For a long time, the literary world has placed fiction into two distinct categories: literary fiction and genre (commercial) fiction. While there is some debate as to what makes a novel literary vs. genre, there’s little question about the word cloud that would seem to surround each term. Literary fiction is more high-brow, the stuff of charcuterie boards, bottles of red wine, long debates vis-à-vis the readability of Infinite Jest with individuals who use terms like “vis-à-vis.” Genre fiction, on the other hand, seems to have a cozy blanket or sandy beach as its environment, stories best enjoyed with a favored drink like coffee, or tea, or whiskey, the latest unputdownable hot read only put down for the sake of bookstagramming.
When it comes to differentiating between literary and genre fiction, though, defining each is a little less clear. Here are some elements that can be used to distinguish between them:
In general, literary fiction is often considered to be “character driven.” In other words, the story tends to focus on the character journey, particularly their interior transformation or arc. Literary fiction often doesn’t follow the same “formula” that is taught in novel plotting (for ex: inciting incident, midpoint, climax, etc.). As a result, the narrative form might be non-linear and the climax can be small, something as little as a realization or decision. Literary fiction is often written to appeal to a more narrow, specific audience.
Genre fiction is considered to be “plot driven” or focused on the narrative journey the character must take to get what they need/desire and what obstacles they face to obtain it. The narrative tends to be more linear with a big climax. Genre fiction is written with much more commercial appeal, and is usually more accessible to a more general audience.
That said, there’s a lot of crossover that occurs these days between literary and genre fiction. In fact, many would say that the two forms are merging. Terms like commercial literary, up-market, mainstream, and cross-genre are often thrown around in literary circles to describe some of this crossover fiction. Given the lack of clarity that seems to separate the debate about literary vs. genre fiction, it may be useful to consider these important points about both:
1. Both genre fiction and literary fiction are “good fiction.”
It used to be that literary fiction was the fiction of “serious writers” who aimed to alter the novel form. The truth is that both literary and genre fiction can be hugely impactful, and both must be outstanding in order to survive in the current saturated market.
2. Both should aim to explore the character’s emotional/interior life.
As explained more clearly in books like Donald Maass’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction, many readers long to have a strong, emotional connection to the characters they read about. Genre fiction cannot rely on a killer plot to hook a reader—the characters have to be on an emotional journey as well, something that has always been more strongly associated with lit fic. Here’s more on developing your character, even with a plot-heavy narrative: The Intersection of Plot and Character Development.
3. Both should be written with taut, compelling prose.
It’s not enough to simply tell a story from start to finish. Writers should always do their utmost to polish their prose to a shine, choosing the best verbs, not using four words when one will do, avoiding redundant descriptions, etc. Whether writing science fiction or literary, aim to elevate the writing.
Whether lit fic is just another genre or a distinct form of its own, it’s clear that the boundaries are confusing and often controversial. What is clear: it’s time to lose the concept that one is “better” than the other. There’s plenty of room for both on the bookshelves—and the best art always borrows from other forms.