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Despite the fact that all genres have works that are well written, those works are generally not considered literary fiction. To be considered literary, a work usually must be "critically acclaimed" and "serious". In practice, works of literary fiction often are "complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas".
Literary fiction (a.k.a. mainstream fiction) is usually contrasted with paraliterary fiction (e.g., popular, commercial, or genre fiction). This contrast between these two subsets of fiction is highly controversial amongst critics and scholars who study literature.
Literary fiction is usually not considered a genre, with associated conventions, but there are common characteristics that can help define it.
Literary fiction, in general, focuses on the subjects of the narrative to create "introspective, in-depth character studies" of "interesting, complex and developed" characters. This contrasts with paraliterary fiction where "generally speaking, the kind of attention that we pay to the subject in literature ... has to be paid to the social and material complexities of the object".
Literary fiction does not focus on plot as much as paraliterary fiction. Usually, the focus is on the "inner story" of the characters who drive the plot with detailed motivations to elicit "emotional involvement" in the reader.
The pacing of literary fiction is slower than paraliterary 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."
Some authors suggest that literary fiction is, in itself, just another genre or set of genres. Samuel R. Delany, for example, notes that the "literary genres might be characterized as the 'tyranny of the subject'" because of the focus on the "subject, the self, [and] psychology". On the other hand, Mort Castle suggests that literary fiction is composed of three genres: literature (i.e., classics), realism, and postmodernist fiction.
Other authors struggle with the expectations of the literary 'genre'. In an interview by Lev Grossman for Time magazine, 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. But now, no, 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 shared that he felt this term, when applied to his work, greatly limited him and his expectations of what might come of his writing, and so does not really like it. He said that all his works are literary simply because "they are written in words".
Neal Stephenson has suggested that while any definition will be simplistic there is a general cultural difference between literary and genre fiction, created by who the author is accountable to. Literary novelists are typically supported by patronage via employment at a university or similar institutions, with the continuation of such positions determined not by book sales but by critical acclaim by other established literary authors and critics. Genre fiction writers seek to support themselves by book sales and write to please a mass audience.