By Holly Hibner and Mary Kelly
Literary fiction “tends to focus on complex issues and the beauty of the writing itself,” according to the Writer’s Relief Staff at the Huffington Post (1). This is a great definition, and makes a distinction between literary fiction and mainstream or “popular” fiction, which is driven more by plot and characters than by insight or clever use of language. It seems short sighted to think that literary writing falls only outside of genre fiction, though. There are plenty of literary mysteries, literary science fiction novels, and even literary graphic novels. I’d like to suggest that literary fiction can, in fact, fall into a variety of genres and still hold true to the definition above.
As a reader who is attracted by an interesting book cover (yes, I do judge books by their covers, and I also use a pretty cover as a readers advisory tactic!), I found a discussion of book covers by the writers at the online “Novel Writing Help” very compelling. They said that the cover art of “literary novels are more subtle, more ‘arty’” (2). Science fiction novels may show space ships on their covers (like in The Arrows of Time by Greg Egan, 2014) and mystery novels may show something creepy or sinister like the empty children’s swings on the cover of Merrick by Ken Bruen (2014). They might well be attractive covers, but they point more obviously to the genre itself. Examples of more subtle literary fiction covers are a ripped page with a bird peeking from behind (The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, 2013), two hands reaching toward each other (The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, 2014), and a meadow with no people (Lila by Marilynne Robinson, 2014).
Let’s look at examples of cover art of literary genre works. A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger is a literary historical mystery with elements like intricate plotlines, rich detail, and an atmospheric tone. Its cover is black with fire and a crown – symbolic of heresy, conspiracy, and the king’s court. It is dark and menacing like a mystery genre novel might be and shows a king’s crown like a historical fiction novel – a nice mix of literary, historical, and mystery. Another good example of this combination literary/genre cover art is Betwixt and Between by Jessica Stilling (2013). It is both a mystery and a fantasy novel with literary elements like being stylistically complex with parallel narratives and the setting of both the real world and Peter Pan’s Neverland, sort of “between worlds.” The cover shows a foggy forest, very symbolic of this idea of being “betwixt and between,” but also similar to a mystery novel that seems murky and dubious.
For readers advisory purposes, these literary genre books can create a gateway between popular fiction and literary fiction. They are literary in and of themselves, but the genre elements can make the literary features more accessible. Likewise, the literary elements can develop the genre features, giving them a more studious style that deeper readers will appreciate. Following are four more examples of literary fiction that fall into specific genre categories.
Red Moon by Benjamin Percy (2014)
Werewolves are real, and they suppress their violent nature with drugs. A terrorist group of werewolves attacks, breaking the shaky peace between their kind and the humans. This is a literary horror novel, with sociopolitical commentary pointing back to 9/11. The language and the story builds compassion for the terrorizing monsters, giving the reader conflicting emotions!
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (2013)
A man moves to a gold mining town in New Zealand just as three crimes occur there. He is implicated in the crimes. There is crime, deception, and intrigue in this historical mystery novel, but the style is decidedly literary. There are stories within stories, and a very nonlinear approach to the storytelling.
Maddaddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood
#1 Oryx and Crake (2003), #2 The Year of the Flood (2009), and #3 Maddaddam (2013)
This literary science fiction novel is set on an ecologically ruined earth. Bio-engineered beings run amok. The characters remind us of things we take for granted (computers, even time!), and also point to the way humans may need to live in this eventual future (in sterile bunkers or out on their own, scavenging and trying to survive the dystopia). There are science and bioengineering themes (the science fiction) but also focus on complex issues like big business, biotech, and the use of natural resources that make this literary fiction.
The High Divide by Lin Enger (2013)
When a man goes out on a moral quest, his two sons go out to find him. This leaves Gretta, the man’s wife, alone. It is 1886, and the book tells about their journeys through the badlands between Minnesota and Montana. This is a western, with descriptions of battles with Custer, the western territories, and Native Americans. Its literary elements are more symbolic, like the journey through geographic divides like rivers and mountains just as the characters journey through states of being and moral understanding.
About the Authors
Holly is the Adult Services Coordinator at the Plymouth District Library in Plymouth, MI. She has a mild obsession with collection quality (ok, maybe not so mild) and can be found at the Readers’ Advisory desk dreaming up read-alikes.
Mary is the Youth Services Librarian at the Lyon Township Public Library in South Lyon, MI. She, too, is obsessed with collection quality, and has taken it up a notch with never ending shelf lists, spreadsheets, and inventory. Mary has a special knack for linking books to readers of all ages.
- Writer’s Relief Staff. Posted 8/21/13, viewed 8/2/14. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/21/literary-novels-_n_3790198.html
- What is Literary Fiction (and what sets it apart)? Viewed 8/2/14. http://www.novel-writing-help.com/literary-fiction.html