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Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
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What Is Fiction?

Fiction describes something imaginary or invented; the term is generally used regarding creative works written in prose or ordinary language which does not follow a meter, as in poetry. The term nonfiction, on the other hand, describes works that are based on actual events, people, and facts. While fiction can refer to written works, plays, and cinema, this lesson will focus on written works.

The modern fiction meaning stems from various terms throughout history. For instance, Latin’s fictionem refers to something devised or feigned, while in the 13th century Old French, ficcion referred to something invented or fabricated. Starting in the 1590s, “fiction” began to be used to describe works of prose created in the writer’s imagination, which led to the fiction definition most are familiar with today.

What Is a Fiction Book?

What is fiction writing? Fiction writing is writing that is created in the author’s imagination. The author of a fictional work invents the characters, plotline, dialogue, and sometimes the story’s setting. So, what is a fiction book? A fiction book, usually called a novel, is just one of the many forms of fiction writing. Works of fiction do not claim that a story is true. Nevertheless, these works can significantly impact their audience and, more broadly, society.

On the individual level, fiction can give readers an escape by inspiring and intriguing and helping them see the world in a new way. These works can whisk readers away to unknown places and introduce them to people, cultures, and societies they would never have encountered otherwise. Reading fiction can be a gratifying pastime and a way of challenging one’s beliefs and understandings.

Fiction can have a broader impact on society by communicating a social message or amplifying the voice of a community not as prominent in mainstream society. These types of works can draw attention to issues like poverty, racism, women’s rights, and human rights by giving a human voice to those affected by these issues. Some of the most impactful novels of this type in 20th century America include:

  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an anti-slavery book by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • The Jungle, a novel by Upton Sinclair, uncovering the inhumane conditions of factory workers

More contemporary examples include:

  • Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987)
  • Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (2002)
  • Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007)

Literary Fiction or Genre Fiction

Fictional works are generally considered to fall into the category of literary fiction or genre fiction. Despite the differences between these two categories, some literary critics and theorists have observed a great deal of overlap and that many works might be considered belonging to both categories.

Genre fiction is characterized by its tendency to captivate a wider, generally mainstream audience. This category tends to be driven by the plot, be formulaic in nature, and follow a conventional storyline. Usually, genre fiction works are entertaining and utilize mainstream, contemporary language. As such, genre fiction is often referred to as commercial fiction or popular fiction. Genres include the following:

  • Fantasy
  • Science fiction
  • Suspense
  • Horror
  • Adventure
  • Historical
  • Romance
  • Mystery

These genres can be further divided into sub-genres according to factors such as their subject, such as crime fiction, historical period (e.g., medieval literature), mode (e.g., satire), and form (e.g., the novella). Prominent genre fiction authors include James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Agatha Christie, and Dan Brown.

A large bronze memorial to Agatha Christie features the author

Literary fiction focuses more heavily on the characters and is less formulaic in nature. Literary fiction authors may also devise more creative and complex storylines. Style and language are essential components of literary fiction; authors generally use advanced vocabulary and techniques such as figurative language, symbolism, and allegory to convey deeper meanings.

The literary canon, or body of written work considered the most influential in and representative of a given place or period, includes works of literary fiction and not genre fiction. These books are often considered classics and are featured in core English and language curriculums. Some well-known works of literary fiction in the literary canon are

  • Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847)
  • William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954)
  • Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

Historically, white male authors from Great Britain and the United States have dominated the literary canon. Over the years, more recognition and value has been rightly given to works written by women authors, authors of color, writers from the British commonwealth, and, more broadly, outside the global north. Nevertheless, the classics and the canon continues to be overwhelmingly associated with famous white male English or American authors of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Types of Fiction

There are three main types of fiction, also known as forms: short story, novella, and novel. The form of a fictional work is determined primarily by the work’s length.

Short Story

A short story is a fictional work containing 1,000 to 20,000 words and measures no longer than 25 to 30 pages in length. Edgar Allan Poe, one of the most well-known short story writers in the English literary tradition, famously claimed that a short story should be read in a single sitting of under two hours. Short stories tend to include few characters and concentrate on a single plotline because of their brevity. Some of the most famous short story authors in the English literary tradition are:

  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)
  • Kate Chopin (1850-1904)
  • Langston Hughes (1967)

Many well-known novelists also dabbled in short story writing, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), James Joyce’s “Araby” (1914), and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (1922). Short stories are often published in collections, such as James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s That Thing Around Your Neck (2009), and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies (2000).

