Defining Literary vs. Genre Fiction

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When we finish our first novel, sometimes we realize we don’t know exactly how to categorize it. Some writers have it easy. They know they write romance or science fiction and they’ve known it from the start. Others aren’t so sure. Maybe our book strays from an established formula. Or maybe it seems to straddle two genres.

Maybe, we think, it’s literary fiction.

The line between genre and literary fiction has blurred over the years. Some have used the term upmarket fiction to describe genre books that skew toward literary. All this can confuse writers trying to decide how to categorize their work and get it in front of readers.

Let’s take a look at the key characteristics of both genre and literary fiction.

Genre fiction gives readers an escape. Literary fiction gives them a challenge.

Both literary and genre fiction require mastery of your writing craft. However, each has very different goals for the reader.

Genre fiction tends to be plot-driven. Plot formulas, which differ from one genre to the next, provide a basic framework for most books in a given category.  In other words, readers can walk in with a basic set of expectations and expect to have them met.

Literary fiction, on the other hand, abandons — or sometimes outright challenges — common tropes. It often focuses heavily on the style of the prose itself, not just the information those words convey. Endings can be ambiguous or troubling. Character-focused stories often lack a well-defined plot structure. When readers pick up a literary novel, they don’t always know what to expect.

These differences make literary fiction more challenging for the reader. Genre fiction lets us leave the burden of the real world behind. Literary fiction often forces us to contemplate the human condition or confront heavy political and social issues. And while genre fiction provides a new story wrapped in familiar language and structure, literary fiction can ask more of readers by presenting something unique.

Literary fiction didn’t always exist — or we didn’t always call it that.

Before the 20th century, people viewed novels as a form of entertainment. Readers didn’t look to fiction for an intellectual challenge or a new perspective. However, some of the great classics, like the work of Charles Dickens, are now considered “literary.”

While some welcome this broader, deeper view of literature’s role in society, others have raised concerns about class implications. Literary work tends to dominate the big annual awards. Its readership is assumed to be a more privileged, educated class. The most successful literary authors often come from prestigious MFA programs. Genre fiction, meanwhile, is often seen as comparatively blue-collar.

This can feel unfair to genre writers, who work just as hard on their craft as anyone else. Readers also feel the sting of elitism from the literary world.

Literary novels play an important role in modern fiction.

For all the criticisms of literary fiction, it brings a lot to the table. When literary writers experiment with the form, they push — and sometimes move — the boundaries for genre writers, too. Literary novels offer a necessary challenge to cliches and tropes we would otherwise take for granted. Instead of hewing to reader expectations, they dare to ask “what if.”

And these days, many readers want deeper themes in fiction. Books that challenge our beliefs and force a bit of introspection help us learn about the complex world we live in. The runaway success of Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give provides a prime example of mainstream readers’ thirst for challenging, socially relevant stories.

In that way, maybe the blurred line between literary and genre fiction is worth all the confusion. Literary writers push boundaries and force readers to confront challenging issues on the page. But this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Literary influence bleeds over to genre, whose wide commercial reach puts those challenges in front of mainstream readers. There’s plenty of opportunity for symbiosis, and there’s certainly a place for good writing in either category.

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About Author

Jaclyn Paul is a fiction writer and blogger based in Baltimore. You might know her from The ADHD Homestead, where she writes about building a good life and a peaceful home with adult ADHD. She's also a staff blogger for INKITT and author of the book Order from Chaos – The Everyday Grind of Staying Organized with Adult ADHD. Her writing has appeared online in Offbeat Families, The Write Life, ADDResources, Better Novel Project, and ADHD Roller Coaster.

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