What is “literary”?

My question for today’s post is: What is “literary fiction”? Taken literally, the answer seems pretty straightforward. “literary” seems to be related to “literature”. “Literature” means “written”. So “literary fiction” simply means written fiction, right? Wrong!

I’ve yet to find a widely accepted definition of “literary” as a genre. Glimmer Train classifies themselves as literary, as does Zoetrope (and many others). Whether you like the stories in these magazines is, as with all magazines, a matter of taste.

But to me classifying some writing as “literary” to the exclusion of other writing implies a sort of elitist attitude, as though “literary” writing is the only sort of writing that has value. The same for labeling a section in the bookstore as “literature”, as opposed to other fiction sections like mystery, horror, science fiction/fantasy. I don’t object to the section–I’ve read many books in the literature section that I enjoyed, but I do object to the title. The book store might as well label it “high-quality fiction” and “other”. As I’m primarily a reader of speculative fiction, this bothers me.

And a lot of times, the boundary is fuzzy anyway. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire, is in the literature section, despite it being clearly fantasy material. Why is that classed as literature? I suspect its the tone and style of writing, which would explain why this is the only Oz story I don’t care for.

Classic science fiction and fantasy is generally classified as literature also–I believe I’ve seen The Time Machine, A Clockwork Orange, 1984, and other classics in there. Is Speculative fiction like a fine wine, somehow gaining quality as it ages? If we’d been alive to taste of The Time Machine shortly after it was written, would it have ruined the experience because it wasn’t old enough? Maybe if I take a George R. R. Martin novel and put it in the book cellar, and pull it out again in several generations, it will have become literature, perfectly aged and fetching a handsome price from literature connoisseurs who will riffle the pages, sniff the binding, and read only a paragraph at a time so as not to be overwhelmed by the power of the prose between the covers.

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David Steffen

David Steffen is an editor, publisher, and writer. If you like what he does you can visit the Support page or buy him a coffee! He is probably best known for being co-founder and administrator of The Submission Grinder, a donation-supported tool to help writers track their submissions and find publishers for their work . David is also the editor-in-chief here at Diabolical Plots. He is also the editor and publisher of The Long List Anthology: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List series. David also (sometimes) writes fiction, and you can follow on BlueSky for updates on cross-stitch projects and occasionally other things.

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