All types of fiction arguably invite their audience to explore real ideas, issues, or possibilities in an otherwise imaginary setting, or using what is understood about reality to mentally construct something similar to reality, though still distinct from it.
Realistic fiction typically involves a story whose basic setting (time and location in the world) is real and whose events could feasibly happen in a real-world setting; non-realistic fiction involves a story where the opposite is the case, often being set in an entirely imaginary universe, an alternative history of the world other than that currently understood as true, or some other non-existent location or time-period, sometimes even presenting impossible technology or a defiance of the currently understood laws of nature.
The distinction between fiction and non-fiction is obscured by an understanding, on the one hand, that the truth can be presented through imaginary channels and constructions, while, on the other hand, imagination can just as well bring about significant conclusions about truth and reality.
In terms of the traditional separation between fiction and non-fiction, the lines are now commonly understood as blurred, showing more overlap than mutual exclusion. Even fiction usually has elements of, or grounding in, truth. The distinction between the two may be best defined from the perspective of the audience, according to whom a work is regarded as non-fiction if its people, places, and events are all historically or factually real, while a work is regarded as fiction if it deviates from reality in any of those areas.
Neal Stephenson has suggested that while any definition will be simplistic there is today a general cultural difference between literary and genre fiction. On the one hand literary authors nowadays are frequently supported by patronage, with employment at a university or a similar institution, and with the continuation of such positions determined not by book sales but by critical acclaim by other established literary authors and critics. On the other hand, he suggests, genre fiction writers tend to support themselves by book sales. However, in an interview, John Updike lamented that “the category of ‘literary fiction’ has sprung up recently to torment people like me who just set out to write books, and if anybody wanted to read them, terrific, the more the merrier. … I’m a genre writer of a sort. I write literary fiction, which is like spy fiction or chick lit”. Likewise, on The Charlie Rose Show, he argued that this term, when applied to his work, greatly limited him and his expectations of what might come of his writing, so he does not really like it. He suggested that all his works are literary, simply because “they are written in words”.
Literary Fiction is a term used in the book-trade to distinguish novels that are regarded as having literary merit, from most commercial or “genre fiction”.
The style of literary fiction is often described as “elegantly written, lyrical, and … layered”. The tone of literary fiction can be darker than genre fiction, while the pacing of literary fiction may be slower than popular fiction. As Terrence Rafferty notes, “literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way”.
Literary fiction often involves social commentary, political criticism, or reflection on the human condition. In general it focuses on “introspective, in-depth character studies” of “interesting, complex and developed” characters. This contrasts with genre fiction where plot is the central concern. Usually in literary fiction the focus is on the “inner story” of the characters who drive the plot, with detailed motivations to elicit “emotional involvement” in the reader.
Science fiction predicts or supposes technologies that are not realities at the time of the work’s creation: Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon was published in 1865 and only in 1969 did astronaut Neil Armstrong first land on the moon.
Historical fiction places imaginary characters into real historical events. In the early historical novel Waverley, Sir Walter Scott’s fictional character Edward Waverley meets a figure from history, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and takes part in the Battle of Prestonpans.
Fictional works that explicitly involve supernatural, magical, or scientifically impossible elements are often classified under the genre of fantasy, including Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Creators of fantasy sometimes introduce imaginary creatures and beings such as dragons and fairies.
Fiction is commonly broken down into a variety of genres: subsets of fiction, each differentiated by a particular unifying tone or style, narrative technique, media content, or popularly defined criterion.
Some works of fiction are slightly or greatly re-imagined based on some originally true story, or a reconstructed biography. Often, even when the fictional story is based on fact, there may be additions and subtractions from the true story to make it more interesting. An example is Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried, a series of short stories about the Vietnam War.
Types of literary fiction in prose include:
- Short story: A work of at least 2,000 words but under 7,500 words. The boundary between a long short story and a novella is vague.
- Novella: A work of at least 7,500 words but under 50,000 words. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) is an example of a novella.
- Novel: A work of 50,000 words or more.