Literary Fiction is a Genre: A List

October 22, 2012 | 9 books mentioned 42 5 min read

coverA few weeks ago, whenever I told anyone I was reading Molly Ringwald’s novel-in-stories When it Happens to You, they either said, “Wow, cool!” or, “Ugh. Why?” To the latter, I replied, “Why not?” Ringwald has always presented herself as well-spoken and well-read, and being an actress isn’t necessarily a detriment to writing: after all, actors, like fiction writers, must inhabit characters and seek out a scene’s power. (And, dude, if you were in Pretty in Pink, you’re basically qualified to win a Nobel.)

I devoured When it Happens to You in a day or two. It was an engaging and pleasing read, with lines like, “Greta had always been most beautiful to him when emerging from water. Swimming pools, oceans, bath tubs.” Ringwald treats her characters with compassion, and I enjoyed seeing how each story would connect to the next. Overall, though, I was underwhelmed, perhaps because the territory mined is so familiar: there’s an affair, there are blah sentences like, “The color had drained from her face.” There’s even a description of a woman who, after almost being run over, raises “a furious fist” at the driver, like some irate extra in an action flick’s chase sequence. I longed for a more daring and complicated book; Ringwald has one in her future, I know it, but this isn’t it.

Even so, as I said, I devoured the novel, and, in general, enjoyed it. Its predictable content and structure were comforting, like a catchy pop song or a romantic comedy. You know, as Adorno might say, its familiarity helped me ward off death. Or something.

In a recent profile of Justin Cronin in the New York Times Magazine, Colson Whitehead is quoted as saying he’d “rather shoot [him]self in the face” than have another discussion about literature genres. I don’t blame him. When people ask me what kind of fiction I write, I usually say, “It’s about people,” and leave it at that. But as I read Ringwald’s book, I found myself pondering literary fiction: as a genre, as a taxonomical category. When It Happens to You, you see, is a sterling example of literary fiction, if we were to consider literary fiction as a straightforward genre like romance or science fiction, with certain expected tropes and motifs.

What, you ask, are some attributes of this genre? Read on, my friend, read on.

1. The Long Title

covercoverWhen it Happens to You is not only a long title, it’s also in the second person, as are many titles in the literary fiction category. I think we should blame Dave Eggers for starting this trend with his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity. Or maybe Miranda July‘s story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, really got things going. I, too, am guilty of joining the bandwagon with my hard-to-say novella title, If You’re Not Yet Like Me. Uwem Akpan demanded us to Say You’re One Of Them, and Elliott Holt will comply with her forthcoming  You Are One Of ThemRamona Ausubel’s debut,  No One Is Here Except All of Us, switched things up with the first-person plural; perhaps she was inspired by fellow UC Irvine alumnus Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End.

covercoverIf Ringwald hadn’t chosen the long second-person title, she might have picked one with a full name, a la, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, or Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, or The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey, or Laura Lamont’s Life In Pictures by Emma Straub. Sheesh. I should call my next book And So Olivo D’Havellind and You Will Move Away From this Place I Call Home. It’s sure to win the Pulitzer.

2. Adultery

coverA decade later, Sean Carman’sLessons Learned from My Study of Literature” still makes me laugh. But the third lesson, “The thing about adultery is it’s the highest expression of pure human freedom,” has its inverse as well: that adultery in literary fiction (and in real life, too, I presume) also leads to stress, despair, and a complicated regret. Let’s just go ahead and credit Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for making extra-marital affairs in fiction so popular. Anton Chekhov also gets points for his enormously influential story, “The Lady with The Lap Dog.” And all contemporary tales of domestic unrest must also pay dues to Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, with its depiction of The Wheelers, an unhappy, unfaithful couple living in the suburbs. If you aren’t sure what kind of literary novel to write, I suggest starting with an English professor who has an affair with his (her?!) student while the wife (husband?! life partner?!) sculpts and flails at home. Abortion plot-line optional.

3. Scene, Exposition, Scene, Flashback, Scene, Cue Epiphany

The reader of literary genre fiction should feel the structure in her body, particularly with short stories. It’s a recognizable rhythm, it’s a shimmering in one’s veins as one moves from opening scene to well-placed background information to the next, more tense scene to that special, oh-so-revealing flashback about the time our protagonist ran over his rubber horse, or the time he knew he was in love with a real horse, or the time he — oh you see what I mean. In the genre of literary fiction, this structure must lead to a moment of revelation, suggested but never explained. The image of our protagonist in a Safeway parking lot, pushing his cart as if he were a cowboy riding a horse, the wind roughing up his hair, the distant neighs of horns in the far off distance. (Can you feel it? I can.) Let’s go ahead and give James Joyce his rightful due for such faintly falling, falling faintly moments of reverie and character change in literary fiction. (Damn that horse! Now I’m sobbing!)

