Writer in Residence

What is Literary Fiction? Ask a Romance Publisher

Submitted by Nathan Whitlock

Years ago, I was the guest author at a summer camp for teen writers. The afternoon started well: I read a bit from my first novel, spoke in very general terms about how I became a writer, and outlined the long road a book takes from idea to printed object. The best part, for the kids, was when I admitted to having left out all the dirty words during my brief reading. That led to one kid borrowing my book and huddling with her friends to do a kind of scavenger hunt for mild literary filth.

The worst part, for me, was during the Q&A, when I got asked what kind of book I had written. Most of the group were die-hard fantasy readers, and had yet to read anything written previous to the year of their birth, so my simply saying: “Oh, you know, literary fiction,” didn’t cut it.

What’s literary fiction? they asked me. Good question.

Does it have swords and dragons?

Rarely. But there’s no rule against them.

Does it have spells and magic?

Not usually, but it could, I guess.

Does it have time travel?

Sometimes. But not just for the fun of it.

At some point, I realized that this was the corner I had backed myself into: literary fiction is fiction that does most of the same things as the other kinds, but in a less fun way. Which was accurate, but unfair. (I’m not sure I’ve come up with a more coherent or satisfying definition since.)

I thought of this again this week when I read that Harlequin is launching a new imprint dedicated to “literary fiction.” My first question was: Why? Are books about unhappy people messing things up in interesting but not-always-conclusive ways (my other go-to lit-fic definition) suddenly hot again?

My next question was: What do they mean by “literary fiction,” exactly?

The press release plays it coy: the new imprint would comprise “an exclusive line of thought-provoking and voice-driven novels by both celebrated and new authors. “ It “will publish unique voices and powerful stories that inspire discussion.”

Unlike all those other imprints that aim to publish forgettable books that provoke nothing more than a shrug, I guess.

The imprint would also “create new opportunities for talented literary writers who want a boutique publishing experience with the support of a powerhouse commercial publisher.”

Which is very generous of them!

It’s only when the release lists a few of the inaugural titles that I finally got a clue as to what they mean by “literary fiction.”

According to the release, lit fic is:



One of the inaugural titles “follows a recently adopted teenager with autism who is desperately plotting to get herself kidnapped by her birth mother.” It is, we are told, “a compulsively readable and unforgettable story about finding a place to belong in a world that doesn't always add up.”

Someone get The Lumineers for the soundtrack.



Other inaugural titles include  “a psychological thriller about a young widow's pursuit of the truth in the wake of the devastating crash that took the life of her husband” and “a high-concept crime thriller about a protagonist with profound hearing loss.”

Boy, this literary stuff sounds like a blast!


The release does promise other, less formulaic titles in the future (including one from Canada’s own Christopher Meades), but at the moment, its vision of “literary fiction” appears to be “whatever sells well right now that isn’t romance, horror, erotica, or non-fiction.”

Which is no less accurate or unfair than my own.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Nathan Whitlock’s award-winning fiction and non-fiction has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Post, Toronto Life, Report on Business, Flare, Fashion, Geist, Maisonneuve, and Best Canadian Essays, and he has appeared on radio and television discussing books and culture. He is a contributing editor for Quill & Quire. He lives in Toronto with his wife and children.

You can write to Nathan throughout the month of July at writer@openbooktoronto.com