Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction

The world of fiction writing can be split into two categories: literary fiction vs. genre fiction. Literary fiction (lit fic) generally describes work that’s character-driven and realistic, whereas genre fiction generally describes work that’s plot-driven and based on specific tropes.

That said, these kinds of reductive definitions are unfair to both genres. Literary fiction can absolutely be unrealistic, trope-y, and plot-heavy, and genre fiction can certainly include well-developed characters in real-world settings.

Part of the issue with these definitions is that literary fiction vs. genre fiction describes a binary. Sure, every piece of fiction can be categorized in one of two ways, but there’s a wide variety of fiction out there, and very little of it falls neatly in a particular box. If our human experiences are widely variegated, our fiction should be, too.

So, let’s break down this binary a bit further. What are the elements of literary fiction vs. genre fiction, how can we better define these categories, and what elements can you apply in your own fiction writing?

Along the way, we’ll take a look at some literary fiction examples, the different types of fiction genres, and some writing tips for each group. But first, let’s dissect the differences between literary fiction vs. genre fiction. (They’re not as different as you might think!)

Before we describe these two categories, it’s important to note their origins. The distinction between literary fiction vs. genre fiction is recent: book publishers had no need to make these categories until the 20th century, when genre labels became a marketing tool for mass publication.

For example, many consider Edgar Allan Poe to be the first modern mystery writer, as his 1841 story “ The Murders in the Rue Morgue ” was one of the first detective stories. But when he published this story, it was just that—a story. Terms like “mystery,” “thriller,” or “detective” wouldn’t start describing literature until the 1900s, particularly when these genre tags helped distinguish and market new works.

Nonetheless, literary fiction and genre fiction help describe today’s literary landscape. So, what do they mean?

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Literary Fiction Definition

In general, literary fiction describes work that aims to resemble real life. (Of course, genre fiction can do this too, but we’ll get there in a moment.)

Literary fiction aims to resemble real life.

In order to transcribe real life, lit fic authors rely on the use of realistic characters , real-life settings , and complex themes , as well as the use of literary devices and experimental writing techniques.

Now, if you ask 100 different writers about what makes literary fiction “literary,” you could easily get 100 different answers. You might hear that, opposed to genre fiction, lit fic is:

  • Character-driven (instead of plot driven).
  • Complex and thematic.
  • Based on real-life situations.
  • Focused on life lessons and deeper meanings.

These distinctions are all well and good—except, genre fiction can be those things, too. Additionally, some examples of lit fic involve scenarios that would never happen in real life. For example, time travel and visions of the future occur in Kurt Vonnegut’s  Slaughterhouse-Five , but the novel is distinctly literary in its focus on war.

Perhaps the best way to think about literary fiction is that it’s uncategorizable . Unlike genre fiction, which can be broken down even further into different types of fiction genres, lit fic doesn’t fall neatly into any of the genre boxes. Some literary fiction examples include To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

Unlike genre fiction, literary fiction can’t be subcategorized; it doesn’t break down further into genres.

Genre fiction, by contrast, provides us with neat categories that we can assign to different literary works. Let’s take a closer look at some of those categories.

Genre Fiction Definition

The primary feature of genre fiction is that it follows certain formulas and tropes. There are rules in genre fiction that don’t apply to literary fiction: tropes, structures, and archetypes that make for successful genre work.

There are rules in genre fiction that don’t apply to literary fiction: tropes, structures, and archetypes that make for successful genre work.

So, genre fiction is any piece of literature that follows a certain formula to advance the story. It’s important for genre writers to immerse themselves in the genre they’re writing, because even if they don’t want to follow a precise formula, they need to know how to break the rules . We’ll take a look at some of those conventions when we explore the types of fiction genres.

If literary fiction started borrowing from genre tropes, it would then become genre fiction. However, both categories can share similar themes and ideas, without being in the same camp.

Take, for example, the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita falls firmly in the category of lit fic, even though the novel centers around love, lust, and relationships.

If Lolita is about love, then why is it not considered a romance novel, which falls under genre fiction? Because Lolita doesn’t use any of the romance genre’s tropes. For starters, the novel is about a professor (Humbert Humbert) who falls in love with the adolescent Dolores, makes Dolores his step-daughter, and then molests her. Thankfully, you don’t see that often in romance novels.

More to the point, Lolita doesn’t use any of the romance genre’s conventions. There’s no exciting first encounter—no meet cute, no chance interaction, no love at first sight (though there is lust at first sight).