4. A Dog barks, someone eats a watermelon, a car drives away.

In his terrific and funny Slate essay, Rosecrans Baldwin unveils how many authors write barking dogs into the backgrounds of their novels. Though he points out barking dogs in genre novels as well, I’d argue that you find them in literary fiction precisely because they show time passing. As Baldwin says, “Most authors…employ the trope as a narrative rest stop, an innocuous way to fill space and time.” In literary fiction, there is so little event, authors need that dang dog; without it, there’s only the mind, there’s only emotion, and the reader is floating in a vacuum. As James Wood has said of the aforementioned  “The Lady With the Lap Dog,” Chekhov needs Gurov to eat a watermelon for half an hour in front of his new mistress in order to show time passing. Otherwise, nada is happening! For good measure, I suggest adding to your scene a car driving away. Or even better, the distant rumble of a motorcycle. Ooh. Yes.

5. The plate drops!

Years ago, Maud Newton lodged the phrase “tea towel fiction” in my brain, and it’s stuck with me. Newton quotes a judge for the Orange Prize, Katharine Viner, who said of the many submissions she read:

They are books with 500 pages discussing a subtle but allegedly profound shift within a relationship. They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce.

This is a “nothing happens” book, the former it girl of literary genre fiction. In my classes, I like to describe these stories as: “A man and a woman buy dishes at the store. When they get home, she goes to lie down, barely talking, something unsettling her. A dog barks in the distance. The man starts to put the plates away, and one breaks. The end.” What I love about this kind of narrative is that it’s often deliciously readable. How is that possible? Of course, this kind of narrative is a bit out of vogue — there’s a new it girl on the scene. It’s the same man and woman, but now time travel or zombies or tiny people who live in walnuts are involved. Raymond Carver is to blame for the popularity of the first kind of narrative, with his profound stories of small actions, uninterested as they are in directly exploring the inner lives of characters. That genius George Saunders is to blame for the latter: damn him and his faxing cave man!

I have certainly missed other tropes of this rich and admired genre. Feel free to add more in the comments — I need some tips for my next story. (I’m thinking of making it about a woman named Edan Lepucki. Woh…woh…mind melt!)

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. How about have your next story, novel or even series of novels be about a family fued between a Carver-esque putting plates away and lying down, small action family and a Saunders-esque same-but-with-Zombie family next door. Besides having a kind of sitcom charm you would be able to pack in all kinds of literary aesthetic judgements in it.

  2. My favorite trope is child rape. It’s forever taking me by surprise. Call me naive, but that’s not where I saw Swamplandia going. With its boarding school setting and priests galore, Skippy Dies should have I seen the inevitability from the get-go, but I didn’t.

  3. The Barking Dog in the Distance trope also serves to break the silence, especially in night scenes. Or to break the protagonist’s fugue or concentration,

  4. How about… introspective young woman with vague job and daddy issues returns to family home and uncovers a secret from the past. (The latter having happened during “the summer everything changed”.) Siblings and lovers all beastly.

  5. Hi,
    I enjoyed reading your summary. If you liked, sort of, but not really, Molly Ringwald’s novel in stories, you might want to compare it to mine, On Thin Ice, although I am not at all known and a nobody. The book might surprise you.It has plenty of action and interesting side stories, not at all Carver-copy material, and shows a time span from the late sixties to the present with all past as well as modern relationship foibles including adultery that a woman can encounter.
    I am not fond of the explicit “literary” adjective and often it seems pretentious to me. I do like a well written story.
    Johanna van Zanten

  6. Is there any reason the good, old-fashioned dramatic arc (or some approximation thereof) can’t come back in style? I fear there are far too many writers out there with little or no idea how to create narrative tension, so they resort to these goofy, played out tropes and it makes for very uninteresting reading.

  7. This is why I moved away from literary fiction to screenwriting (not that I have anything produced yet). God know most movies suck, but at least something happens!

  8. I’m campaigning for for the use of “literate” rather than “literary” , to describe the kind of writing you talk about, as well as good crime and sci-fi and romances and (probably) porn. By literate I mean fiction that is not insulting to the intelligence of a well-read person; is true to way we have experienced life, love, people, work, causality, and time; and is at least a little challenging in syntax, in perspective, to expectations, or to feelings. As for literary and literature, let’s save them for the really good stuff; the use of language to change our way of seeing or being in he world (I’m paraphrasing someone), to crack our Cosmic Egg.

