Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction, What's the Difference?

Updated on March 11, 2018

The Meandering and Exploring of Literary Fiction


Where'd the Story Go?

You love to read. I know you do. A book graces your bedside table and there's another on the end table beside your special chair in the living room. And what's this? A paperback in the privy? Yes, you love to read, don't you?

So you picked up a book at the bookstore the other day and now you sit down with a cup of coffee or tea or a glass of kombucha and begin to read. Halfway through page two, you set the book in your lap and wonder where the story went. Sort of like the old Wendy's commercial? Remember? "Where's the beef?" the old lady growled. "Where's the story?" you growl. The story might have gone something like this.

Straight is the Way of Genre


My Own Attempt at Literary Fiction

I arrived to the dance late. I suppose some would say that I subconsciously wanted to be late, but can something really be simultaneously subconscious and intentional? I remember as a little boy, I yelled at my mother and told her that I hated her. Later I apologized and said I didn't mean it, but now I wonder. Did I subconsciously hate my mother and intentionally tell her so?

She was seated on the opposite side of the dance floor from me. If I had a reason for being late to the dance, there it sat, in a dress custom made for the polka. It flared out from her waste and held its broadest form just above the knees. On the front was something that resembled a lacy vest and apron. And the sleeves –– I like your sleeves, their really big. The only difference between Napoleon Dynamite and me is that he danced with Deb.

The polka was a dance everybody in my hometown knew. It was part of us, like arms and legs are part of us. We danced the polka every Friday night, as if Fridays had been divinely ordained for such a thing, like Saturdays for the Jews and Sundays for Christians and whatever day Budhists celebrate on. Do Budhists have a special day? I remember reading about Siddhartha Buddha and how his birthday is celebrated on the day of a full moon.

Napoleon and Deb Dance at the Prom


Literary and Genre, The Two Primary Branches or Styles of Fiction

You probably came away from that wondering if the story was about a man who was afraid to ask a woman to dance with him or possibly the psychoanalysis of a boy's love/hate relationship with his mother, a review of Napoleon Dynamite or a treatise on comparative religions.

There are two basic styles of fiction. The first kind of fiction tells a story from beginning to end with very few detours or side stories. It is plot-driven, meaning that the main gist of the story is front and center at all times, as is the protagonist.

The second style of fiction does not follow the same rigid pattern as the first. It is not bound to the plot very much at all, but it is deeply character driven. Often these stories seem to be ethereal and esoteric in nature, a double whammy to the more pragmatic among us who are left in the dark with both feet on the ground.

The common names for these two divergent types of fiction are literary fiction and popular or genre fiction. Literary fiction is the form that tends to wander in the telling of a story as the author explores the emotions and motives of a character. Popular or genre fiction makes a beeline from the opening paragraph to the final scene.

Here are a few familiar titles which, according to Goodreads, fall into the category of literary fiction.

Familiar Novels Which Are Considered To Be Literary Fiction

  • To Kill a Mockingbird-Harper Lee
  • Life of Pi-Yann Martel
  • The Catcher in the Rye-J.D. Salinger
  • The Kite Runner-Khaled Hosseini
  • The Lord of the Flies-William Golding
  • The Road-Cormac McCarthy (One of my all time favorite books and authors).
  • Pride and Prejudice-Jane Austen
  • Of Mice and Men-John Steinbeck

To Kill A Mockingbird


See if your favorite author is on Amazon's list of most popular literary fiction authors (Including their most popular book).

Amazon's Most Popular Literary Fiction Writers

  • Anne D. Leclaire-The Halo Effect
  • George Orwell-1984
  • Margaret Atwood-MaddAddam Trilogy
  • Gill Paul-The Secret Wife
  • Amy Harmon-From Sand and Ash
  • Ella Carey-Trilogy beginning with Paris Time Capsule
  • Fredrik Backman-A Man Called Ove
  • Marybeth Mayhew Whalen-The Things We Wish Were True

Or is your favorite among Amazon's most popular Genre writers? And no, it is not your imagination when you see some of the literary writers from the lists above, in the following list.

George Orwell


Amazon's Most Popular Genre Fiction Writers

  • Kerry Lonsdale-Everything We Keep
  • Liane Moriarty-Big Little Lies
  • Laura McNeal-The Practice House
  • Stephen King-Gwendy's Button Box
  • Anne D. Leclaire-The Halo Effect
  • WM. Paul Young-The Shack
  • George Orwell-1984
  • Danielle Steel-Dangerous Games
  • Gill Paul-The Secret Wife
  • Lindsay Jayne Ashford-The Woman on the Orient Express

How Each Side Views the Other

It is helpful to understand how the two sides often view one another. Literary defenders sum it up by referring to literary fiction as art and genre fiction as escapism. On the genre side, literary fiction is seen as aimless, boring and elitist.