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe, a 19th century author of many short stories.

Newspaper clipping with black and white photograph of Poe, sporting a mustache and a 19th century style suit.


The novella is longer than the short story. Novellas typically have 20,000-50,000 words and measure from 60 to 120 pages in length. The plotline of a novella is generally more complex and includes more characters in comparison to a short story. Some major novellas include:

  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin
  • The Call of the Wild (1903) by Jack London
  • Of Mice and Men (1937) by John Steinbeck
  • Lucy (1990) by Jamaica Kincaid


The novel is the most extended form of fiction writing. Novels have more than 50,000 words and measure over 120 pages in length. Thanks to their increased word count and page length, writers can create more well-developed characters, a significantly more complex storyline, or multiple interweaving storylines thanks to their increased word count and page length. Most, but not all, novels are divided up into different chapters or parts. Some novels have multiple narrators, such as William Faulkner’s Southern Gothic novel As I Lay Dying (1930), featuring seven different narrators. Some of the most famous novels in the English language are:

  • Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
  • Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
  • Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
  • George Orwell’s 1984 (1949)

Photo of Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God and other novels.

Black and white photo of author Zora Neale Hurston, who is smiling and wearing a hat.

Examples of Fiction

Thousands of works of fiction have been produced throughout time, including the examples named in the sections above. A brief review of some of the most notable works of the English literary canon over the last two centuries follows.

Notable fictional works of the 19th century include:

  • The Scarlett Letter (1850) by Nathaniel Hawthorne,
  • Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë
  • Little Women (1869) by Louisa May Alcott
  • Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad

The first half of the 20th century saw works such as:

  • A Passage to India (1924) by E.M. Forster
  • The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Sun Also Rises (1926) by Ernest Hemingway
  • The Sound and the Fury (1929) by William Faulkner

The latter half of the 20th century ushered in works such as:

  • Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe
  • The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath
  • The Outsiders (1967) by S.E. Hinton
  • The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker
  • The Things They Carried (1990) by Tim O’Brien

Notably, this period saw an increase in publishing by writers who had formerly been excluded from the literary scene, such as women and people of color. The English translations of many great works of fiction written in other languages have become commonplace on English bookshelves, libraries, and curriculums. These include the French novels “Madame Bovary” (1856) by Gustave Flaubert and “Les Misérables” (1862) by Victor Hugo; the Russian novels “Anna Karenina” (1877) by Leo Tolstoy and “Crime and Punishment “(1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; the German novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1929) by Erich Maria Remarque; and the Spanish-language novel “Love in the Time of Cholera” (1985) by Gabriel García Marquez.

Top literary fiction novels of the 21st century include:

  • “Atonement “(2002) by Ian McEwan
  • “The Kite Runner” (2003) by Khaled Hosseini
  • “The Road” (2006) by Cormac McCarthy
  • “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao “(2009) by Juno Díaz
  • “Americanah “(2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Some of the most famous works of genre fiction of the 21st century include:

  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (1997-2007)
  • “The Da Vinci Code” (2003) by Dan Brown
  • The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins (2008-2010)
  • “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson (2005-2019)

Lesson Summary

Fiction refers to works written in prose whose characters, plotlines, and, sometimes, settings are conceived in the author’s imagination. On the other hand, Nonfiction describes works that convey real-life events and facts. Fiction writing can be broadly organized into two categories. Genre fiction, also known as commercial fiction and popular fiction, is generally plot-driven and appeals to a broader audience. Literary fiction, on the other hand, tends to be more complex in terms of plotline and style and to communicate a deeper meaning to the reader. Works of literary fiction make up the literary canon, that is, the body of written work considered to be most influential in and representative of a given place or period.

There are three types, or forms, of fiction writing, which are determined primarily according to the length of the work: the short story measures under 30 pages; the novella ranges between 60 and 120 pages; and the novel has a minimum of 120 pages and can be unlimited in length. Thousands of works of fiction have been produced throughout time, with some of the most notable works being within the last two centuries.

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