Sometimes the best way to distinguish between a work of literary fiction and a work of literary nonfiction is to look at the back cover and see how it's categorized. Literary fiction and nonfiction can both have a story, setting and characters. They can both be told in the first person. And, they can both sound like the truth.
Works of nonfiction are meant to be factual. This means magazine articles, newspaper stories, encyclopedia entries, interviews and textbooks are all nonfiction. Many aisles in bookstores are full of nonfiction -- the cooking, art, travel, science, religion, true crime, psychology and decorating sections all contain factual works. While there are no hard-and-fast rules about what makes a piece of nonfiction "literary," a good bet is that a piece of literary nonfiction will have a bit more of a story than, say, a recipe or a paragraph in a textbook. Biographies, autobiographies, essays and memoirs are among genres that may be considered creative or literary nonfiction.
Works of fiction are primarily invented or imaginary. Short stories, novels and novellas of various subgenres -- romance, science fiction, historical fiction, mystery -- are considered fiction. Fiction usually contains elements of a story: plot, characters, settings and themes. Many works of fiction have facts in them; for example, historical fiction uses information about a particular time to create a meaningful and realistic setting for an invented story. Fiction is "literary" if it has a reputation of merit, usually due to superb style or characterization.
The line between fiction and nonfiction can be blurry, particularly in memoirs or novels based on fact. There is some consensus that a certain level of consolidation or rearranging of a story is allowable in certain works of nonfiction for narrative effect and flow, even if this means the work does not technically stick to all of the facts. In "The Line Between Fact and Fiction," author Roy Peter Clark explains that nonfiction writers often use the tools of novelists and that even as recently as 50 years ago, journalists would create details and invent quotes to make a story more interesting. Nowadays, there are stricter guidelines about lying in journalism, and while there is still some room to stretch the truth in creative nonfiction, such as memoirs and essays, there is a point at which misrepresenting the facts is unacceptable. Books such as "A Million Little Pieces" and "Three Cups of Tea" were marketed as nonfiction, but were later found to diverge considerably from the facts, resulting in public outrage. Other works, such as Sylvia Plath's classic "The Bell Jar," are considered novels even though they are based on the authors' own lives.
Telling Them Apart
The best way to separate fiction from nonfiction is to identify which works stick to the facts. If there's anything that can't possibly be true (flying space monsters), it's fiction. But if you don't know the truth, nonfiction can sometimes be identified based on the writing style. Nonfiction tends to adhere better to chronological time and presents information in a more straightforward way -- often using years and dates as well as proper names of buildings, cities and people. Fiction is written to create the illusion of truth. This illusion is traditionally created more by creating images through description than by presenting specific information about wheres and whens.