Margaret Atwood


What Is the Point of Telling a Story?

Why do we love to read and write fiction? Whether we prefer literary fiction or genre fiction, what is the point of reading? After all, the stories are make believe, fakes. One could even call them tall tales or lies. A story is a fabrication of people and events that –– that what? What is enduring about story telling? Is it the story? Or is the critical point how the story impacts, moves and creates emotion in the reader?

If the writers of genre fiction grasp the importance of emotionally impacting the reader, the line dividing the two sides will continue to fade. Lev Grossman put it this way in a 2012 Time article on this subject. "Stories are stories, and their relative proximity to reality is not germane. What’s germane are the ideas and emotions that those stories create in those who read them. Fiction is never real, but feelings always are." (Italics added).

In my opinion, literary fiction writers and genre fiction writers have a lot to offer the reader, and as long as the reader is forefront, the writing by both sides can only improve.

Questions & Answers

  • Can you discuss the debate between highbrow and lowbrow?

    The debate between highbrow and lowbrow literature is exactly what my article is describing. Highbrow literature is literary fiction. Lowbrow fiction is genre or popular fiction.

    Highbrow fiction delves into the mental and emotional state of the main character or characters. This type of fiction is focused on the character. The complexity is not so much in the plot as it is in the presentation of the characters. Often the story wanders far from the plot to give the reader a deep understanding of the character(s). This can create a deeper experience for the reader when the plot and character reunite. But that is not always the effect. Sometimes the descriptions are so long and detailed; the story is simply lost. If a reader becomes bored, they won't finish the book.

    Lowbrow fiction focuses on the story, the plot, the action. This can sweep the reader away to another time and place. They might feel they are participating as the plot unfolds. The accusation against this type of fiction is that the descriptions of the characters are weak. A reader might find they not only do not relate to the character; they simply don't care about them. If they are in grave danger, it doesn't matter because there is no emotional investment in the character.

    There is a wealth of fine literature in both of these kinds of fiction. There is also a plethora of crap in both camps, and who wants to read crap? The goal of every writer should be to present strong characters in a story that is interesting, entertaining and to varying extents, intellectually stimulating and challenging. The entire debate could be dropped if writers were first and foremost focused on the reading experience of their readers. Of course, the market will decide, and if highbrow and lowbrow both succeed, then what are we fighting about? This is not about literary snobs (though they do exist) and paperback rednecks (Yes, they exist too). This topic should be focused on two things. First, readers can read what they want. Period. Second, writers should be focused on writing good, high-quality stories that have deep, memorable characters.


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    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      2 years ago from Green Bay, Wisconsin...for now

      Jo, thanks for reading the article and for responding. Your desire for "a deeper look at the human condition" seems to be a common element among those who prefer the literary style. If I understand the other side, there are those who like a bit of an escape from real life into a fictional world that deals with less common, more exciting plots. It's great that we have the choices available to us.

    • jo miller profile image

      Jo Miller 

      2 years ago from Tennessee

      I am a lifelong reader and through the years I've gravitated more and more to literary fiction because, I believe, I have become more discriminating as a reader. I like a good, griping plot (like those John Grisham writes) but prefer a good, griping plot with unforgettable characters, great writing, and a deeper look at the human condition.

    • manatita44 profile image


      3 years ago from london

      Excellently written and a good study of both styles. I have done some of the literary ones for O and A 'levels, so I suppose they fit well into a literary style. Shakespeare was a master of human psychology and emotions, a bit like some I know here, and again so was Golding.

      So we see the thread of human ailments running through their writings. As such, even if we deem them fiction, there are real life-lessons to be learnt. Such are the skills of the great writers.

      A very beautiful and well argued piece. Flowed well.

      P.S. I used to love Harold Robbins as a child. Don't know where he fits.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Green Bay, Wisconsin...for now

      Shauna, Koontz and Grisham are both solidly in the Popular/genre/commercial (to use a few synonyms) fiction realm. Margaret Atwood may be a name you recognize. She is a prominent literary fiction author. I might write a follow-up to this article so I can use excerpts from both styles of writing for comparison. Thanks for your input.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      3 years ago from Central Florida

      Chris, I didn't even know there were delineations of fiction.

