Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
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.
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.