Neither does anything complicate the relationship between Humbert and Dolores—there’s no relationship to be had. The novel charts the power imbalance between a middle aged man and a girl who’s barely old enough to understand consent, much less old enough to enforce it. Romance genre conventions—like love triangles or meeting at the wrong time—simply don’t apply. Yes, many plot points do make it harder for Humbert to pursue Dolores, but those plot points aren’t conventions of the romance genre.

Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction: A Summary

To summarize, each category abides by the following definitions:

Literary Fiction : Fiction that cannot be categorized by any specific genre conventions, and which seeks to describe real-life reactions to complex events using well-developed characters, themes, literary devices, and experimentations in prose.

Genre Fiction : Fiction that follows specific genre conventions, using tropes, structures, plot points, and archetypes to tell a story.

Additionally, literary fiction may borrow from certain genre tropes, but never enough to fall into a specific genre camp. Genre fiction can also have complex characters, themes, and literary devices, and it can certainly reproduce real life situations, as long as it also follows genre conventions.

The differences between literary fiction vs. genre fiction have been mapped out below.

Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction Venn Diagram

Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction Venn Diagram

More About Literary Fiction

Without the use of genre conventions, lit fic writers often struggle to tell a complete, compelling story. So, how do they do it?

Let’s take a look at some contemporary literary fiction books. We’ll briefly explore each example, taking a look at its themes and what makes the work “literary”.

Literary Fiction Books

All of the literary fiction examples below were published in the 21st century, to reflect the type of work that contemporary novelists write.

1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko follows three generations of a Korean family that moves to Japan, during and after Japan’s occupation of Korea. The novel examines this family’s culture shock, their experiences with oppression and poverty, the enduring legacy of occupation.

Core Themes

The core theme of Pachinko is family: the value of family, the struggle to protect it, and the lengths one will go to make their family survive. These struggles are magnified in their juxtaposition to colonization, the other core theme of this novel. How did the Japanese occupation permanently affect the lives of Koreans?

What Makes This “Literary”?

Pachinko attempts to tell realistic stories, based on the lived experiences of many Korean families that endured Japan’s occupation. Additionally, the novel doesn’t follow a specific formula or set of plot points. Pachinko is organized in three parts, with each part focusing on the next generation of the same family, as well as their reaction to a different global event.

2. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Kafka on the Shore follows two separate, yet metaphysically intertwined narratives. One story is about Kafka, a 15-year old boy who runs away from home after (unwittingly) murdering his father. In search of his lost mother and sister, Kafka ends up living in a library, where he meets the intelligent Oshima and begins his journey of healing.

The other narrative follows Nakata, an old man who became intellectually disabled in his youth following a mysterious accident. Nakata lost his ability to read and think abstractly, but he gained an ability to talk to cats. Nakata rescues a cat, and in doing so, begins his own path, which involves hitchhiking with a random truck driver and assassinating a cat killer.

On a metaphysical realm, Nakata’s actions are essential for Kafka to complete his own journey of spiritual healing. Though they never meet in person, their fates intertwine through spiritual means.

A recurring theme in Kafka on the Shore is the communicative power of music, which accompanies both Kafka and Nakata on their journeys. Additionally, questions of self-reliance, dreams versus reality, Shintoism, and the power of fate permeate the novel.

Murakami borrows from many different genres, including magical realism, absurdism, and fantasy. Yet the novel never leans too far into one genre. By combining these elements with his own brand of wit, mundanity, pop culture, spiritualism, and sexuality, Murakami creates an interconnected narrative about two equally unique protagonists. While Kafka on the Shore’s plot points are baffling and mysterious, it is the protagonists’ spiritual journeys which the novel focuses on.

3. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of five individuals before, during, and after the Nigerian Civil War. The short-lived state of Biafra forces each character to make impossible decisions. A village boy is forcibly conscripted in the army; a university professor follows a dark path of alcoholism; the daughter of a war profiteer becomes the runner of a refugee camp, and her twin sister adopts her husband’s child, who was born out of wedlock. Finally, a British writer becomes obsessed with telling Biafra’s story, only to realize it isn’t his story to tell.

War, and everything about war, colors this novel’s thematic landscape. The novel dwells on the relationship between power and the people, especially since all of Biafra’s supporters—including its powerful supporters—are squashed under occupation. War also makes the novel’s characters contend with ideas of Socialism, Tribalism, Nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and Capitalism, among others. Other themes of this novel include family, power & corruption, and survival.

Although Half of a Yellow Sun centers around war, it’s not a “war story”. The novel is wholly unconcerned with war’s genre conventions, dwelling little on things like battle strategies or building suspense. Rather, the novel focuses on the human impact of war. The Nigerian Civil War displaces each main character, forcing them to confront awful truths and make heart-wrenching decisions as a result. Half of a Yellow Sun concerns itself with the consequences of war and political strife, especially given the ideal nature of the Biafran nation.

