When a new writer gets started on their publishing journey, they often run into advice that says something like “Choose a genre and stick to it.” This, of course, is much easier said than done. And it often sends them down a rabbit hole of researching genres.
Even as readers, we may not be acutely aware of what genre we're reading. To be sure, some readers are. But when you start thinking about writing a novel in a specific genre, things get a little more complicated. So to simplify that complication, I'm going to discuss the difference between two umbrella categories in this article on literary fiction vs genre fiction.
Let's get to it!
- The definition of literary fiction and genre fiction.
- Similarities and differences between the two.
- Tips on choosing a genre in which to write.
- Why picking a genre (or two) is good advice.
Table of contents
What is Literary Fiction?
Defining literary fiction isn't so easy. This is because many works of fiction that don't fit nicely into other genres end up termed “literary fiction.”
The plot comes secondary to the artful writing and the theme of a literary fiction novel. As such, you'll often find novels that are beautifully written with poetic prose and page-long descriptions of seemingly unimportant items, people, or settings in this book genre.
And while some literary fiction works have recognizable plots with a clear beginning, middle, and end, this is not always the case. Happy endings are not guaranteed, and the subject matter of a literary fiction novel is almost always of a serious nature.
In short, literary fiction novels are considered more for their artistic value and less for their entertainment value.
There are several literary genres that fall under the “lit fic” heading:
- Womens Fiction
- Historical Fiction
- Contemporary Fiction
- Magical Realism
Some examples of literary fiction novels include:
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
- Ulysses by James Joyce
- Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
What is Genre Fiction?
Genre fiction is another term for so-called “popular fiction” or “commercial fiction.” It includes many of the genres and subgenres that readers think of when searching for a new book. These genres include:
Titans of genre fiction include Stephen King, Debbie Macomber, Nora Roberts, Lee Child, Brandon Sanderson, and J. K. Rowling.
Unlike literary fiction, a genre novel in a given sub-genre will generally follow a coherent plot, feature clear character development, have a clear central conflict, and include certain tropes that readers expect.
A romance novel will have a happy ending. A mystery will have some sort of crime for the protagonist to solve. A science fiction novel will have to do with some kind of futuristic technology.
Of course, these are just generalizations. There are many more genres and subgenres that have their own tropes. The point is, genre fiction is called such because the stories are meant to entertain with the focus being on the plot first and the literary merit of the writing second.
Literary vs Genre: Examples
To illustrate the differences, I’ve gathered excerpts from two different novels. Both are Westerns. The first is from what would be considered a genre fiction Western. The second is a literary fiction Western.
From Chapter 1 of Heck’s Journey: A Frontier Western by John Deacon
Hector “Heck” Martin finished hammering the cross into the ground then crouched and ran his fingers over the name he’d etched in the plank, which until recently had been part of the small cabin he’d shared with Pa.
Hector Martin, Sr.
1811 – 1847
“Lingering won’t bring him back, boy,” Mr. Detwiler said from atop the swayback dun. “Let’s go.”
“Yes, sir.” Heck held back the tears and stood to his full height.
“You sure you’re only fourteen?” Detwiler asked.
“How’d you get so tall?”
“I don’t know, sir. My grandpappy on my mother’s side, I guess. I hear he was several inches over six feet.”
In this excerpt, you can tell pretty quickly that the writing is going to be fairly straightforward. Now let’s take a look at the second example.
From Chapter 1 of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.
Night of your birth. Thirty-three. The Leonids they were called. God how the stars did fall. I looked for blackness, holes in the heavens. The Dipper stove.
As you can see, these two Westerns are very different in style and tone, even just a few lines in. This is a great example of the differences between genre and literary fiction.
There's No Clear Dividing Line
While I've done my best to outline the differences, there is some definite overlap. There's something called upmarket fiction, which is essentially a melding of the two genres. Upmarket fiction takes certain aspects of popular fiction and incorporates them while still focusing on the “quality” of the writing—meaning the literary merit of the prose.
Then you have books like 1984 by George Orwell and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. Both of these books are considered by many to be literary fiction novels. But they can also be easily included in a speculative fiction genre like dystopian science fiction.
So things aren't always as clear as they seem. This is something to keep in mind as we delve deeper into the differences between these two genres.
Literary vs Genre: Plot
One of the primary differences between literary fiction and genre fiction is in the plot. This is the through-line that takes the reader through the story.
And in a story meant to entertain (genre), the plot needs to evolve logically, driven by a clear goal that the protagonist needs to accomplish. Scenes build on each other as cause-and-effect send the conflict ratcheting toward the climax. In most genre stories, the primary conflict is external. Most often, this is an antagonist working against the protagonist.
