from the camera, against a blurry backdrop.

By Alexandra Alter

The Hugo Awards, a major literary prize for science fiction, have been engulfed in controversy over revelations that some writers may have been excluded based on their perceived criticism of China or the Chinese government.

Suspicions in the science fiction community have been building for weeks that something was amiss with last year’s awards, which rotate to a different city each year, and in 2023 were hosted in Chengdu, China. Now, newly released emails show that the awards were likely manipulated because of political concerns.

Here’s what we know.

What are the Hugo Awards?

The awards , first established in 1953, are given annually at a gathering hosted by the World Science Fiction Convention. Writers are nominated and awarded prizes by members of the World Science Fiction Society, which includes science fiction fans. Each person can nominate five works for each category. Those entries are then tallied so that the six works with the most votes become finalists. Previous winners have included luminaries like Ursula K. Le Guin, William Gibson and Philip K. Dick.

Why were writers, and fans, upset?

In January, the Hugo Awards revealed which writers had been nominated for last year’s awards, and by how many people. The information made clear that multiple authors who had enough nominations to be finalists were shut out of the process; award administrators had marked them as not eligible , without specifying a reason. Among the excluded authors were two Western writers of Chinese descent: R.F. Kuang, who is Chinese American and who was widely expected to be recognized for her novel “Babel,” a historical fantasy set in mid-1800s Oxford, and Xiran Jay Zhao, a Chinese Canadian author whose novel “Iron Widow” is a sci-fi reimagining of China’s female emperor.

“I assume this was a matter of undesirability rather than ineligibility,” Kuang posted on Instagram in January. “Excluding ‘undesirable’ work is not only embarrassing for all involved parties, but renders the entire process and organization illegitimate.”

What did the leaked emails reveal?

The exclusion of popular authors of Chinese descent led to speculation that the awards’ administrators had weeded out those whose political views might prove controversial in China. Those suspicions were confirmed recently, when emails leaked by Diane Lacey, a member of last year’s Hugo administration team, were published in a report by Chris M. Barkley, a science fiction fan and journalist, and Jason Sanford, a journalist and science fiction writer.

The email correspondence published in the report showed that Dave McCarty, one of the Hugo administrators, had advised other members to vet the finalists and “highlight anything of a sensitive political nature” in China, including works that focused “on China, Taiwan, Tibet or other topics that may be an issue in China.” Such works, he added, might not be safe to put on the ballot.

“This really just cut to the core of the awards,” Sanford said. “For a genre that believes so deeply in free speech to willingly take part in doing research on political issues of awards finalists, knowing that it’s going to be used to eliminate some of those finalists, it’s outrageous.”

In an interview with The Times, Lacey confirmed that she had provided the emails, and said that she shared them publicly because she regretted her actions, and wanted to ensure that the Hugos would not be tainted again in the future. “I felt very guilty about what I did and wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror again,” she said.

What’s still murky?

It’s unclear if the awards’ administrators were acting under pressure or were pre-emptively seeking to avoid controversy. Lacey said that she was not aware of overt directives from Chinese officials, but added that McCarty had mentioned getting guidance from Chinese counterparts. In one of the released emails, McCarty told a colleague to be on the lookout for “mentions of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, negatives of China” from writers or in their works, and added that “I will try to get better guidance when I have a chance to dig into this deeper with the Chinese folks on the committee.” McCarty did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.

Questions also remain about whether Chinese writers were excluded as finalists for political reasons.

What has the fallout been — for Worldcon, and in the sci-fi literary world?

Last month, Worldcon announced that McCarty had resigned from his post and that he and two others had been censured “for actions of the Hugo Administration Committee of the Chengdu Worldcon.”

Esther MacCallum-Stewart, the chair of this year’s Worldcon, which will take place in Glasgow, issued an apology for last year’s debacle and said that steps would be taken “to ensure transparency and to attempt to redress the grievous loss of trust in the administration of the Awards.”

Writers who were excluded from last year’s award have expressed outrage.

“The Hugo Awards tried so hard to appease the Chinese government they circled back to being racist by preemptively disqualifying Chinese diaspora,” Xiran Jay Zhao wrote on X.

In an email, Kuang called the revelations “disappointing.”

John Scalzi, who was a finalist last year, said that the 2023 awards were “fraudulent,” and that he felt betrayed by the administrators.

“The Hugos, because they are a fan-given award, are the ones that are closest to the hearts of dyed-in-the-wool science fiction fans,” he said. “To have them compromised like this is a punch in the gut to a whole lot of people.”

Alexandra Alter writes about books, publishing and the literary world for The Times. More about Alexandra Alter

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