Even though literary fiction is not really a genre, we tend to talk about it as though it is. I’ve been asked more than once what makes a book literary or not, and I’ve never been able to come up with a really good answer. Like the Western canon, literary books are so designated mostly because critics agree that it is. When I read a book that I think is literary, it’s mostly because the author gives as much attention to the language as he or she does to the characters, plot, setting. It shows in the words that author uses and, often, in the structure he or she uses.
That, and I can usually tell because very little tends to happen in literary books, plot-wise.
Literary fiction, then, tends to become a catch all category for books that clearly don’t belong in other genres. Unfortunately, I think because of the way that literary fiction is treated like a genre, it creates a divide that is hard for literary books in genre fiction to cross. I’ve seen authors go from the literary side to the genre side, such as Colin Whitehead did with Zone One and Margaret Atwood with so many of her books. But it’s hard to name an author go the other way. I suspect it’s because genre authors have more fun. I don’t think there’s any good replacement terminology, either. You could call these books human drama, but that’s just as vague. And, really, any book is human drama (unless it’s a picaresque or something).
But the vagueness bothers me. Even if I wasn’t a librarian, I suspect that I would still want to classify my books by what they are and what they aren’t. I read according to my moods, because I know that I will enjoy them much more. Because I don’t have any better category, I have a couple of shelves that are just there. They’re neither fish nor fowl, so they’re just alphabetized by author. I love the books that there, but I’m afraid I tend to neglect them since I’m more often in the mood for a mystery or a work of science fiction. On the other hand, these shelves are great when all I know is that I want to read something good.