Book Theme

Bookish: Book Theme – Literary Fiction

At the beginning of each month I do a blog post based on a Goodreads group called ‘Play Book Tag’ where they choose a theme and then people share, discuss, recommend and review the books that fit the theme.

The theme for November is…

Literary Fictiojm

what is literary fiction



You know what? I had to ask myself this very question.

When I think of literary fiction I think of the following things:-

  1. Books that critics and awarding bodies deem as ‘worthy’ for praise and prizes
  2. Books that contain a message of a social kind and one which is usually depressing; the impact of war, the impact of all the ‘ism’s’ and ‘ias’ – sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia etc.; death and grief; the flaws in the justice system and so on.
  3. Books that contain hard to read and generally overwrought prose

Those are just my initial throwaway thoughts but…. there are books that I don’t consider to be literary fiction that have gained praise and won awards and there are books that I don’t consider to be literary fiction that contain important social messages. There are also books I consider to be literary fiction which are easy to read and contain beautiful prose.

So… what the actual heck is literary fiction? I think I need to find a professional. I found Google and Wikipedia instead but it’s close enough.

Wiki tells me this:-

Literary fiction is a term used in the book-trade to distinguish fiction that is regarded as having literary merit from most commercial or ‘genre’ fiction. 

Apparently there are also ‘characteristics’ to literary fiction which include:-

  • A concern with social commentary, political criticism or reflection of the human condition
  • A focus on introspective, in-depth character studies whose ‘inner stories’ drive the plot
  • A slower pace than popular fiction
  • A concern with style and complexity of the writing
  • Plot is not the central concern
  • The tone can be darker than genre fiction

I think, for me, that some distinguish literary fiction as being ‘better’ than commercial/ popular or genre books simply because it’s considered literary. Does it mean that the books are actually better? No. Not necessarily. But then I subscribe to, ‘if you love it, you love it.’ Regardless.

From my very brief foray into how these books do in the public eye; it seems that commercial books make money; genre books get you fans (and sometimes money) and literary books get you praise and awards (and therefore money. Sometimes).

I could be wrong about the above. But that’s my interpretation.


Because my brain links literary fiction with awards I dipped into some of the awards that are available for books. This is quite timely with the recent Man Booker Prize 2018 being awarded and so I found the below UK based awards:-

  • Man Booker Prize
  • Costa Book Award
  • The Women’s Prize for Fiction

And the below non UK based awards:-

  • Nobel Prize in Literature
  • Pulitzer Prize
  • National Book Award

Here are some notable winners for two of the awards:-

  • Man Booker Prize – Milkman by Anna Burns (2018); Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (2012); The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (2008); The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997)
  • Pulitzer Prize – Less by Andrew Sean Gree (2018); All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2015); The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2014); The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2007)

what is popular

This is based off of the ‘Popular Literary Fiction Books’ list on Goodreads which contains 1,200 entries. The top ten are: –

  1. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  4. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  5. All the Light We Cannot See by Antony Doerr
  6. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  7. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  8. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  9. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Sallinger
  10. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

The ones that were out of the top ten that I have heard are:-

  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Antony Doerr
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Sallinger
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

So that’s a fair few I’ve heard of. The ones I’ve actually read are:-

  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Sallinger

Yep. Not that many.

So, to my usual question: what do I think?

Even though I haven’t read many I have enjoyed two out of the three I have read – The Handmaid’s Tale and Life of Pi (both of which feature on last months Canadian Literature post). I didn’t like The Catcher in the Rye but then it has been over 15 years since I read it.

I want to read a few on the list; The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Kite Runner and especially Never Let Me Go.

What I find interesting is that some of the ‘literary fiction’ offerings could also be considered as ‘genre fiction’ for example The Handmaid’s Tale, Life of Pi and Never Let Me Go. Maybe that’s why I’ve already read/ want to read them.


The Handmaid’s Tale –  as mentioned a million times before.

Life of Pi – also included as a favourite in last months post.

Never Let Me Go – this is a cheat as I haven’t read it but I very much want to. I would say that this is the one on the list that I want to read the most. No surprises for it being a ‘genre’ offering as that is where my heart resides.


What are your thoughts on the above? Any favourites? What are your thoughts on the top 10 most popular?

Let me know!


6 thoughts on “Bookish: Book Theme – Literary Fiction

  1. TFW I’ve only heard about like four of five of those, and have read none.

    As for the topic of “what is literary” i subscribe to the idea that it’s just anything that has literary intent, the prose doesn’t have to follow certain conventions, nor does it need to be plotless or win awards.

    I personally believe that William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy definitely has literary intent, although not as much as Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”, but both are science fiction genre books. Phillip K. Dick and Robert A. Heinlein also fit into the “technically sort of literary” bunch. Sci fi tends to have a lot of overlap.

    I’d recommend reading Coetzee and Auster. They’re “standard” literary fiction but they tend to have a sense of humor and plot. Personal favorites are “Elizabeth Costello” by Coetzee and “In the Country of Last Things” by Auster (this one is almost speculative with a lot of surrealistic elements).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love recommendations so I’ll definitely check those out.

      I found it so hard to pinpoint what is meant by ‘literary’ and I think a lot of people have their own definitions as well – for instance for yourself it’s the literary intent and not just style or tone. For others it would be style and/or tone and that’s why this topic was so hard!

      Genre stories by comparison (like sci-fi) are relatively easier to describe but I agree – sci-fi or speculative fiction seems to be the genre that overlaps most with literary in comparison to genres such as fantasy or romance and I do wonder why that is. Maybe it’s because of the questions we ask ‘what if’ and ‘why’ in sci-fi/ speculative allow us to examine human nature or the consequences of human nature a bit more and that veers it towards what other’s consider ‘literary.’ I’m not sure but I do find it interesting!

      Thank you for your comment 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such an interesting post! Literary fiction’s one of the genres I find most difficult to define, it’s one of those you know it when you’re reading it things. I’ve read 8/10 of the most popular and I enjoyed all of them, but the only one I’d call a favorite is The Secret History. My absolute favorite literary fiction books are Heaven and Hell by Jon Kalman Stefansson, a saga about a small Icelandic fishing town, and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, an Indian family saga. I’ve yet to read Life of Pi, maybe I should add it to my TBR!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I find it quite tricky too, I think everyone’s definition of what is ‘literary’ is different but there seems to be a blanket definition out there so I went with that one.

      I haven’t read many on the list at all so 8/10 is epic! I don’t know how many appeal to me but then I often read something and am pleasantly surprised and I always say to give anything a go!

      Life of Pi is very good, I really recommend it!


  3. Such a lucid consideration of a genre that’s notoriously difficult to define. The Handmaid’s Tale definitely is my favorite out of what I’ve read on the list, but I’ve heard such good things about Never Let Me Go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I think literary overlaps with so many other genres and topics though so it’s always interesting to see sci-fi on the literary fiction lists. The Handmaid’s Tale is an absolute favourite of mine but Margaret Atwood actually hated it being called sci-fi (I can’t remember if she preferred speculative or didn’t like that either).

      I really want to read Never Let Me Go. I think after the ones I’ve read, it’s the one most up my alley!


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