The difference between popular fiction and literary fiction is subtle but unmistakable.
The criteria is graded — think of it as a spectrum — so that a book or movie can have elements of both literary fiction and also elements of genre fiction at the same time. But there is undoubtedly a distinction.
It is not the case that plotting is the determining characteristic. In fact, some of the best plots in all the world’s literature are to be found in literary fiction — I’m thinking specifically of Toilers of the Sea, Ninety-Three, and especially The Possessed, wherein you’ll see perhaps the most masterful integration of plot and theme that world literature has yet to offer. But the question — what is the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction? — is not insoluble, as it’s sometimes made out to be.
The criteria for literary fiction is this: depth of style, seriousness of approach, and an explicit emphasis on theme.
The integration of plot and theme goes a very long way in defining literary fiction — theme being defined as the core meaning that the events of a story add up to.
It’s important to note that style doesn’t just refer to wordsmithing — although that’s included — but refers to a much broader issue: namely, a focus on the writing itself, which includes such things as density of expression, concentrated speech, felicitous phrasing, originality of descriptions, and many other things as well.
Sophistication of style is, in other words, more than nicely turned phrases: it’s a method of thinking.
“See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves…. The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off. The father never speaks her name, the child does not know it. He watches, pale and unwashed” (Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy).
This sort of sustained depth of style goes far beyond wordsmithing, and many readers, myself among them, find something profoundly life-affirming in this kind of stylistic emphasis — so much so that this one element alone, if done well, will make a book worthwhile. (Moby Dick is an excellent example of one such book.)
But not all literary fiction has such an emphasis on style — especially when read in translation, The Brother’s Karamozov being another fine example.
The Brother’s Karamazov is in many ways a murder mystery, and yet by any standard imaginable that book falls squarely within the category of literary fiction. Also, the translation of The Brother’s Karamozov that I’ve read to pieces is, at times, almost embarrassing in its translated style. Somehow, though, despite this, the novel’s intensity is not diminished. The reason is that the psychological depth of the characters — Ivan, Dimitri, Smerdekov, and Father Zossima, in particular — is so profound, and also there is the sheer power of the philosophy behind the plot, which is to say, this novel’s theme.
Theme is ideally presented through plot, which is enacted by characters, and it’s remarkable the depths to which Dostoevsky goes in showing us precisely what motivates his characters. Pure commercial-fictions writers rarely go beyond presenting the immediate reason for a character’s actions — e.g. a man is killed because it gave the killer a sense of power.
But literary fiction, if it’s good, will provide the motivation behind the lust for power and explain why the man lusted so, and perhaps even discuss the nature of power and power-lust itself. This is all part of the presentation of theme. In this sense, literary fiction drills far deeper down than commercial fiction. To the extent that commercial fiction drills deeper down — stylistically or thematically — is the extent to which it is no longer commercial fiction.
You will never, for example, find a more thorough or more insightful study of the criminal mind than Raskalnikov, in Crime and Punishment. Even Macbeth is second.
This sort of treatment of theme doesn’t exist in pure genre fiction. The moment the genre writer begins to treat a subject on this level and with this kind of depth is the moment the genre writer begins to cross over into the literary.