What Is Literary Fiction?
Literary Fiction is a category that’s often difficult to explain. Often thought of as “serious” fiction (and nearly exclusively novels), it’s easier to identify Literary Fiction by what it’s not. That is, it’s fiction that doesn’t fit in well-defined genres, like Thriller, Science Fiction, or Romance. Here’s how we define Literary Fiction, a look at its origins, and some popular types.
“Literary Fiction” Definition
The category of Literary Fiction is quite fluid and for the last few decades has easily overlapped with any number of genres. Even though its definition is a broad target, Literary Fiction definitely has characteristics of its own.
Whereas genre fiction from Romance to Dystopian Horror is plot-driven, Literary Fiction is character-driven. Any action in the story impacts the main character or characters, and understanding this impact is the whole point of telling the story. The overall tone of the book is introspective. Literary Fiction, then, is always a study of the human condition and often an exploration of difficult social or political issues that control our lives. For this reason, it’s generally considered more “serious” than genre fiction.
Another way to recognize Literary Fiction is by its story structure. Unlike, say, Thrillers or Science Fiction, Literary Fiction doesn’t follow a formula. A story arc may or may not be present, which also means that a satisfying ending is no guarantee. The line between hero and villain is often blurry, as is what they are trying to accomplish. And without a tidy plot to spell out every character’s motive, intangible details — metaphor, symbolism, or imagery, for example — play a larger role in telling the story.
The History of Literary Fiction
In many ways, the origins of Literary Fiction follow the origins of the novel. We can look at one of the earliest examples of a Western novel, Miguel de Cervantes’ The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (1605-1615), and see how a character, not the action, is the focus of the tale. Although adventures abound, the takeaway from the novel is their influence on Don Quixote’s psychological state over time.
Over the next 300 years, the novel emerges as a legitimately intellectual way for authors, readers, and critics to deal with contemporary social issues. Novels are now responsible for influencing politics, and their characters become symbols within a larger social or psychological conversation. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) gives us Ebenezer Scrooge, a name we use to describe someone who’s deeply damaged by their own greed. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), so inflames American attitudes toward slavery that it’s credited with being one of the sparks of the Civil War.
Modernism’s concerns with society and its effects on us as individuals are a standard of Literary Fiction by the late 1800s. By the early 1900s, Literary Fiction embraces Stream of Consciousness, taking us even deeper into the meditative, human experience. William Faulkner famously opens The Sound and the Fury (1929) by putting readers in the middle of one character, Benjy’s, thoughts. Without context or even a chronological story, we’re left to figure out the plot for ourselves.
After the horrors of WWII, Postmodern novels push the boundaries further. While characters still question the morality of the day, they also challenge the idea that truth or objective reality even exist. Think of Captain Yossarian’s struggle with the absurdity of free will in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), or how the women of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980) decide what will and will not define them as a family.
Types of Literary Fiction
Character-driven stories, social and political themes, irreverence for storytelling norms — these elements set Literary Fiction apart.
Contemporary Literary Fiction deals with timely social issues or political moments. In Giovanni’s Room (1956), James Baldwin introduces readers to two men as they begin an affair, and their struggles to understand their sexual identities in the heady days of 1950s Paris. Saint X by Alex Schaitkin (2020) tells the story of a search for a murderer, a pursuit that quickly becomes complicated by the characters’ presumptions about race and class.
Realistic Literary Fiction includes coming-of-age stories and biographical novels. In J. D. Salinger’s classic coming-of-age novel, The Catcher in the Rye (1951), young Holden Caulfield grows wise to the hypocrisy of his prep-school life and chases authenticity in the streets of New York City. In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) by Julia Alvarez fictionalizes the lives of the four Mirabal sisters. Called “Las Mariposas,” the sisters plotted to overthrow the corrupt Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic, an act that got three of them assassinated.
Experimental Literary Fiction challenges storytelling conventions. Novels can be a mix of visual art, poetry, and stream-of-consciousness prose. Sometimes, the act of reading itself is a part of the story, making the reader self-conscious of what they’re bringing to the text. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) is essentially a comedic study of what entertains us, but the structure winds through hundreds of sub-plots and even more footnotes, all while never reaching a conclusion.
Philosophical Literary Fiction investigates life’s big questions, such as: What makes us human? What is love? How significant are we? What, if anything, matters? Fyodor Dostoevsky tackles the idea of Goodness in The Idiot (1869). Prince Myshkin is described as a “positively good and beautiful man” who is exposed to some of society’s greediest, most deceitful characters with horrible consequences. The Overstory (2018) by Richard Powers seeks to understand our place in the natural world. As a group of strangers battle to save a virgin forest, each of them questions why they care so much, and why the rest of society seems not to care at all.
