fbpx
Next Chapters

The Novel Dispute: Literary vs. Genre Fiction

May 31, 2024

Fiction, broadly defined, includes narratives that come from the imagination of the author, rather than actual events. Within fiction, there are tens of genres and hundreds of subgenres to help guide a reader to find what best suits their interests. Genre fiction is just one category of fiction available, though. Another is literary fiction.

When mass publication became available in the 20th century, these two major categories emerged as marketing tools for book publishers. Before that time, distinctions weren’t necessary for their purposes. Since then, more categories and subcategories have appeared to refine their tactics and reach more specific audiences.

But what is “literary fiction”? And what is “genre fiction”? What makes them distinct from each other?

Literary fiction

Literary fiction is often hailed as a form of art. It prioritizes meaning over pure entertainment, meaning that the plot is secondary to the author’s exploration of a theme. It is often filled with long, poetic prose, detailed descriptions – sometimes across multiple pages – and realistic, character-driven narratives.

It relies heavily on experimenting with literary devices, all the while striving to keep characters, settings, and themes as close to reality as possible (ex: the human condition, societal issues, will of nature). There is an emphasis on symbolism and allegory, as well as unusual plot structures. Because of all these factors, literary fiction is often the subject of criticism and study.

Characteristics

Literary fiction can be seen as uncategorizable, as it cannot be broken down into genres and subgenres. Its complex use of symbolism, metaphor, and allegory allow it to focus on serious subjects, such as life lessons, and search for deeper meanings to aspects of life. A happy ending isn’t guaranteed. 

In addition to philosophical questions, literary fiction explores trends in history and culture through advanced vocabulary, detailed imagery, and unconventional plot structures. A literary story often lacks a clear beginning, middle, or end. 

It is driven entirely by its characters, who may follow a positive or negative arc, or not have an arc at all. Many times, the characters are dealing with heavy topics such as grief, insanity, sickness, love, or loss. It is through the characters’ experience with these topics that the author explores their theme. The characters themselves may not even have a plot. But that doesn’t bother readers of literary fiction, because they are most often interested in the experience of reading: they want to be challenged. Mentally, philosophically, perhaps even morally. The goal of reading literary fiction for them is to provoke reflection.

Examples of literary fiction:

  • The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
  • Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
  • Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin
  • Ulysses, by James Joyce

Genre fiction

In contrast, genre fiction is a category that can be broken down into subcategories (genres), such as mystery, science fiction, romance, and thrillers. These can be further divided into subgenres, like historical thrillers, dark fantasy, and suspenseful romance. Each genre has its own conventions and genre fiction is defined by its ability to stick to them. 

These stories prioritize entertainment and are often more popular with the general reading public. They follow time-honored formulas for plot and character development, featuring clear conflicts and resolutions that drive the narrative forward. Top genre fiction tends to be commercial fiction for easy reading, and can be found in high-traffic areas like airports and grocery stores. 

Characteristics

Genre fiction is most commonly driven by a central plot. Formulas, tropes, archetypes, and structures all exist as a series of accepted guidelines that are used to drive a story forward. The plot should evolve logically, with scenes building upon each other through a series of cause and effect.

Each genre contains specific tropes that its audience expects. Example: Forbidden love, friends or enemies to lovers, fake relationships, trapped together, and differing wealth status are all common tropes that readers of the romance genre enjoy. Most writers should stick to the conventions of each genre in order to keep their audience engaged. Only those who have mastered a genre and know where and how to break the rules still succeed.

Characters within genre fiction are second to the plot. They should help it advance. Main characters most often have positive arcs, such as overcoming a weakness, but some also have negative arcs. A character without an arc – a flat character – is typically a side character. 

Genre fiction veers away from the flowery prose of literary fiction. Instead, it stays literal. Using two or three words where one can fit may bore your readers. It also avoids obscure symbolism – whatever symbolism is included will be easier to identify than in literary fiction.