More About Genre Fiction

In many ways, genre fiction is no easier to summarize than literary fiction. Each genre has its own rules, tropes , character types, plot structures, and goals.

Mystery novels, for example, should present an uncrackable whodunnit that builds suspense and intrigue, whereas Romance novels should create tension between two characters who are meant for each other, but keep encountering setbacks in their relationship. Since each novel has different goals, they take drastically different paths to achieve those goals.

Below, we’ve summarized the rules, tropes, and goals for 8 popular fiction genres. Links and further readings are provided for writers who want to dive deeper into a specific type of genre fiction.

Types of Fiction Genres

Science Fiction, or Sci-Fi, explores fictional societies that are shaped by new and different technologies. Aliens might visit Earth, wars might take place across galaxies, humans might have bionic arms, or scientists might discover human immortality. The goal of most Sci-Fi is to explore man’s relationship to technology, as well as technology’s relationship to society, power, and reality.

Many of the technological innovations in Sci-Fi can double as themes. For example, the gene-editing technology in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake represents man’s hubris in trying to command nature, the result of which is a dystopian society that hastens its own apocalypse.

Prominent Science Fiction writers include Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, H. G. Wells, Margaret Atwood, Ted Chiang, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Octavia E. Butler. Here’s a list of common tropes in Science Fiction .

Thriller novels attempt to tell engaging, suspenseful stories, often based on a complex protagonist undergoing a Hero’s Journey . A spy might chase down an international assassin, a boy might fake his own death, or a lawyer might have to prove she’s been framed for murder. In thriller novels, the protagonist faces a journey that’s long, dark, and arduous.

Thrillers often blend into other types of fiction genres. It’s common for a thriller to also be categorized as mystery, Sci-Fi, or horror, and even some romance thrillers exist. While the best thrillers have complicated protagonists, authors of thriller novels prioritize making each plot point juicy, compelling, and suspenseful.

Prominent thriller novelists include John Grisham, Stieg Larsson, Gillian Flynn, Dean Koontz, Megan Abbott, and Lisa Under. This article explains the key elements of thrillers .

The mystery genre typically revolves around murder. (If not murder, then some other high-profile and complicated crime.) Usually told from the perspective of a detective or medical examiner, mystery novels present a host of clues, suspects, and possibilities—including red herrings and misleading info.

Because mystery revolves around crime, many novels delve deep into their characters’ psyches. A mystery novel might string you along with clues and plot points, but it’s the complicated characters and their unknown desires that make a mystery juicy.

Prominent mystery novelists include Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Walter Mosley, Patricia Highsmith, Anthony Horowitz, and Louise Penny. Here are some considerations for writing mystery novels , and here are 5 mistakes to avoid when writing mystery .

Ah, l’amour. Romance novels follow the complicated relationships of lovers who, despite everything, are meant to be together. As they explore their relationship, each lover must embark on their own journey of growth and self-discovery.

The relationships in romance novels are never simple, but always satisfying. Lovers often meet under unique circumstances, they may be forbidden from loving each other, and they always mess things up a few times before they get it right. Alongside thriller, romance is often the bestselling genre, though it has its humble roots in the Gothic fiction of the 19th century.

Prominent romance novelists include Carolyn Brown, Nicholas Sparks, Catherine Bybee, Alyssa Cole, Beverly Jenkins, and Julia Quinn. Here’s a list of common tropes in the romance genre .

Fantasy novels require tons of worldbuilding and imagination. Wizards might go to battle, a man might chase after a unicorn, men and Gods might go to war with each other, or a hero might go on a mystical quest. What is impossible in real life is quotidian in fantasy.

Many works of fantasy borrow from mythology, folklore, and urban legend. Like Sci-Fi, many of the magical elements in fantasy novels can double as symbols or themes. The line between Sci-Fi and fantasy is often unclear: for example, an alien invasion is categorized as Sci-Fi, but the journey to defeat those aliens can easily resemble a fantasy novel.

Prominent fantasy novelists include J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, Andre Norton, Rick Riordan, C. S. Lewis, Zen Cho, and Erin Morgenstern. Here are some tropes in the fantasy genre , as well as our exploration of urban fantasy .

Magical Realism

Magical Realism blends the fantastical with the everyday. There won’t be grandwizards, alternate universes, or potions with unicorn tears, but there might be a man whose head is tied to his body, or a woman who cries tears of fabric.