Most of these types overlap with each other and with genre fiction, which easily veers out of its lane into Literary Fiction territory (Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic, The Handmaid’s Tale , is a good example). But if one universal theme could be applied, it’s this: No one has figured out the meaning of life, other than to acknowledge that there’s more than one way to live it.
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What is Literary Fiction, Anyway?
Annika Barranti Klein
Annika Barranti Klein likes books, obviously. Twitter: @noirbettie
View All posts by Annika Barranti Klein
What is literary fiction? I’ve been trying to figure it out, and I’m stumped. (Let me just say this up front: this essay is about 750 words, and I absolutely do not give a definitive definition anywhere in those words.) Like any genre or age category, “literary fiction” is a designation that is primarily a marketing tool, an idea of where to find a book in a bookstore…but genre is also supposed to give readers an idea of what to expect, at least in very broad terms, and I don’t think literary fiction does that.
A genre like mystery or romance tells us there will be a central [mystery/romance] plot with expected tropes, familiar structure, and a satisfactory ending where the main character(s) [solve the crime/live happily ever after]. There are always books that break the mold when it comes to tropes and structure, but they conform to the central plot and ending rules almost without exception. Likewise, a science fiction book will in some way involve fictional science, a fantasy book will explore the fantastical, and a suspense book will keep the reader in suspense. Historical fiction takes place in the past, crime novels concern themselves with, well, crime (but not necessarily the solving of it), etc.
But what about literary fiction? What can I expect from the genre? The best definition I can find is that it will have “literary merit.” Well, so do all of the other genres I just mentioned. Next!
After the undefinable “literary merit,” I most often hear that literary fiction has “beautiful writing,” that it is character-focused, and that it is not genre. Hmmm. I can think of books in every genre with beautiful writing, so that can’t possibly be a serious definition. As for character-focused, I suppose it might be true in broad strokes that genre books are plot-forward and literary books are character-forward, but there is simply no way that’s true across the board, or even close to it. Which leaves the idea that literary fiction is not genre fiction.
Well, what does “genre” mean here? Simply, it encompasses the genres like science fiction and fantasy, crime and mystery, romance and women’s fiction (another “genre” that seems to be undefinable and probably nonsense). So, according to this rule, literary fiction is always realistic and never focused on a romance or mystery plot. Again, I say: Hmmm.
I recently borrowed The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid from the library. In it, white people start turning brown in what I assume is a device for the author to explore race and power structures — I haven’t read very far yet. I have seen this book described as literary fiction pretty much across the board despite the premise being, well, speculative at the very least and probably science fiction, depending on the cause of the events in the book. Likewise, I hear Lakewood by Megan Giddings described as literary fiction even though the main character goes through medical experiments that are distinctly science fiction. So what makes these books qualify as literary instead of SFF? I don’t know!
At a loss and feeling somewhat desperate, I googled “literary fiction 2023” and one of the top results was I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai. Now, listen, I haven’t read this book, but I wasn’t born yesterday. That is a mystery novel. What the heck is going on?
While I was pondering this strange phenomena, this genre that seems to only exist because people say it does and not because it means anything, I listened to a few stories from The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw, another book that seems to be called literary fiction fairly universally. The prose reminded me of every other great Southern fiction I’ve read, if perhaps a bit more layered because, frankly, I’ve mostly read white Southern authors and they simply do not have as much going on. That said, I heard Harry Crews in her writing, so I asked the internet what genre he wrote. Well, folks, the internet said “novels.” Which is not a genre at all. (I suppose “Southern” isn’t either, unless it is.)
Maybe it would make more sense to compare literary fiction to its contemporary cousin, commercial fiction. Let me google that real quick. Now hang on just a dang minute. Commercial means, essentially, “for sale.” All books are for sale, Jan. (I am renaming Google “Jan” for the purposes of that sentence.)
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Last updated on Feb 07, 2023
What is Literary Fiction? The Ultimate Guide in 2023
Literary fiction is a category of novels that emphasize style, character, and theme over plot. Lit fic is often defined in contrast to genre fiction and commercial fiction , which involve certain tropes and expectations for the storyline; literary fiction has no such plot-based hallmarks.
Though it's a tough category to define, you can certainly spot literary fiction once you know what you're looking for. Intrigued? In this short guide, we’ll unpack this elusive category and give you tips for writing with literary readers in mind.
Literary fiction is not a standalone genre
You will rarely see novels marketed as ‘literary fiction’, or even shelved that way in a bookstore. This is because literary fiction still shares some features with genre and commercial fiction, though they’re presented more subtly in lit fic. But even when it’s shelved alongside commercial fiction, literary fiction has a few telltale signs, as you’ll soon see.
It’s considered a prestige category
Literary fiction novels are often seen as prestige items in a publisher’s list: cutting-edge works of ‘serious fiction’ by artists of the written word. As a result, literary fiction — even from debut authors — will often get an initial hardback release. If you see a new hardcover on prominent display at the bookstore, it’s almost guaranteed to be literary fiction.