But in a story written as a work of art (literary), the plot takes a backseat to the writing and themes. This means that the author can go off on tangents or not even have a plot with a clear goal for the main character. As long as the writing is “good” in literary terms, then the average lit fic reader will happily go along for the ride.
Readers of genre fiction will expect every scene to have some sort of significance to the plot. But this is not so in your average literary novel. Literary fiction readers are more interested in the experience of reading the novel than the potential entertainment value.
Literary vs Genre: Characters
How characters are treated in literary and genre novels is also a big difference.
In many literary novels, the characters take the place of the plot. These are often character studies, which is why it's common to see novels dealing with things like death, insanity, sickness, love, and loss in the literary genre. Through the characters, the literary fiction writer explores their chosen themes in a realistic, grounded manner.
Conversely, characters in genre fiction stories often serve as vehicles for the plot. While a good genre fiction story will have some form of character development (at least for the protagonist), this is usually secondary to the plot. While the best characters are certainly flawed, you'll find that many genre fiction protagonists are larger than life in some way.
It's also worth noting that character arcs in many genre fiction stories are positive. The character overcomes a weakness or learns something important.
But in literary fiction, this is far from guaranteed. The character may not change at all or may change for the worse.
Literary vs Genre: Writing
There's a joke among literary fiction critics that you can tell a literary novel by how hard it is to read. The harder to read, the joke goes, the more artistic merit it has.
On the other hand, a common gripe with genre fiction novels is that their prose is simplistic and unchallenging.
While these generalizations are certainly far from the whole truth, they provide an easy way to understand these two types of fiction.
In literature, the prose can be beautiful, meandering, incoherent, and intriguing all at once. Famously, Cormac McCarthy does not include quotation marks to denote speech in his novels. And some of his sentences run on for the better part of a page. Unless you have a massive vocabulary, you'll probably need a dictionary at hand while reading one of McCarthy's books.
These things are common in literary fiction. But it doesn't mean that every lit fiction novel you pick up will use a ton of adverbs or shirk quotation marks.
In genre fiction, the writing is usually pared down and simplified to get the point across. Using two words when one will do is a cardinal sin among genre fiction writers. But this doesn't mean that you won't find beautiful writing in genre novels. It also doesn't mean that authors don't impart their own unique style onto their stories.
Really, all these things come down to one thing: what the reader wants. And it's perhaps the most important factor in deciding which category is right for you as an author.
Literary vs Genre: Audience
When writing any piece of work, it's important to ask yourself what your ideal audience wants from it. Once you understand what they want, then you can go about giving it to them.
Readers of mainstream fiction generally want to be entertained. They want to escape their normal lives and live in a different world for a while. This is why genre fiction is often called “escapist” fiction. This fact aligns with the elements covered above.
If you want to escape into a different world, you don't want to work overly hard to understand that world. The protagonist should have a clear goal. The primary conflict should be apparent within the first 15% of the book. The protagonist should be relatable and flawed but also unique in some way. The writing should be professional but easy to read.
Readers of literary fiction generally have different wants. Instead of escaping, they want to be challenged. They want to be wowed by the prose while working to suss out what the author is trying to say about human existence. They don't mind re-reading a sentence three or four times to try and get at its true meaning. And they certainly don't mind breaking open the dictionary (or doing a Google search) to look up a word.
This is not to say that there won't be some overlap. One reader may read genre fiction half the time and literary fiction the other half.
But the fact is, “popular fiction” is called such for a reason. It's more popular than literary fiction. And with that in mind, let's dive into a few tips for deciding which genre is right for you.
Literary or Genre: Which is Right for You?
I'm going to be upfront with you here: It is much harder to make a career as an indie author in the literary fiction landscape than in the genre fiction landscape. This is partly because genre fiction is more popular.
But it's also because traditional publishing houses still have a pretty good hold on literary fiction. So if you have your heart set on writing literary fiction, you'll probably want to go the traditional route of finding an agent and then a publisher.
But if you want to be an indie author, your best bet is writing in genre fiction. By choosing a genre—or better yet, a subgenre—that has a decent audience and not-so-stiff competition, you can enjoy the best chances of success as an indie author.
To do this, you can check out my article on Publisher Rocket to find a genre you can break into.
Literary Fiction vs Genre Fiction: Conclusion
No matter what category you go for, creative writing is hard. In fact, I'd argue that writing a literary fiction novel is just as hard as writing a genre fiction one. But when you're armed with information on what each genre is and the reader expectations contained therein, you can better decide which path you want to take.
Whether you're delving into the fiction world or hoping to write experimental pieces, the important part is to keep writing and refining your work. In the writing world, persistence is key to success!