      I prefer fiction when I read for pleasure. My favorite fiction author is Dean Koontz. I don't see him on either list. John Grisham is another favorite of mine.

      I'll put any book down in a heartbeat that has too many characters. If I find myself wondering who's who or what they have to do with the story, I won't finish the book. Reading to me is an escape; it shouldn't be work.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Green Bay, Wisconsin...for now

      Lawrence, Have at it, my friend :) In my opinion, these are the most difficult aspects of fiction to define. Next in line is defining genre. Your input is very much appreciated. I agree with you about Orwell, but I just took Amazon's lists as examples of how some sort this out. Thanks for reading and for your helpful comment.

    • profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      3 years ago


      I would have put Orwell in the genre fiction for 1984 but im not sure I see him in the 'literary fiction' side of things.

      I also tend to see literary fiction as being more 'Victorian' in style.

      Then again, if that's the only difference, then most writers would fit in 'both camps'

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Green Bay, Wisconsin...for now

      Suhail, I appreciate you stopping by and reading this hub. I read your fine story that you wrote for Bill's challenge. I enjoyed it very much. You mentioned Northern Michigan in your story. That is where my home is, although I am rarely there now as I work and live on the road most of the time.

    • Suhail and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 

      3 years ago from Mississauga, ON


      I didn't read fiction and certainly didn't write fiction until recently. However, I liked your article a lot, especially because recently I have started reading fiction. I have also written my first fiction article in response to Bill Holland's challenge on these pages. Lot of my friends thin I can turn my factual knowledge into work of fiction.

      Thanks for sharing a very informative hub. I hope to read more from you.


      Suhail and my dog K2

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Green Bay, Wisconsin...for now

      Thank you Larry.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      3 years ago from Oklahoma

      Great literary definition.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Green Bay, Wisconsin...for now

      Good morning, John, late evening there. I'm glad to know that writers can fit into both categories. That versatility makes the writer more appealing to more readers. And it is probably better writing.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Thanks for sharing this info Chris. It does make the difference between the two forms of fiction a little clearer. Interesting that authors like Orwell fall into both categories.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Green Bay, Wisconsin...for now

      Dora, I am so glad I can offer these explanations. This article is a companion now with one I wrote a couple of years ago. That one is called "What is Genre in Fiction?" It explains the differences between terms such as science fiction (genre) and novel (form). So we really have three words to deal with, Genre, Form and Style (literary or genre fiction). Having a grasp of these as writers is very important as we come into contact with other writers.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Green Bay, Wisconsin...for now

      Gilbert, I sure do appreciate having you stop by. I'm going right over to read on your site. One problem though. I hate rats and I saw one when I peeked in there. I'm bringing my cat with me. Thanks for reading and for your comment.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Green Bay, Wisconsin...for now

      Ruby, I think I can say hi neighbor now. I'm in St. Louis. If you are still in southern Illinois, I do believe we are neighbors. I appreciate people like you who spend a lot of time reading her on HP. I do some, but not nearly what I would like. there is so much talent here it is crazy. I'll try to keep the character count, word count and letter count down for you so you keep coming back to my site. Have a great rest of your week.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      3 years ago from The Caribbean

      Chris, thanks for the explanations and examples of the differences in these two types of fiction. I don't think that I'm good at writing fiction but I'm glad to learn all I can about the genre.

    • rebelogilbert profile image

      Gilbert Arevalo 

      3 years ago from Hacienda Heights, California

      Very good comparison, Chris. You listed a group of very good authors.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      3 years ago from Southern Illinois

      At one time in my life, I read books of all categories. I especially loved romance novels, Now I read a lot but on HP mostly. I like the type of story that tells a story without too many characters to keep up with, and using long words takes the fun out of reading for me. I liked your take on the different types of writing.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Green Bay, Wisconsin...for now

      Eric, I'm glad you find it useful. I'm pairing this one with another hub I wrote about genre vs form. As far as rules are concerned, all anyone can really do is describe what is, not what should be. Fiction writing will continue to grow organically for the most part.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Wow that was great to learn. I am just processing that for my work in crazed half fiction writing. (my own genre or maybe some Gonzo in their)

      I like how you present it as ideas instead of rules.


    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      3 years ago from Green Bay, Wisconsin...for now

      Kathleen, Thanks for reading and for passing along that information about Ella Carey. I have amended my article accordingly. Thanks for reading and for your comment.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 

      3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Great read. Ella Carey has an excellent book that precedes "House by the Lake" and one that follows it. It is a wonderful trilogy beginning with "Paris Time Capsule." These are much more than just romance writing.


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