What are Literary Fiction Books?
If you’ve ever gone down any list of books and book genres, you will have stumbled upon the term “literary fiction.” But have you ever really thought about what it means? When separated, both terms are clear: Literature is any sort of written work, ideally with an artistic value, and fiction refers to non-real stories. However, literary fiction books are more than the sum of their parts.
Literary fiction is quite challenging to define in terms of what it is. It is easier to think about what it is not. These books are not genre fiction, i.e., easily classified under your usual popular categories like science fiction, romance, or thriller. However, they often have multiple overlaps of various genres.
Literary fiction books are usually character-driven in the sense that they provide detail and depth to their protagonists, who are exposed to a series of challenging situations and are led to respond to them and adapt. These often include social, political, or psychological themes, inner turmoil, and big questions of life. In layman’s terms, literary fiction is more serious literature (in other words, all those novels in black and orange Penguin editions).*
*Disclaimer: Just because some books are considered more serious, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read light-hearted ones!
What Kinds of Literary Fiction Books are There?
When you consider literary fiction, you will find one important feature: They do not follow a pattern (which also makes it difficult to label them with only one genre). These stories can have happy or sad endings, lots of excitement, seemingly no plot at all, or completely unusual presentations.
Broadly speaking, you can divide literary fiction books into the following groups:
- Realistic literary fiction. Most historically connected to the genre, realistic fiction strives to be objective and speak about the real world. In a way, you could say that realism, along with the advancement of the novel itself, gave rise to literary fiction. This includes coming-of-age stories, fictionalized accounts of historical figures, or books dealing with relevant social and cultural themes.
- “Experimental” literary fiction. By this point, you know about James Joyce’s stream of consciousness and what an absolute delight and dread it is to read Ulysses. Experimental novels experiment with form, modes of writing and representation, and ways of telling a story. I did write experimental in inverted commas for a reason, as some scholars rightly point out that it’s easy to slam the label experimental on anything that people don’t understand (and are not willing to put intellectual effort into understanding).
- Contemporary literary fiction. The simplest to define, these are books that speak to the current moment and are character-driven and more serious in their themes.
- Philosophical literary fiction. These novels deal with big questions: Who are we (as humans), where is our place in the universe, what is love, and how do we love? You know, those thoughts you have when you’re struggling to fall asleep.
Whichever type you choose to read, you can expect a series of unusual writing strategies, creative storytelling, ambiguity, and more than questionable characters.
Speaking of …
Classical Examples of Literary Fiction Books
Because you are here, after all, to get some new reading material, I won’t beat around the bush. Here are some of the literary fiction books that helped shape and define the genre:
- Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. You must have heard of Don Quixote and his struggles against windmills, but despite all his hilarious shenanigans, the novel is exceptionally character-driven. Don Quixote has spent his life reading romance novels (no, not romantic … think knight stories like King Arthur and his round table) and has become a little divorced from reality. He decides to be a noble knight too. Chaos ensues.
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Even if you haven’t read the novel, you’ve probably watched one of the many adaptations of it. Hailed as a masterpiece, discover why this gothic novel was particularly controversial when it was first published … and look out for arguably one of the most famous quotes in literature: “He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding. A group of schoolboys is stranded on an island with no adults in sight. Long live the freedom! Or not so much. As the boys attempt to create a society and order in their lives, sins and fears creep in, painting a vivid picture of “the end of innocence and the darkness of man’s heart.”
- The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. This coming-of-age narrative follows Holden Caulfield, who has just been kicked out of yet another school. As he flees his problematic home situation, Holden seeks authenticity, pushes the boundaries of morality, and explores his own teenage alienation.
- Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. This is one of those books that gets better with age. Philip, a.k.a. Pip, is an orphan hired to do dirty work while dreaming of becoming a gentleman at the height of Victorian society. One day, he finds himself in possession of great money and great expectations. As Pip grows up, he is accompanied by a series of colorful characters and forced to contend with revenge, anger, and the depths of human emotions while striving to keep his dream alive.
And to make sure you don’t run out of things to read, you should check out these titles:
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (also can be classified as women’s writing).
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (because we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars).
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
Famous Literary Fiction Books by Non-White Authors
You will have noticed a pattern up there – most classical novels were indeed written by white people, mostly men. This is due to a series of inequalities in the social system of the past, which didn’t allow women or people of color to write or publish. However, the tide has turned, and recent years have seen some fantastic literary fiction books by non-white authors:
- Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. The novel details the life of Milkman Dead, who, apart from his inauspicious name, also had a somewhat unfavorable start to his life. Namely, his grandfather killed himself on the day Milkman was born. The Dead family is wealthy enough though, and even though Milkman is a pessimistic, angsty young man, he undertakes a journey of self-discovery, forging strong bonds with his family and finding ways of appreciating life.
