literary fiction

What Is the Difference Between Genre Fiction and Literary Fiction?

Ann O'Brien

June 16, 2022

Book publishers, critics, and readers group most books into one of two categories: genre fiction and literary fiction. Genre fiction includes mystery, romance, police procedural, suspense, horror, and other well-known categories. Literary fiction is fiction that doesn’t fit a particular genre but is more concerned with larger themes, in-depth characterizations, and experimental writing styles.

Literary books are those that get reviewed in newspapers and literary journals. They’re also the ones that get prestigious awards like the National Book Critics Circle Award, Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker Prize, and National Book Award. How do you tell it apart from other types of fiction? Here’s what you need to know to tell the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction

What Are the Characteristics of Genre Fiction?

Genre fiction has several characteristics that publishers and readers expect in every book. Within these formats, some writers can excel and produce well-written books, but they must follow the format.

It’s plot-driven

The plot is the major driver of a genre novel. The story must have a plot that grips the reader’s imagination and moves smoothly from the first setup to the inciting incident, climax, and resolution. Characters, settings, and dialogue are also important, but the plot is the most important part.

Some genres have their own conventions. A romance, for instance, must end with a “happily ever after” or similar happy ending between the main lovers, usually after they overcome obstacles to their union. A horror novel must end with the monster’s defeat, even if many people die in the process.

Some writers have become wildly popular because they write great plots, even if their characters and dialogue aren’t that interesting. On the other hand, some genre writers can produce beautifully written books that create wonderful dialogue and settings, even in the strict confines of a genre format. Even the most imaginative genre writers, however, must offer a compelling plot as the heart of the story.

It uses straightforward language

Genre fiction uses clear, straightforward language that avoids symbolism, extended metaphors, and other elements of literary fiction. The writing is clear and easy enough for the average reader to understand. Genre fiction is meant to be enjoyable, and readers expect these books to entertain them.

It is an escape

Genre fiction is sometimes called “escapist fiction” because it allows a reader to mentally “escape” their life by reading a book. A well-written book can transport you to a different world among characters you feel like you know and care about. That takes talent, and good writers get people coming back for more when they can transport readers out of their lives for a few days or hours. The settings can be cozy or exotic, but they are always presented with details that make readers feel like they’re in the world created by the writer.

Examples of Genre Fiction Writers

Some of the best-selling writers in the world write genre fiction. They include:

  • Tom Grisham
  • Agatha Christie
  • Stephen King
  • Danielle Steel
  • Janet Dailey
  • J.K. Rowling
  • Nora Roberts
  • Louis L’Amour
  • James Patterson
  • Mary Higgins Clark

These authors have managed to use the strict format of a genre to create books that the public knows it can rely on for a great plot, intriguing characters, and enjoyable settings.

What Are the Characteristics of Literary Fiction?

It is character-driven

The main difference between literary and genre fiction is that the latter is character driven. Things don’t happen because the book is following a specific format or convention. They happen because the thoughts, motivations, and actions of the main characters make them happen. These books explore the way humans react to the world around them.

It can have ambiguous or unfinished plots

These novels don’t have to have a plot that follows the traditional structure of a novel or a screenplay. A literary book might have a plot that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. It certainly does not have to have a happy ending. Many literary books have endings that seem ambiguous or bleak.

It uses intricate language

Literary authors love to play with language. These books use advanced metaphors, symbolism, allegory, and long internal monologues. The language is rich and complex, and it is often full of imagery. There may be a story within a story or a plot that skips around in time and place. The plot, language, and writing may all be highly experimental. Descriptions of settings or internal feelings may go on for several pages. The dialogue may be realistic, but it may also be unlike normal human speech.

It explores literary or philosophical themes

Most literary authors want to do more than provide an entertaining story. They also want their books to help people explore themes about life, philosophy, relationships, and the world around us. These books explore historical and cultural moments in history. The plot, if there is one, is used as a device to explore these issues. It is not the focus of the book.

It is challenging rather than escapist

Some people think literary novels are automatically going to be boring, because they aren’t plot-driven. These novels can be as enjoyable as genre books, but the entertainment they offer is different in nature. People who enjoy these books want the challenge of grappling with large ideas, important themes, and language that is sometimes difficult. They appreciate the descriptive powers of the language and the in-depth character explorations. Most people who love books read both types with enjoyment.

Examples of Literary Fiction Writers

Here’s a list of books that most people consider examples of literary writing:

  • “To the Lighthouse” – Virginia Woolf
  • “The Alchemist” – Paulo Coehlo
  • “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” – Italo Calvino
  • “All the Lights We Cannot See” – Anthony Doerr
  • “Postcards” – E. Annie Proulx
  • “Giovanni’s Room” – James Baldwin
  • “Bring Up the Bodies” – Hilary Mantel
  • “Emma” – Jane Austen
  • “The Great Gatsby”—F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Midnight’s Children” – Salman Rushdie
  • “Life of Pi” – Yann Martel
  • “Their Eyes Were Watching God” – Zora Neale Hurston
  • “Anna Karenina” – Leo Tolstoy
  • “Possessing the Secret of Joy” – Alice Walker
  • “Love in the Time of Cholera” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

There Can Be Crossovers

Who qualifies as a literary writer? The answer isn’t always that clear-cut. For one thing, there are genre writers whose writing is so good that they have broken out of the “genre” category in the views of some readers and critics. They include writers like Ruth Rendell, John Updike, and James Lee Burke.

Some authors who are considered literary today were the most popular genre writers in their time. For instance, Charlotte Bronte wrote a conventional Gothic romance novel, “Jane Eyre,” which was a huge bestseller in its time and is considered a literary classic today. Charles Dickens was the most popular author of his day, and he is also considered a writer of literary fiction. Crossovers happen, and people often argue about the status of their favorite writers.

However, most people agree that to qualify as literary fiction, a book must:

  • Be character-driven
  • Use metaphoric and symbolic language
  • Explore larger themes
  • Be challenging rather than escapist

Get Your Literary Novel Printed

We hope you’ve enjoyed this explanation of literary writing. Have you written a literary novel you’d like to see in print? At Publishing Xpress, we specialize in helping self-published authors. We offer affordable rates and fast, expert printing to help your book look its best. Use our pricing estimator to get a preview of our rates.

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