Examples of genre fiction:

  • The Outsider, by Stephen King
  • Rainbow Six, by Tom Clancy
  • 61 Hours, by Lee Child
  • The Stormlight Archive, by Brandon Sanderson
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling

Distinctions between literary and genre fiction

Differences between literary and genre fiction isn’t always clear-cut. Both categories have their own merits. Literary fiction offers deep insights and artistic expression, while genre fiction offers compelling, entertaining narratives. 

Some academic and literary fanatics consider genre fiction to be inferior – they claim it is mindless and shallow. While it is true that literary fiction tends to last longer and remain relevant over time, genre fiction is much more popular with the everyday reader. Understanding and appreciating the qualities of each can allow readers to enjoy the best of both worlds.

Overlaps

Despite their differences, there is a significant overlap between literary and genre traditions. Few books can fit neatly into a specific definition. Some works, like Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” can be considered both literary and genre fiction due to their literary merit and adherence to genre conventions. Books like Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” feature elements that could fit into both categories but are not neatly classified as either.

What category your novel falls into – or rather, how far into each category your novel goes – depends on the way the characters, plot, and themes are written.

Posted in Creative WritingTags:
Write a comment

Register with Next Chapters for free!

    Join Next Chapters for Free

    Come write this novel with everyone!  Register with the form below and you will automatically receive access to this crowdsourced novel in your Next Chapters writing account.  Membership on Next Chapters’ writing platform is free.

    Join Next Chapters for Free

    Come write this novel with everyone!  Register with the form below and you will automatically receive access to this crowdsourced novel in your Next Chapters writing account.  Membership on Next Chapters’ writing platform is free.

    Join Next Chapters for Free

    Come write this novel with everyone!  Register with the form below and you will automatically receive access to this crowdsourced novel in your Next Chapters writing account.  Membership on Next Chapters’ writing platform is free.

    Join Next Chapters for Free

    Come write this novel with everyone!  Register with the form below and you will automatically receive access to this crowdsourced novel in your Next Chapters writing account.  Membership on Next Chapters’ writing platform is free.

    Join Next Chapters for Free

    Come write this novel with everyone!  Register with the form below and you will automatically receive access to this crowdsourced novel in your Next Chapters writing account.  Membership on Next Chapters’ writing platform is free.

    Join Next Chapters for Free

    Come write this novel with everyone!  Register with the form below and you will automatically receive access to this crowdsourced novel in your Next Chapters writing account.  Membership on Next Chapters’ writing platform is free.

    Join Next Chapters for Free

    Come write this novel with everyone!  Register with the form below and you will automatically receive access to this crowdsourced novel in your Next Chapters writing account.  Membership on Next Chapters’ writing platform is free.

    Join Next Chapters for Free

    Come write this novel with everyone!  Register with the form below and you will automatically receive access to this crowdsourced novel in your Next Chapters writing account.  Membership on Next Chapters’ writing platform is free.

    Join Next Chapters for Free

    Come write this novel with everyone!  Register with the form below and you will automatically receive access to this crowdsourced novel in your Next Chapters writing account.  Membership on Next Chapters’ writing platform is free.

    Join Next Chapters for Free

    Come write this novel with everyone!  Register with the form below and you will automatically receive access to this crowdsourced novel in your Next Chapters writing account.  Membership on Next Chapters’ writing platform is free.

    Join Next Chapters for Free

    Come write this novel with everyone!  Register with the form below and you will automatically receive access to this crowdsourced novel in your Next Chapters writing account.  Membership on Next Chapters’ writing platform is free.

    Join Next Chapters for Free

    Come write this novel with everyone!  Register with the form below and you will automatically receive access to this crowdsourced novel in your Next Chapters writing account.  Membership on Next Chapters’ writing platform is free.

    Join Next Chapters for Free

    Come write this novel with everyone!  Register with the form below and you will automatically receive access to this crowdsourced novel in your Next Chapters writing account.  Membership on Next Chapters’ writing platform is free.