Literary vs. Genre Fiction: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

novelistI’ve learned something since I started this writing adventure: there are two very distinct types of fiction, and readers and writers are divided into one of these groups, whether they know it or not. Maybe they’re not 100% camped out on one side, but they definitely lean one way or the other.

I kind of knew this before, but it really hit home since I joined a critique group. Before I get into that, let’s get a couple assumptions and definitions out of the way.

1. All books have characters.

2. The characters do stuff.

Duh, right? Here’s where the breakdown occurs.

Definition time:

Literary fiction is very character-centered. Some would say it’s “character driven”. It doesn’t usually fit into a named group (mystery, science fiction, etc. – those would be genres. I’ll get to those in a minute). My understanding of literary fiction is that we watch a character, who probably has some serious baggage, dance around on this mortal coil whilst learning crap about life. I suspect a lot of literary stories feature a young lady named Juniper who skips through a field that reminds her of her granddaddy’s harvest or some crap like that.

I obviously don’t lean literary in my preferences.

Genre fiction is comprised of all those groups: mystery, horror, sci-fi, romance, etc. Some call it “plot driven”. So while the character runs the show in literary, events cause the character to do stuff in genre. It follows a fairly predictable structure: life is what it is, oh crap that happened and now I have to react, oh crap my reaction made everything worse, and I’ll just keep reacting until there’s a showdown of some kind and I’ve changed in some way. You can usually map it out. Remember that plot line in school where you had to write events until you got to the top (the climax), where the story changed and the character isn’t pursuing what they were pursuing for some reason? You did that with genre fiction.

Here’s how I know these groups are so divided: when I submit a chapter to the group, I get two identifiable sets of feedback. I’ve done this five times, and the result has been the same every time.

Examples of feedback:

I want to know more about the character and what she hears, sees, feels, etc.

This character detail is interesting but unnecessary. Get to the point.

Wow! That happened so suddenly! It’s too much!

That event was awesome! It really moved the plot!

These occur in the same chapter. Every. Damn. Time.

I guess this means I have a pretty good balance of characters and plot-moving events, though my characters often need more development because I’m a genre girl. Mysteries and suspense stories are my favorites.

Literary fiction books win all the awards, and genre fiction books make up the best-seller lists. They’re obviously both popular in their own arenas. So what’s the take away here? I’m not sure. Maybe recognize which side of the fence you’re on and resist criticizing work on the other side. Or branch out, knowing that there might be things that bug you. Or learn from those who lean the opposite way from you somehow.

Or if you’re a writer, just write the story the way you want. At least you and your mom will like it – assuming your mom is on the same side of the fence that you are.

On what side of the fence do you find yourself? 

8 thoughts on “Literary vs. Genre Fiction: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

  1. I’m on both sides of the fence and my literary novel The German Money was reviewed in The Washington Post in the mytsery section a rave review and compared to Phillip Roth *and* John le Carré. 🙂


  2. Like you, I strive for a balance. I believe in story – things happening that go beyond the primary task of illustrating a character. Honestly, focusing on one person can render a strange sort of arrogance revolving around their worldview. I like my scenes to be efficient and relevant to the story. At the same time, I have been told my characters are richly drawn. To me, it’s only to the extent necessary to be meaningful in the story.


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