March blog

What, exactly, is Literary Fiction?

This month, I thought I would look at the subject of Literary Fiction. When I was on a Creative Writing MA course a few years ago, I canvassed opinion from lecturers, guest speakers, authors and fellow students on what they considered to be Literary Fiction.   

“Oh, you know it when you read it,” was one helpful response.
“Anything that’s not a genre,” was another.
“Really good writing,” yet another.
“Writing where character is more important than plot,” said someone else and
“A thousand fewer copies sold,” said a disillusioned author.

Even a quick Google hardly comes up with anything more enlightening:

Anything that doesn’t fit into a genre; fiction that has literary merit; fiction that has value and merit in the social world; literary fiction is an artificial luxury brand that doesn’t sell.

Well, there you are!

I’ve certainly read so-called Literary Fiction that I have enjoyed and, equally, some that I haven’t, much the same as any genre fiction. But who’s to say that one type of writing has more merit than another? A very subjective judgement, I would suggest.

For me, and please feel free to disagree, I think that Literary Fiction has more fine detail than genre fiction: descriptions of places, people, thoughts and feelings, with less dialogue and less action than other genres. It also uses more literary devices than may be found in, say, crime thrillers or romances, such as metaphors, similes and imagery, and stories can often be allegories, incorporating one or more themes.

The Arts Council of England (ACE) suggests that literary fiction is definitely on a downward spiral: print sales of literary fiction are significantly below that of 12-13 years ago. And even fewer authors than before are making a full-time living from literary writing.

Sarah Crown, ACEs literature director: “It would have been obviously unnecessary in the early 90s for the Arts Council to consider making an intervention in the literary sector, but a lot has changed since then – the internet, Amazon, the demise of the net book agreement  – ongoing changes which have had a massive effect.

“It’s a much more unforgiving ecosystem for authors of literary fiction today. We inevitably end up with a situation where the people best positioned to write literary fiction are those for whom making a living isn’t an imperative. That has an effect on the diversity of who is writing – we are losing voices, and we don’t want to be in that position.”

The report suggests that the decline in literary sales could be down to the recession happening at the same time as the rise of cheap and easy entertainment.

Some of the ideas that ACE is considering:

  • 1) To support more individual writers through grants;
  • 2) To prioritise funding of diverse organisations, particularly outside London; and
  • 3) To increase support for independent literary fiction publishers

Among the “literary fiction” million sellers that I’ve read and enjoyed, you too probably, are The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and Life of Pi by Yann Martel.  Last year’s bestselling literary novel was Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, which sold 187,000 copies – roughly half the 360,000 copies of Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, the bestseller of 2015 which I thought was a really good, thought-provoking read.


Writing prompts

Ruislip Lido children's beach pirate ship

(1) I’ve chosen four picture prompts this month, starting with the one I chose for the masthead this month – the pirate ship! Where could this be? The Caribbean? Africa? A Pacific Island? No! This was the sight that greeted me and a friend as we took a cold, brisk walk recently around Ruislip Lido to the west of London! The ship is still in the construction stage so I’m dying to see what it looks like finished, full of little pirates and perhaps Johnny Dep too! There’s definitely a story there!photo-1519944159858-806d435dc86b
(2) I’m writing this looking out onto a snow blizzard so I thought I’d stick to just one wintry picture! Why is this person out in such weather? Where are they going? Did they want to go out or is this a reluctant journey?photo-1519916294153-5d5bab38cf84
(3) What’s the look on this young woman’s face – apprehension, puzzlement, concern? What’s the building she’s leaving? What does the day hold for her?photo-1519915149845-399e7e57e3c9
(4) And just who are these flowers for? A bride? A funeral? A birthday? Is that the giver or the recipient? How will they be received?
These three pictures are from Unsplash – one of my favourite websites for an inspirational break in writing!

Useful websites

(1) I came across this interesting article about what the good thriller writer needs to know. Even if thrillers aren’t particularly your genre, this piece has plenty of good advice. Click here.

(2) If you want a short break from your own writing, take a look at this website – optimistic ways of looking at rejection plus some hard-hitting advice from famous authors.

Book recommendations:

 I’ve recently read two novels that I might have easily glossed over had they not been given or loaned to me. But I am really grateful for the gift and the loan because they took me to authors and genres that I didn’t think I had time for.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood is a modern take on The Tempest. The director of a drama festival is cruelly sacked on the eve of what should be his greatest triumph. He plans his revenge. (Thank you, June)

I am, I am, I am by Maggie O’Farrell is her beautifully written story of the 17 times death brushed past her, so close she could feel its touch. (Thank you, Angela)

I’ll try to update the competition page later this month after I get my boiler to provide heating and hot water! 

Stay warm and happy writing!


One Comment on “March blog

  1. Interesting post about literary fiction, Linda. I agree that, like any other genre, there are enjoyable works of literary fiction and not so enjoyable. It does seem a shame that sales are declining – perhaps an indictment of our quick gratification culture and dwindling attention spans. It’s certainly not a good thing if it means only well heeled writers can survive, so I hope more funding opportunities are available. By the way, I also loved I Am, I Am, I Am.


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