Definition of Fiction
In literature, fiction encompasses written works that are defined by narratives or stories that are created, invented, and made up by the writer. Essentially, fictional works feature elements such as plot, characters, setting, and theme. These elements can be literal, conventional, and follow formulas, such as in works of genre fiction. They can also be artistic, symbolic, and unstructured, such as in works of literary fiction. Fictional works primarily take the form of novels, novellas, and short stories.
When a literary work is labeled fiction, this indicates to the reader that the written content is original and unique to the author’s imagination. This allows for expansive creative opportunities on the part of writers, and encourages suspension of disbelief among readers in order to accept the “world” as it is invented and presented by the author.
For example, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the main character uses his scientific study of chemical processes and decay of living tissue to gain insight into the creation of life, thereby giving life to a creature of his own making. As the reader accepts this version of fictional “truth,” they are immersed in the novel’s world and impacted by the themes of natural laws and human interference, isolation, revenge, and societal responsibility.
Examples of Well-Known Literary Fiction Novels
The novel is an influential and impactful form of fiction writing. Novels allow writers to create entire worlds that serve as touchstones and lenses for readers to learn, connect, and understand history, culture, and what it means to exist as humans. The novel can be an important social, political, and cultural tool to bring about awareness, inspire change, and give voice to people and groups who may otherwise be silenced.
Here are some examples of well-known literary fiction novels:
- The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
- Giovanni’s Room (James Baldwin)
- O Pioneers! (Willa Cather)
- Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison)
- The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
- War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy)
- brave new world (Aldous Huxley)
- One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
- Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.)
- moby dick (Herman Melville)
- Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston)
- Adam Bede (George Eliot)
- To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
- Ulysses (James Joyce)
- To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf)
- Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
- the stranger (Albert Camus)
- Beloved (Toni Morrison)
- Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
- Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe)
Common Examples of Genres in Fiction
There are many types of genre fiction. As such, these works tend to meet certain expectations of the reader in terms of setting, characters, plot, and theme. Though some may consider genre fiction to be “formulaic” in following predictable patterns, conventions, and outcomes, there is often diversity within and even overlap between genres.
Here are some common examples of genres in fiction:
- science fiction
- spy thriller
- young adult
What Is Literary Fiction?
There is no strict definition for the term literary fiction. However, literary works share certain aspects and are differentiated at a certain level from works of genre fiction, primarily in terms of what is considered literary tradition. Here are some characteristics that are featured in most works of literary fiction:
- use of artistic language, including advanced and/or elevated wording and imagery
- use of literary devices including symbolism, metaphor, allegory, etc.
- Ambiguity in plot and subplots, with no set plot “formula” or conclusion
- Narrative that is character-focused and driven
- exploration of historical and cultural events and patterns
- exploration of philosophical themes, including the human condition and power of nature
In some academic arenas, literary fiction is considered to be superior to genre fiction. Many works of literary fiction are considered to be “classics” and worthy of academic study, therefore making up much of the curricula in higher-level education and literature courses. However, this does not necessarily diminish the intellectual or lasting value of genre fiction. In fact, many works of literature can be identified and described as both literary and genre fiction.
What Is Genre Fiction?
Genre fiction is associated more with popularity and commercialism than the tradition of literary fiction. However, the expanse of readership or commercial success of a work of genre fiction doesn’t necessarily indicate that it has less literary value. Like literary fiction, genre fiction works tend to share certain characteristics, such as:
- adherence to established formulas for plot and character arcs
- use of more literal than artistic language
- spare usage of literary devices, including metaphors and allegories
- use of symbolism that is transparent, accessible, and overt
Though critics and academics often classify genre fiction as inferior to literary fiction, genre fiction is typically far more popular among a larger scope of readers. In fact, works of genre fiction are much more likely to become “bestsellers” than works of literary fiction. In addition, though most of the enduring fictional works are literary, some genre fiction works endure across time as well.
Examples of Fiction in Literature
People enjoy reading fictional literary works for many reasons, including for entertainment, education, escape, and even connection with others. Reading fictional literature develops imagination, empathy, understanding, and progress.
Here are some examples of fiction in literature:
Example 1: Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes)
It is one thing to write as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.
Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, is considered the first modern novel. Though the novel chronicles the title character’s manic quest as an aging nobleman to become a Spanish knight, the story is also a reflection of the influence of knightly tales and other fantasy works on readers. In fact, Cervantes’s novel is both an embrace and criticism of literary romance as well as an examination of the role and responsibility of the artist in society.
Cervantes’s novel is considered a significant work of Spanish literature and a touchstone of classic literary fiction, influencing writers across time and region. As this passage indicates, Don Quixote explores the meaning and purpose of fiction and nonfiction writing as it relates to both the expectations of the reader and the implied obligation of the writer. In addition, Cervantes’s innovative narrative form in creating the first modern novel opened the gate for writers everywhere to approach fiction and imaginative expression in original, expansive, and groundbreaking ways.
Example 2: A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings (Gabriel García Márquez)
The news of the captive angel spread with such rapidity that after a few hours the courtyard had the bustle of a marketplace and they had to call in troops with fixed bayonets to disperse the mob that was about to knock the house down. Elisenda, her spine all twisted from sweeping up so much marketplace trash, then got the idea of fencing in the yard and charging five cents admission to see the angel.
In Gabriel García Márquez’s short story, he embraces the genre of magical realism in which fantastic characters or mythical elements are included in a matter-of-fact manner in otherwise realistic fiction. In this story, an old man with enormous wings appears at the residence of Elisenda and Pelayo. The characters in the story accept the presence of the winged man, terming him an “angel,” though they are perplexed as to where he came from and why he is suddenly there. Rather than attempt to understand or help the angel, the characters use his presence for their own personal gain–particularly Elisenda who devises a way to profit from the people flocking to see the old man with wings.
This story features many of the standard characteristics and “formulas” of the magical realism genre, and it can therefore be categorized as genre fiction. However, this label does not diminish the story’s literary value. In fact, due to the narrative’s artistic language, use of literary devices, and philosophical themes regarding faith and humanity, most experts and readers would classify “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” as literary fiction just as readily as genre fiction.
Example 3: Ragtime (E.L. Doctorow)
He was buried alive in a grave and could not escape, and had to be rescued. Hurriedly, they dug him out. The earth is too heavy, he said gasping. His nails bled. Soil fell from his eyes. He was drained of color and couldn’t stand. His assistant threw up. Houdini wheezed and sputtered. He coughed blood. They cleaned him off and took him back to the hotel. Today, nearly fifty years since his death, the audience for escapes is even larger.
Some writers choose to incorporate real events, places, and even people in their fictional works. In his novel Ragtime, Doctorow incorporates historical figures, such as Harry Houdini, in the plot. Rather than being simply mentioned or referred to by the narrator and other characters, the historical figures in this novel play an integral part in the story and interact with other characters that are purely an invention of the author.
This passage reflects the way Houdini, an actual historical figure, is a full-fledged character in the novel, with dialogue and actions attributed to him by the author. Though the words, actions, and thoughts of the historical figures in the novel are fictionalized and created by Doctorow, the balance between “real” events and people as they intersect with fictional characters results in an interesting portrayal for the reader of what is known and unknown about history. Doctorow effectively utilizes literary fiction to challenge the reader’s perceptions of the past, which invites the same challenge of how we perceive the present.