  9. Edan,

    At Duotrope they list ‘Literary’ as a style rather than a genre, which suggests a plot line:

    At an informal collegiate social function a restless professor takes the position that literary is a style primarily to get a rise out of his wife who has taken the opposite position. She was his student fifteen years ago when they started dating and eventually got married. He now has his eyes on a current prodigy of whom the wife is suspicious.

    The style vs. genre trope would be interwoven throughout the story: are the characters living out true lives or acting out the lives they somehow learned they were “supposed to” have?

    On a side note, except for action movies, if you watch a TV program or movie in fast forward they all pretty much look like people yacking at each other in different rooms. Vive la memete!

  10. I laughed! I cried! (Well, not really. But I laughed out loud.) This article is brilliant.

    Re Chekov, the Russian title (Dama s sobachkoi) means “Lady with little dog.” Hence the translation “lapdog.” I guess the Paris Hiltons of the day spent a lot of time sitting around with little dogs on their laps, as opposed to carrying them in specially designed dog handbags.

  11. Interesting piece. But I’m not sure why “Scene, Exposition, Scene, Flashback, Scene, Cue Epiphany” only apply to literary fiction. Wouldn’t they also apply to commercial fiction? My novel (being shopped out to agents now) has those elements, but I didn’t think that was what classified it as literary fiction. I’ve been taught that literary fiction focuses on characters and sense of place where commercial fiction focuses on plot. That literary fiction slows the pace a bit, with more attention to detail, description, etc. Your thoughts?

  12. Currently reading Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. Not sure if I can carry on, after reading this. All the clever things I thought she was doing turn out to be just genre tropes, long titles, adultery, ohhh, so much adultery, plates breaking and expositionary flashbacks… I really was enjoying it but I feel cheated now.

  13. “And So Olivo D’Havellind and You Will Move Away From this Place I Call Home”

    I would read that book.

    Just sayin’.

  14. Great essay, Edan. insightful and entertaining as always. I’m getting the book and adding “dog barks, someone eats a watermelon, a car drives away,” to my criteria for distinguishing literary fiction. Lisa

  15. Thanks for the hilarious and true article: when discussing the book’s Title, you must also discuss packaging:

    – “Literary fiction” comes in a larger format trade paperback: never, pocket paperback. Mass market paperbacks are for the masses.

    – The cover must be of a painting, or at least painterly: flowing, maybe abstract. All caps, embossed lettering, silver or gold are for Danielle Steele or Stephen King. A notation of a Giller or Man Booker or New York Times is advised: Oprah’s Book Club, Reader’s Digest and USA Today are for plebes.

    Maud Newton’s “tea towel fiction” is now lodged in my brain as well! Rwading it all I could think was “Alice Munro, Alice Munro, Alice Munro!” (whom I love, but still.)

  16. As the moon rose and the cold betrayed my toes, I set the alarm by the bed but never slept, not with my eyes, my blue, deep blue, bloodshot eyes, until morning came and I wanted to die, but refused to eat the breakfast that my adulterous wife had set out the previous night. The fucking eggs were cold. That bitch! And then the dog barked.

  17. Book is about the ribald sexual adventures of a middle-aged college professor.
    Book is written by a middle-aged college professor.

    Bonus points: professor schtups at least one student.

  18. This is a great list! As an avid reader whose favorite genre is literary fiction, I appreciate this quick summation! I try to explain to people the difference between literary fiction and popular bestseller fiction, but it’s not nearly as succinct as this. Thanks!

  19. As an author whose novels and story collections are decidedly literary, and as one who has won literary awards from literary associations, this had my interest right away, and I did have a chuckle at Number 5. So thank you – I shall be back. Meantime, I am preparing a website for my new literary fiction imprint, Yellow Teapot Books.

  20. Crucial as well to tea-towel fiction is a prohibition against work. Characters are free to buy plates and break them, walk the dog or correct bluebooks, but that’s about it. Or, if tea-towel characters have to do something, it can’t involve actual details that require the writer to make clear how double-entry bookkeeping works, or mortuary science. Dwelling on actual work, that kind of “information” is so category. And of course it goes without saying–or should–that any display of sustained warmth between characters is pure contrivance, as is any last chapter that leaves readers with a sense of completion. No no no. If you have to ask why this just won’t do, voila! you’re probably not a bad person, but really you would do better, be happier with a bestseller.

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  22. Instead of a barking dog you coulkd discuss the weather (you know, thunder, the movement of clouds, the color of the sky, etc.) you could also write a 700+ page novel where the weather and sky almost (but not quite) become the main character like I did, lol

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