What is Literary Fiction, other than what's left after you take away all the other genres? I think it is generally accepted that literary fiction is more in-depth, takes on more serious subject matter, and deals with the inner life and what makes us human — although that could mean just about anything. As Justice Potter of the US Supreme court said about how to identify pornography: I know it when i see it.
I think most of the books that are considered within this group were not written with the label Literary Fiction in mind, they were just written as stories. Ultimately when you look at a novel of whatever genre the main thing it needs to achieve is to tell a story and to tell it in an interesting way and I think that applies to all genres equally.
The problem with the literary genre is that when you try to critique it, because it doesn't have fixed parameters, it is very easy for the writer to squirm out of answering those criticisms head-on. A slower pace, a lack of purpose, a denser use of language are all things associated with this type of writing. But a story is either interesting or isn't and even though tastes differ, I think most people. like Justice Potter, can spot a dull tale when they see it.
Of course, there are going to be some people who are interested in the uninteresting. For example, if I was to write a story about a train driver and spent pages and pages describing his locomotive engine and nothing much else happened, there would be a group of steam train enthusiasts who would eat it up. Bestseller, no doubt. Sequels, imitators, movies. There are many subjects and genres for which that is true and if you're writing fits that mould, fair enough.
Another group that is amenable to uninteresting writing are those writers who write in a similar fashion. It is a way of validating one's own shortcomings to identify others with similar faults and to praise them. It's easier to lower everyone else's standards then it is to raise your own. But I don't want to make it seem like I am not a fan of literary fiction, because I am. Big time.
You can see from my own bookshelf here that I'm very fond of a more considered approach to the novel. Not every story needs to have a character with a highly specified goal and huge stakes forcing them forward at the fastest pace possible. Sometimes a character's journey through life and their growth through experiences is enough, even more than enough, to hold my interest. But that doesn't mean just any journey is going to be of interest. We all have an interior life and genrally speaking no one cares about yours but you. The people whose secrets we’re most eager to know aren’t always the ones most eager to tell.
Just because something is true or realistic doesn't mean it's story-worthy. We all live lives full of events and circumstances and very few of them are worth hearing about. If you are writing a story about a person doing everyday things you have to be careful it doesn't end up as B.O.S.H (bunch of stuff happens). In fact the less plot-driven a story is, the better a writer you need to be. It is perfectly possible to create a story where nothing much happens that hasn't happened to a million other people throughout history, but what the reader gains from the story will need to be that much more amazing than a simple thriller.
The real difference between a genre fiction and literary fiction isn't in the ability of the reader to understand what's going on, it's always very obvious when a story doesn't work and when events within the story aren't very interesting. What's much more difficult is how to fix it since the obvious rules and guidelines don't really apply. It's also much harder to learn from successful books that you would like to emulate because their form and structure isn't as apparent as their genre cousins.
You should always remember what you're doing is telling a story. You're not painting a picture or conveying an emotion, although those things may occur as a byproduct. If the reader isn't engaged by that story on more than a trainspotter level then the story is being told well enough. When people say they weren't engaged, they lost interest, they got confused, pay attention. Don't pass it off as them not getting it. They got it, they just didn't think it was very good. Once you've identified the bit that doesn't work, then you're on your own.
So, if you want to write a story about a woman whose husband dies and she has to face life on her own, and there's no ticking time bomb, no handsome stranger to fall in love with, no magical apparition that appears at midnight, just a realisation that existence is a strange old thing, you had better put on your thinking cap and come up with some amazing insights into the meaning of life. Either that or make sure the husband left behind the most amazing model railway in the attic and described the hell out of it every three chapters.