This strategy not only gives it a chance to be seen by plenty of devoted readers, it also increases the book’s chances of being reviewed. According to the editor of The Bookseller in 2018, some literary editors will only review novels launched in hardback .
Books in this category are also privy to publishing’s biggest prizes, such as the Booker Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. So if you see a sticker on the cover boasting that it’s been nominated for a prestigious award, you’re likely looking at a work of literary fiction.
Style and theme take priority
Another key quality of literary fiction is its attention to style, which in turn underscores major themes. Of course, when thinking of literary fiction, people tend to imagine ‘highbrow’ or difficult prose. This has led to generations of aspiring literary authors packing their prose with run-on sentences, florid metaphors, and other rhetorical bells and whistles.
While this stereotype is certainly true of some novelists (James Joyce, for example, was no stranger to run-on sentences), many literary authors favor concise prose over fancy linguistic flourishes. Take it from George Orwell, who lived by the maxim “never use a complicated word when a simple one will do” — or Hemingway, whose famously lean prose has taught generations of writers that less is more.
Basically, though you may associate literary fiction with insufferable purple prose , it doesn’t have to be that way. The defining feature of literary fiction isn’t one specific style of prose, but rather its impact on the reader, and its ability to deliver or embody the book’s theme.
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Themes are explored in depth
Indeed, literary fiction isn’t all style over substance: meaningful themes are just as important in this category. After all, what use is an interesting voice if you don’t have anything to say?
Literary fiction commonly examines ‘serious’ concepts like politics, social issues, and psychological conflict. But what makes the themes in literary fiction stand apart from those in genre fiction is the level of detail and narrative weight they’re given.
For example, Orwell’s Animal Farm is defined by its commentary on political structures. The plot and characters are just small parts that build the novel’s overarching metaphor for the Russian Revolution, as seen through Orwell’s satirical lens.
As you can probably guess, the level of nuance required to explore serious themes calls for a great deal of time and effort on the author’s part. After all, it’s not easy to have a strong take on a weighty topic, and (crucially) understand how impacted characters would think, feel, and react — so if you intend to write literary fiction with big themes, make sure you’ve thought deeply about the real-world consequences.
They often drill into a single theme
Now, one might argue that The Hunger Games also tackles serious themes of social inequality — so how come it’s not considered literary fiction? Well, because this dystopian novel more strongly foregrounds elements of romance, coming of age, and an action-packed plot. The social themes, in many ways, are garnishes rather than the main course.
In short, genre fiction’s focus on story means that it will rarely explore themes in as much depth as literary fiction. This thematic intensity doesn't make literary fiction “better” than genre fiction, or vice-versa — it just goes to show that there are many different approaches out there to meet the varied needs of different readers.
Character studies are its bread and butter
While authors of genre fiction certainly can’t ignore character development , their equal (or greater) focus on plot gives them less opportunity to drill deep into a character’s inner life. What’s more, most genre fiction has a protagonist who is lovable by design.
Meanwhile, in literary fiction, you’re much more likely to encounter morally gray and flawed characters , and find yourself absorbed by their history and psyche. That’s not to say every character in this category is inherently evil, incredibly flawed, or unlikable — they're just far more likely to be approached in a more complex way that exposes their faults, thus giving you the tools to dissect them.
Take The Catcher in the Rye as an example. J.D. Salinger’s hero is Holden Caulfield, a seventeen-year-old boarding school drop-out. Holden isn’t necessarily likable — in fact, he often alienates others by judging superficial characteristics extremely critically — but readers are intrigued by the book’s psychological insights into his personality. Though Holden is quick to judge others, particularly those he views as “phony”, he’s far from perfect himself; this makes trying to understand his behavior even more compelling.
Instead of making Holden likable, Salinger makes the reader empathize with him despite his personality and actions — something that’s arguably much harder to do as an author. This challenging, thought-provoking nature is a definite hallmark of literary fiction.
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The tone is often realistic and introspective
What do Of Mice and Men, Mrs Dalloway, The Remains of the Day have in common besides their dark elements and focus on longing? While none of these books would be mistaken for nonfiction , they are all grounded in a certain realism — their writers have taken special care in exploring the emotions and reactions of their characters in very specific settings.
Considering this, it won’t surprise you that literary fiction tends to rely on internal conflict of a character to drive the plot. In Of Mice and Men, for example, migrant farm worker George Milton is torn between his survival instincts and his loyalty to his simple (yet dangerous) friend, Lenny. While the novel arguably does have a villain — the landowner’s cruel son — the story’s true conflict takes place in George’s mind.
You might also look to Mrs Dalloway as a good example of realistic introspection. In this book, readers follow a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, culminating in her finally reconciling herself with life in the present — despite her strong attachments to the past.
