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Literary vs. Genre Fiction

on November 3rd, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on November 3, 2010

Conventional wisdom says genre novels are concerned with plot, literary novels with character.

We, of course, know that both character and plot are central to entertaining fiction. But the general impression is true—literary novels take time to delve into character. The author spends pages showing who the characters are, what drives and moves them, what they want, why what they want is important, and how they’re changed by story’s end.

Genre novels may do the same, but often to a lesser degree. In mysteries and romance and suspense novels, the plot drives the story. The emphasis is on events—what’s happening, the impact of those events, the pacing of events.

Literary novels may move slower, both between story events and during scenes. Genre novels tend to be quicker paced, jumping between locations and events.

Consider the contrast in these terms—languid vs. speedy, thought vs. action, psychological vs. physical.

True all the time? Of course not. Nothing ever is. This is just a generalization, a way to understand the differences. And if you intend to write, specifically, either genre or literary novels, you need to know those differences.

If you’re writing a literary novel, look at your characters. Have you revealed who they are? Have you delved into their thoughts and motivations? If you’re writing genre, how is your pacing? Are you moving fast enough for your readers—is something happening?

Or, flip the story and look at it from another angle—

For the genre stylists, are you spending too much time in the head of a secondary character? Do you find the psychological makeup of a character more interesting than the plot? If so, you may want to reconsider the style of novel you’re writing.

For the literary stylists, are you emphasizing events over character, forgetting to clue in the reader to a character’s motivations and intentions and his mind? If these are true, you may want to reconsider the direction you’re headed.

Literary novels are often considered more highly stylized, written for a more educated reading public. Again, not always true but true enough that literary novels often appeal to a smaller audience and genre novels to the masses.

Can this preference be traced to the style of writing? Perhaps it’s word choice? Maybe it’s topic or plot.

Literary novels, from the standpoint of those who don’t read or write them, may seem elitist. Genre novels, viewed from those who don’t read or write them,  may seem common, without literary merit.

Rather than defending or attacking one view, why not write the best story you can, no matter the style or genre? Write to meet and exceed the expectations of your audience. Write for your own pleasure. Write to pay the bills.

Write well.

Both styles,  when well written, can entertain. Can draw in readers. Can make people think. Or maybe help them to not think for a while.

Both styles can introduce new worlds, new expectations, new viewpoints.

Up for a challenge? Read a literary novel this week if you’re usually a genre lover. (It won’t be that bad, I promise. Find one with a topic you already love or one you’ve always wanted to explore.)

Read a genre novel if you’re a literary lover. (Again, it won’t be that bad. I promise. Find one that takes place in an area of the world or in a time period that appeals to you.)

Something to make your task easier, especially if you think you can’t stand the other style?

Literary novels can be short—find a short one to satisfy the challenge. (To Kill a Mockingbird is much shorter than War and Peace.)

Genre novels move fast—find one that a friend said he read in one sitting. (One of Dick Francis’s mysteries will take less reading time than a techno-thriller from Tom Clancy.)

No, shorter and faster isn’t necessarily better. But it is easier to see the end for someone who might be gritting teeth while counting pages.

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9 Responses to “Literary vs. Genre Fiction”

  1. Vivian A says:

    Excellent advice, Beth. You know I roam the shelves and none is safe.

  2. Beth says:

    Vivian, I have the feeling that you read any and everything and love most of it. Such wide-ranging tastes. Do you even have a favorite genre or style?

  3. Kat Sheridan says:

    I think quite a few novels stashed on the romance shelves tend to cross boundaries into literary. I’m not talking about categories, but a lot of the ‘bigger’ romances that absolutely spend time in exploration of the emotional makeup of characters, show an emotional and psychological growth arc for them etc. I think this is especially true in novels that can be classed as not being truly romances, but have strong romantic elements. I’m thinking of someone like Karen Harper, and her Elizabethan set novels, or Kate Mortenson, who both delves deeply into characters, but also wraps the story in an intricate plot. For me, that’s the best of both worlds. A satisfying experience in every way!

  4. LClark says:

    Stupid question since I see some books to that try to do both – is that bad? to do both that is?

  5. Austin James says:

    I try and mix it up and read both… I see a lot of authors make the mistake of wanting to be literary master right from the get go – and sometimes it works, but more often it doesn’t.

    And sometimes the people who want to write a literary masterpiece take forever to write their book… at least in my opinion. I think there are benefits to appreciating both.

  6. Gabriel says:

    Yes I have dealt with this conflict. I’m a genre writer (espionage thriller), but most writers I know do literary/avant-garde. Lately I’ve been reading a mix of literary and genre (The Bourne Ultimatum and Jitterbug Perfume). John Le Carre’s thrillers I think get into literary territory by delving into the characters’ psychological attitudes and problems. His is a good example of how something can be literary and thriller. In the end I think good writing is good writing. Clive Cussler and Kurt Vonnegut are both great in different respects. Just depends what you’re looking for in reading.

  7. Can you combine both into one novel? I know you can try. And I’m certain that some writers could succeed. Such novels would be rich and meaty. Yet, what would it mean to the reader? As Kat mentioned, she likes deeper romances, stories that delve into character where other genre books wouldn’t. But what do typical genre readers want? Do they want more character development or are they satisfied with just enough for them to care what happens to the character when the plot starts rolling?

    What about literary novels? Would their essence change if plot gets more of the attention? Would the traditional literary lover want to read a novel that stressed plot elements to a greater degree?

    I’m guessing that readers have strong preferences and it’s those preferences that drove the split between literary novels and genre novels. Would some readers prefer a stronger blend rather than having to choose from either extreme? I’m sure they would. But a writer’s going to have to write something terrific to draw the attention of readers from both sides. A reader who likes a rip-roarin’ ride might not appreciate a story that’s slow to build. And a reader who enjoys the intracacies of character development might not like a plot that starts off like a jet on page five.

    Good question, L.

    Anyone else want to add something?

  8. Austin, I agree that there are benefits and strengths to both.

    L, something else to think about: A book cannot and will not please all readers. If you try too hard to make it an everything book, it just doesn’t work. So, to try to write a thriller-romance-paranormal with the pace of a literary novel is to set yourself up for failure. It might make a great writing exercise, but what audience would it please?

    Some genres appeal to readers because they’re different from another genre; their differences are what makes them more or less appealing to readers. If you take away the strength or allure of one genre to make room for something else, you might lose the readers from that first genre.

  9. Gabriel, presenting the psychological makeup of characters certainly adds to any story. It’s been a long while since I read the Bourne books and while I would definitely consider them genre, I can see the appeal of his mental state to argue for the literary side. Good example of blending elements well.

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