The term “literary,” of course, is related to literature. Both words derive from the Latin root litterarius, meaning “letters.” Literary meaning is the deeper understanding of a work of literature, sometimes involving complex subtext that uncovers an author’s intention. Understanding and explaining literary meaning is the primary reason behind literary criticism.
The literary meaning of any particular work of fiction often relies on any number of different devices, such as voice, mood, or other rhetorical devices. Voice, for example, is the style of an author, one that is distinctive. Other literary devices include ambiguity, cliché, foreshadowing, juxtaposition, and theme. These devices not only propel plot, but also underpin the entire meaning of a work.
Literary meaning does not necessarily mean literary complexity. While a novel such as The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner can seem a labyrinthine effort, the symbolism and complexity of plotting reveal a text with deep literary meaning. Faulkner’s contemporary, Ernest Hemingway was a far less complex writer, but his works, including The Sun Also Rises, are still replete with literary meaning. These are both examples of novels with complex literary meaning, yet written with vastly different voices. Readers familiar with both authors can immediately recognize that voice, as distinctive as any other quality in their work.