The Remains of the Day creates a similar air of realism by exploring the human psyche: we follow the butler of a grand English estate as he comes to terms with how his unhealthy devotion to his work, subsequent repression, and his fears of intimacy have held him back for years.
It’s about the journey
But while the resolutions of all these stories may be melancholy and uncertain, sad endings alone don’t make them lit fic — it’s about the characters’ journeys to get there.
Good literary fiction feels so real because there isn’t that certainty of a happily ever after. After this, the characters will continue on their journey, and readers can only imagine where they might go. They want to wonder what will happen to the characters based on what they’ve learned through the story, rather than simply arrive at an ending that’s wrapped up in a bow.
That literary fiction writers allude to this “to be continued” reality in their novels, makes them that much more believable.
But it can also be fanciful!
Literary fiction isn’t all dark character studies about people living on the verge of despair, mumbling to each other in a studio apartment. On the contrary, literary fiction can absolutely be fantastical while simultaneously presenting people and themes in a believable way — and what better way to study human nature than by throwing your characters into highly unusual situations?
Plenty of literary fiction writers actually specialize in playing with genre tropes and devising the most inventive concepts. One recent example of fantasy-infused literary fiction is Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi , which follows Piranesi — a man who seemingly lives alone in a vast, statue-filled labyrinth that periodically floods to dangerous levels. Let’s be honest, not much besides the human insight is realistic in this novel (unless you happen to holiday in similar dangerous labyrinths). But the outlandish premise makes the perfect playground for Clarke to explore themes of personhood and isolation.
You might also point to Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black , a novel which is equal parts literary fiction and Gothic horror. Arthur Kipps is a young lawyer investigating a creepy house on a remote island — one that belonged to his deceased client.
Through Kipps’s seemingly supernatural experiences at the house, readers are asked to consider bigger questions about sanity and objectivity. While the harrowing events in this novel are hardly realistic in the way that a Sally Rooney novel might be, its rich narration, focus on human psychology, and themes of isolation align it with literary fiction.
Authors are more free to experiment
Writers of literary fiction benefit from the fact that their readers tend to enjoy more challenging works. In genre and commercial fiction, there is an expectation that the writer will always engage the reader, propelling them through the book with quickly mounting tension. In contrast, literary fiction readers are more flexible in their initial expectations — understanding that a slow start can still build to a satisfying reveal later.
A great example of slow-burn literary fiction is Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin , in which elderly Iris Chase recounts her dramatic life and the events leading up to her sister's death. Though this novel has received wide critical acclaim, a lot of readers have unfortunately placed this challenging book back on the shelf early because of its slow-paced beginning. However, the novel’s unique ‘memory recall’ structure needs that time to build the twisting mysteries which ultimately make it a true page turner.
Indeed, literary fiction readers often expect some level of experimentation that subverts the formal conventions of storytelling. Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch overturns readers' expectations by telling its story in reverse, moving backwards through the 1940s, starting in 1947. Waters’s unconventional style challenges readers by asking them to forget their curiosity about the future and try to focus solely on unraveling the past.
Of course, experimental or unusual structures aren’t just used in literary fiction for the sake of challenging readers. Typically, a nuanced structure works towards immersing the reader in the character or world of the book.
For example, a long stream of consciousness narrative (think Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea , in which the narrator’s thoughts gradually become harder to follow) might be a great way to make readers lose themselves in the narrator’s mental decline. Or utilizing an epistolary structure (as in Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin , which is told through a series of letters penned by a grieving mother) can really make the stakes feel tangible as readers dig through years of correspondence.
Literary fiction is a broad and diverse genre, so it’s pretty difficult to track down an exact definition ― but hopefully, equipped with this field guide to lit fic, you’ll feel more confident identifying it when you come across it in the wild.
If all this literary talk has you feeling inspired, make sure to head over to the next part of our guide, where you can learn 10 insightful tips for writing your own literary fiction!
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Home / Book Writing / Literary Fiction vs Genre Fiction: Definition & Examples
Literary Fiction vs Genre Fiction: Definition & Examples
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?
- Literary vs Genre: Examples
- There's No Clear Dividing Line
- Literary vs Genre: Plot
- Literary vs Genre: Characters
- Literary vs Genre: Writing
- Literary vs Genre: Audience
- Literary or Genre: Which is Right for You?
- Literary Fiction vs Genre Fiction: Conclusion
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
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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:
- Mystery, Thriller, & Suspense
- Science Fiction
- Crime Fiction
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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!
When I’m not sipping tea with princesses or lightsaber dueling with little Jedi, I’m a book marketing nut. Having consulted multiple publishing companies and NYT best-selling authors, I created Kindlepreneur to help authors sell more books. I’ve even been called “The Kindlepreneur” by Amazon publicly, and I’m here to help you with your author journey.
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