I was reminded of some issues surrounding "literary fiction" - what defines it, how much of it do we want in our culture-consuming lives, is it "improving" in a way that other fiction isn't? - by Lizard_King's Neal Stephenson thread. Preliminarily, here's a partly clumsy, partly helpful wikipedia page that takes a few stabs at defining literary fiction and its putative "opposites." Those opposites being either "non-literary" or "paraliterary" writing, or else, more commonly but more problematically, "genre writing."* In terms of a crude empirical "is this literary fiction or not" checklist, most of what the article suggests makes some sense - subordination of plot and action to theme or complex character study, often dark/serious tone, and as, heh, Neal Stephenson is cited to say, it's aimed (by a more amateur/academic auhor) at a critical audience rather than a mass readership, which is perhaps a more pragmatic way of saying it puts aesthetic aims above commercial ones. Lev Grossman's quick-and-dirty list-of-what-gets-called-literary also works pretty well - literary classics (most of which don't really resemble modern "literary fiction"), realism, and post-modernism, to which one could add other hyphenated -realisms and "genre fiction" that's been canonized through critical acclaim (Le Carre etc) If I'd been writing some of the bullet points I'd probably have substituted "bleak" for "dark" tone, given the popularity of grimdarkness in entertainment-oriented fiction. And the emphasized subordination of other story features to theme, rather than to characterization seems like a literary fiction thing to me. Certainly literary fiction often has pensive elaborate interior life narration and character development, but it also seems to me that literary fiction is often willing to subordinate character development - and characters as entities - to either a theme, or a mood, or a literary effect. In contrast, I'd say a doting emphasis on characters as central focuses, and a willingness to subordinate theme to characters' stories is a characteristic of non-literary fiction - hence its tendency to have "happy (or morally intelligible) endings." *By problematically I basically mean it's a bullshit dichotomy given the amount of literary genre writing and not-so-literary literary fiction. But the dichotomy, and the implied deprecation of genre-writing, are still pretty commonly understood as valid-ish, as seen every time we explain that genre fiction XYZ "has some literary merit." Also as seen by the weird mutant hybrids that sometimes result when people try to do self-consciously literary genre writing.