Merits of literary fiction versus genre fiction are still hotly debated in dorm rooms and groups with names like My Genre Fiction Can Kick Your LitFic's Ass. Accusations hurled from practitioner and aficionado alike are cliches by now -- pretentious language goes up against formulaic plots and stock characters, inscrutable meaning takes precedence over entertainment. But how to define literary fiction? I found this on the women's writers' site SheWrites:
1.Literary fiction puts strong focus on how the story is told. “Literary” writers play with form, point of view, and language. Readers find themselves paying as much attention to the manner of telling the story as to the story itself.
In my novel Shiva's Arms,I employed a multiple POV technique that recalled film's Rashomon Effect for professor and author Matthew Biberman. And my use of language, strongly influenced by my work as a poet, affected many readers positively, but one thought my language was "fractured for effect".
2. In literary fiction, readers are asked to do some work–make connections, deduce motivations, recognize turning points. There’s plot (or there should be!) but the plot is there to reveal themes, not just for the fun of the action.
Although I included glossaries in both of my novels, I hope the readers' exploration won't stop with unfamiliar words. The theme of altruism in Rescuing Ranu,for instance,is revealed through the relationship between Nela and Ranu. It transforms Nela, and might encourage a reader to familiarize herself with the mathematics that underscores that transformation: Hamilton's Rule, and how questions of loyalty and relatedness work in her own community.
3.In literary fiction, characters wrestle with the big issues. Characters, and readers, come to a deeper understanding about the human condition. Literary fiction deals with “truth” with a capital T.
Animosities between in-laws, even complicated by a culture clash, are classic, and to develop empathy for a difficult character can sometimes be as hard for the writer as it is for the reader. I had to re-frame Amma from Shiva's Arms in light of her own fictional world to provide a more fully human portrayal of what it meant for her to live in that world. After all, isn't that one of the reasons we read fiction? We want to learn how to live.