- To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara. In an alternate reality, 1893 New York is a part of the Free States where everyone can do as they please (or can they?). How hard can it be to avoid an arranged marriage in such circumstances? In 1993, Manhattan faces the AIDS crisis as a couple struggles to uphold their relationship beyond secrets and trauma. In 2093, the Green Apple is riddled with plagues and on the brink of dystopian destruction. What do these things have in common? Discover how these people explore questions of love, friendship, hardship, and loss in a city that takes on its own character.
- Honor by Thrity Umrigar. Smita is an Indian-born journalist living in America. When an assignment sends her back to her home country to report on the story of a Hindu woman cast out for marrying a Muslim, Smita is forced to reckon with strict traditions and her past.
- The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Mr. Stevenson has been a butler for a rich English family for his entire life (having taken over after his father). He has taken care of his master, rarely questioning his choices and not paying attention to broad cultural shifts around them. As he grows old, he is forced to come to terms with his wasted years and the fact that he had been serving a Nazi sympathizer his entire life and had inadvertently supported his cause.
- Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. From a master storyteller, this novel “re-creates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria in the 1960s, and the chilling violence that followed.” Three people are swept in the change, and their stories weave together in this absolute classic.
Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to give you only five recommendations, so make sure to read these:
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.
- And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
- How to Tell the Story of an Insurgency: Fifteen tales from Assam by Aruni Kashyap.
- This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz.
Current Popular Literary Fiction Books
It’s always hard to pick popular titles, as popularity comes and goes. Popular literary fiction books burst like a flame on the literary scene, usually for a good reason, but it is hard to tell what causes people to flock to one title in particular. Either way, here are some of the most popular literary fiction books at the moment:
- Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzales. Olga is a wedding planner with her own company. Her brother is a politician, and their Puerto Rican family living in New York seems to have been pushed out of sight due to their connections with terrorism. Olga, who has attachment issues preventing her from getting close to anyone, convinces herself that she is happy with her life. However, she is brought before big choices and questions as she finds herself falling for an eccentric guy she keeps running into.
- True Biz by Sara Nović. I must admit I am unashamedly biased about this book. The story follows a series of students studying at the River Valley School for the Deaf. In addition to teenage drama, this novel gives a supremely perceptive overview of the deaf communities, their struggles, turmoil, and joys.
- Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. Now, who would have thought that the world of video game design could be so cruel? Two friends (occasionally in love with each other) join forces in THE creative team of the century meant for stardom and success.
- Now Is Not the Time to Panic by Kevin Wilson. Sixteen-year-old Frankie is an aspiring writer who deliberately avoids unwanted attention. When she meets Zeke, a talented artist, sparks of love and rebellion fly as they paint a controversial poster and leave it in their sleepy town. Carried by the attention, they continue making new posters, causing panic in the town. Twenty years later, when Frankie, now a famous writer, receives a phone call from a journalist asking about the posters, she realizes her life is about to fall apart.
- Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson. When Eleanor Bennet dies, she leaves two things to her two children: A black cake based on an old family recipe and a voice recording detailing her life’s story. Can Byron and Benny, once close siblings, piece together Eleanor’s past and manage to “eat the black cake when the time is right?”
And a few more titles that have gained a lot of attention recently:
- Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley.
- Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmu.
- Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt.
- Mad Honey by Jodi Picoult.
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson.
Is There Such a Thing as Best Literary Fiction Books?
To recap, literary fiction books are those books that deal with social, political, cultural, or emotional themes, exploring them in great detail. They are often innovative in their style, filled with ambiguity and questionable characters, and do not follow any specific patterns.
That being said, it is difficult to name a few examples and call them the best. It’s sort of like when someone asks you what your favorite book or movie is, isn’t it? Therefore, I won’t even try to select the best one. Instead, I will leave you with just a few more titles to pique your curiosity:
- The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
- A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.
- Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata.
- Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.
- The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
- The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.
- Someday, Maybe by Onyi Nwabineli.
- He Gets That From Me by Jacqueline Friedland.
- Aldri, aldri, aldri by Linn Strømsborg.
And with that, make sure to get all cozy and enjoy some thought-provoking reading!