Saturday, January 9, 2010

What's the difference between literary and genre fiction?

I've been wondering for a while now what the distinction is between these two categories. Genre fiction seems to be fairly clear cut - fiction that falls into one of several specific types of story: Mystery, Romance, Fantasy, etc., with subcategories such as Historical Romance or Urban Fantasy. In general, these seem to follow a plotting template and be driven by external conflicts, such as a mystery to be solved.

Literary fiction seems harder to define. My personal understanding has been that it involves conflict that is primarily internal, and doesn't follow a formula or rush along a plot arc like genre (also called "commercial") fiction does.

I started reading Break Into Fiction which is a workbook-style guide to writing genre fiction that uses well-known movie plots for examples (such as Casablanca and Finding Nemo). The authors define commercial fiction according to a very strict three-point structure. Naturally, this makes me want to rebel and use two or four. ;0)

In the beginning of the book they have a glossary of terms, in which Commercial Fiction is defined as:

Fiction with a specific structure that includes a protagonist ... striving toward a goal with obstacles encountered... until they reach a do-or-die moment...The story ends on a positive note. Due to the events encountered over the course of the story, the protagonist...changes as a result. Commercial fiction derives from myths and fairy tales, based on the reader's belief system that if they try hard enough they can... make a change in their world for the better.

They define Literary Fiction this way:

Not to be confused with literature, Literary Fiction is based on the reader's belief system that one cannot change their world but they can understand it better. The plot structure of literary fiction does not move toward a specific goal but involves peeling away the emotions and dark secrets of the human condition... The protagonist does not need to grow or change over the course of the story.

Well, that certainly explains why I have failed to enjoy many of the literary novels I've read. They seem depressing and pointless. But clearly they are deeply moving for other readers. On the other hand, many of the books I have truly enjoyed were those in which I could immerse myself in a leisurely way, without being whisked along from one improbable situation to another. such as Rosamund Pilcher's Winter Solstice, about a group of assorted strangers who spend Christmas together in an old house in Scotland. This is probably also "women's fiction," but it is certainly literary by this definition.

Many books overlap in similar ways, but tend to be more strongly one or the other.

What do you think about these definitions? How would you describe your WIP (work in progress)?


  1. I once said that I wanted to write literary fantasy, and I still do. I think it would be quite an experience, for both the readers and myself, to spend time in a fantasy world without having to save it from destruction.

  2. I'm not sure about definitions. I've heard of high fantasy - where the fate of the world is at stake, and low fantasy - where the challenge matters only to a few people.

    I've also read that there needs to be a struggle, but unlike the commercial fiction definition, it can either be a struggle where the main character doesn't want to change or a struggle where the main character have to stay steadfast. In the first case they try to hang on to what they already know. In the other they have to fight the temptation to change.

    My WIP doesn't really fit into any category, or lots of categories. It is low fantasy - there is magic, monsters and heros. It's not high fantasy since it is about a local conflict; only the fate of one town is in questions. While the story is set during a war and there are some battles, it is mostly about how the main character deals with the loss of her friends and the loss of her family 12 years earlier. It is also a book about our relationship with God.

    I'm writing my story as a historical novel. It has excerpts in it from the main characters personal journals, and weaves the characters stories around the events that others have recorded.

    I'm not sure if I'll ever get published. It feels like my story is to fantasy to be in Christian book stores and to introspective and spiritual to be published by a traditional published. This is one of the things I have to think about as I start my revisions.

  3. It sounds fascinating, Doug. I'd love to read some of it, when you're ready.

  4. I don't know if I completely agree with their definitions because I think they are leaving out "mainstream" fiction, which can't be confused with "literary" fiction.

    Mainstream is work that doesn't fit into a specific genre, though it (of course) has elements of genre fiction (some romance or suspense or courtroom/lawyer type of stuff, for example). But it is more commercially appealing than the typical "literary" novel. It may or may not end on a positive note. That's my take on it.

    If I look at their definition of literary fiction, my WIP fits the "peeling away the emotions" part but not the "does not need to grow or change" part.

    If I look at their commercial fiction definition, my WIP fits the "protagonist changes" part but not the "story ends on a positive note" part. (Although people who have read the book found hope/redemption at the end, no one could say it was a happy/positive ending.)

    As a side note, I went to a writers' conference this past summer and told people I was writing a "mainstream" novel. Most people stared blankly at me. "What's that? I write ______ (SF, fantasy, romance, mystery, etc.)" I finally started saying it was "women's fiction." Guess maybe it is. . . . Great thoughts here, Christine.

  5. Very succinct and easily read definitions. I get lost in genre descriptions sometimes because they do sometimes overlap.

    My trilogy is Literary, I think, because the only obstacle she has to overcome is her own engrained perceptions of the world. Her upbringing. But really, it might be closer to Mainstream, because she does grow and change emotionally, but it takes her three novels to do it. There's also a lot of romancy type writing in it, but nobody would confuse it with a romance novel.

    I don't know what it is anymore.


  6. Thanks, Donna and Laura. Now I'm going to have to research mainstream fiction, because I'm not familiar with that term, either. I've heard it here and there, but wasn't sure what it meant.

  7. Okay, a quick search gave me two possible definitions for "mainstream".

    1. Fiction that represents the current popular culture, and reflects everyday life in a realistic way as opposed to mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.

    2. Fiction that doesn't fall into any of the other genre categories.

    Do you think either of those is accurate?

  8. Yeah, works for me.

    Thanks Christine.



I apologize for the word verification. I hate it, but the spammers made me do it.