Literary Fiction Book Tag

Thanks to the Lauras (Reading in Bed and Dr Laura Tisdall) for making me aware of this tag that is also going around on BookTube. Laura F. specifically tagged me. If you haven’t already taken part and think this looks like fun, why not give it a try? For my examples I’ve chosen books I read this year or last year.


  1. How do you define literary fiction?

My inclination is to adapt one of Italo Calvino’s definitions of a classic (recapped here): a book that will never finish saying all it has to say. In other words, a perennially relevant work that speaks to the human condition. Obviously, not all literary fiction can live up to that standard; some will inevitably feel dated due to its setting, slang, technology, and so on. But at its best, literary fiction voices, and makes an attempt at answering, one or more of life’s biggest questions. As Laura F. says, this generally means that it lends itself to discussion and (re)interpretation. I know I can be an awful snob about genre fiction, but I avoid crime, science fiction, etc. because I find these genres less ‘serious’ and thus less worthwhile than literary fiction.


  1. Name a literary fiction novel with a superb character study.

The first novel that comes to mind here is The Poisonwood Bible, which would be a suitable answer for several of these categories but on rereading struck me most for how well developed its five main characters are. Barbara Kingsolver does an impressive job of distinguishing these multiple narrators from each other based on how they speak/write.


  1. Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing.

One of the fiction highlights of 2019 so far for me is Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler. It stands out from the autofiction field due to its placement of words. Some pages contain just a few lines, or a single short paragraph that reads like a prose poem. Even in the more conventional sections, a lack of punctuation creates a breathless, run-on pace.


  1. Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure.

In The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff’s debut novel, Willie Upton is back in her hometown in upstate New York, partway through a PhD and pregnant by her married professor. We hear from various leading lights in the town’s history and/or Willie’s family tree through a series of first-person narratives, letters and other documents.


  1. Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes.

Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly, which I reviewed for Nudge, is written entirely in verse and narrated in dialect by an unlearned servant from a cloth mill town in Gloucestershire. With unemployment rising amid the clamor for universal male suffrage, the scene is set for a climactic clash between the common people and the landowning class.


  1. Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition.

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden has an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls. This weighty material – openly addressed in theological and philosophical terms in the course of the novel – is couched in something of a family saga that follows several generations of the Trasks and the Hamiltons.


  1. Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is a rare sci-fi novel that I loved wholeheartedly. Set on a near-future Jesuit mission to the two alien species on a distant planet, it is about the possibility of believing in God, and doing good works in His name, when suffering seems to be the only result. (See also: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber.)


  1. What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?

I’ve always felt that Maggie O’Farrell expertly straddles the line between literary and women’s fiction; her books are addictively readable but also hold up to critical scrutiny. Her best is The Hand that First Held Mine, but everything I’ve read by her is wonderful. I’d happily read more books like hers. (Expectation by Anna Hope was slightly less successful.)

24 responses

  1. Thanks so much for the excellent definition of lit fict – finally one that is clear, unequivocal and written in basic English. Thankyou thankyou thankyou – from your grateful follower in the Far South.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I felt that I was being more cagey than clear — I’m so glad you found this useful anyway!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Such an interesting post! I may have a go at this although I fear I’d fall at the first hurdle. I find it very hard to define literary fiction but I know what it is when I read it which is most of the time. I’d agree about Maggie O’Farrell, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was tempted to quote that old saw about pornography — ‘I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it’.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well done on your definition – if I have a go at this tag – I might just bail out on that question and link to you! It’s all those books that lurk on the boundaries that make it so difficult to be specific about it. I do enjoy genre fiction alongside my regular fare, crime and SF mostly, and there is actually plenty of contemporary literary genre fiction out there. However, there’s a discussion to be had about genre canons – which are often considered as literary in a way that contemporary equivalents would not be. From HG Wells to Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle to John Wyndham – are they genre, classic, literary – or all three? (I think I have an idea for a discussion post there!)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! I know you’re much better on genre fiction than I am, so you are probably better placed to recommend some literary crossovers. I read a few by Christie as a child/young teen, and the complete Sherlock Holmes adventures, but I don’t know many of the SF classics.


  4. Totally agree about Maggie O’Farrell. The Distance Between Us is my favourite but that probably is straightforward literary fiction, whereas The Hand That Just Held Me tackles some familiar themes in such a moving way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. *Hand That First Held Mine!


    2. I haven’t read that one! As much as I love her, I haven’t been able to find her first three novels easily. I keep thinking they’ll pop up at charity shops but they never do, and my library doesn’t own them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha, I actually muddled up The Distance Between Us with This Must Be The Place in that comment, but The Distance Between Us and After You’d Gone are both brilliant if you can get hold of them.


      2. PS I’d be happy to lend you my copies if I have a chance to collect them from my dad’s before I next see you?


    3. That would be lovely, but no worries if you can’t manage it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I was especially pleased for your inclusion of East of Eden. ( and I agree with you) The notion of literary fiction is new to me.

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love that Calvino quote too. What a great list, several of these I’ve not heard of, and one, The Sparrow, is so often recommended, I don’t know why I haven’t read it yet! Maggie O’Farrell sounds right up my alley too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I, too, had heard such amazing things about The Sparrow from so many different people. I was so glad I finally picked it up last year. Unfortunately, the sequel was a DNF for me, so I’d say just stick with the original.


  7. I’m loving this tag. I guess because Literary Fiction is my favourite, so most of the books appeal to me. I like your answer to the last question. I think I might choose sci-fi or dystopia, like the MaddAddam Trilogy or Station Eleven. Those are also the types of books I can lure my daughter into reading with me. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s also how I’d be most likely to lure my husband into trying new authors. He flew through Station Eleven in a few days (though now, worryingly, can’t remember anything about it when I mention it!).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha! Sounds like my husband!


  8. Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly appealed straight away and I’ve reserved it at the library, whence I collected Hoffman’s Irreplaceable today. North Yorkshire Libraries will be so grateful to you. The £1 coins just keep rolling in!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wondrous! You mean you don’t get freebies for being a volunteer? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m a great fan of Calvino’s description of what makes a classic and re-readability is definitely one I can relate to. Though I do read some crime fiction it never lingers in the mind – usually I can barely remember what happens – but with lit fiction I do think about it often long after I finish the book.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. […] this week, Rebecca took part in a tag on the subject of literary fiction (see here), and after defining what literary fiction is for you and picking some examples, the tag asks, […]


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