Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction, What's the Difference?
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.
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.
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.
My Other Articles on Literature
- The Meaning of Genre in Fiction
Is there a difference between genre and form in literature or are genre and form the same? Is fiction a genre or a form? How about poetry, romance or fantasy. Here are one writer's thoughts.
- How to Read Very Short Fiction and Enjoy It
You will find an abundance of articles about how to write long and short fiction, but few regarding how to read short fiction and enjoy it. Here are seven ways for you to learn to enjoy a short story.
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.Helpful 3