In other words, fantasy slips into everyday life, but the characters don’t have magic at their disposal—they react as only mortals know how to react to magic. Because it is a relatively young genre, and because it often focuses on characters instead of plot points, magical realism is often seen as a more “literary” genre of genre fiction. Magical realism has its roots in the storytelling of Central and South American novelists.

Prominent authors of magical realism include Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carmen Maria Machado, Haruki Murakami, Samanta Schweblin, Jorge Louis Borges, and Salman Rushdie. Learn more about magical realism here .

Horror writers are masters of invoking fear in the reader. Through a combination of tone , atmosphere, plotting, the introduction of ambiguous (and unambiguous) threats, and the author’s own imagination, horror novels push their characters to the brink of survival.

Most horror novels involve supernatural elements, including monsters, ghosts, god-like figures, satanic rituals, or Sci-Fi creatures. Sometimes the protagonists are armed and ready, but usually, the protagonists are trapped and trying to escape some unfathomable danger.

Prominents horror writers include Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, Clive Barker, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, and Ray Bradbury. Here are some common tropes for horror writers .

“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” —Madeleine L’Engle

Children’s fiction is technically its own category of fiction, but the genre does have its own tropes and conventions. With many similarities to the fable, children’s fiction teaches important life lessons through the journeys of memorable characters, who are often the same age as the novel’s intended reader.

Writing for children is much harder than commonly believed. Whether you’re writing a picture book or a YA novel, you have to balance your book’s core themes and ideas with the reading level of your audience—without “talking down to” the reader.

Prominent children’s writers include A. A. Milne, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, Madeleine L’Engle, Diana Wynne Jones, Anne Fine, and Peggy Parish. Here are 10 tips for picture book writers , and here is advice for YA novelists .

Explore Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction at Writers.com

With so many works being published in both literary fiction and genre fiction, it helps to have people read your work before you submit it somewhere . That’s what Writers.com is here for. From our upcoming fiction courses to our Facebook group , we help writers of all stripes master the conventions of their genre.

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Sean Glatch

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Great example using Lolita for why the book doesn’t fall under the ‘romance’ category (due to the way it does not use romance tropes – indeed, it is almost an ‘anti-romance’). There’s a great line where Nabokov was asked about its inspirations and he said he read a story about a chimpanzee that was taught to paint and it’s great masterwork turned out to be a painting of the bars of its cage (perhaps he was implying that his protagonist similarly represents the limits of his own awareness, since he doesn’t seem able to empathize with or consider Lolita’s subjective experience).

I wasn’t sure about the definition of literary fiction (as being that which resembles real life), since so much literary fiction is surreal (e.g. Kafka) or upends realist modes (e.g. when an author uses second person to make the reader an active participant in the story, e.g. Italo Calvino in ‘If on a winter’s night a traveler’). So I’m curious about that definition.

Thank you for mentioning Now Novel, too.

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Hi Jordan, thanks for your comment!

You make a good point, and I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve emended our definition to say that literary fiction describes “real-life reactions to complex events.” When magic and sci-fi are out of the question, what can people do in their limited power against terrible things–like, say, waking up as a bug?

As for Calvino’s experimentations with prose and POV, it’s hard to summarize that into any meaningful definition–he is, in several ways, his own category. That said, I think his ability to cast the reader as the protagonist helps build the type of empathy that lit fic is best suited for, and experimentations in prose are one of the many tools at the disposal of both literary and genre novelists.

Nabokov’s anecdote about the chimpanzee fascinates me–I haven’t heard that story, but it reveals so much about Nabokov’s psyche. His empathy for the chimpanzee in a cage is striking.

I loved Now Novel’s advice for writing YA! Thanks for sharing it, and thanks again for your comment!

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The Startup

The Startup

Diane Callahan

Jun 30, 2020


Literary vs. Genre Fiction

Sometimes, it feels like genre and literary fiction are at war. Genre fiction is accused of being shallow and mindless, while literary fiction is blasted for being pretentious and boring. This debate has died and risen again more times than zombies in pop culture.

Shoving books into such an arbitrary binary may seem unnecessary, but it does matter in terms of public perception and awards (like the Booker Prize for…

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Diane Callahan

Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer. www.quotidianwriter.com

Text to speech

Fiction vs. Literature


Arthur Krystal of the New Yorker and the author Lev Grossman, writing in Time , faced off on this issue in 2012. Krystal differentiates between “art” (literature) and “escapism” (fiction), whereas Grossman insists that differentiating at all is, for the most part, increasingly arbitrary and unnecessary, since contemporary writers like Michael Chabon, Kate Atkinson, and Tana French do an excellent job of braiding the two. To which I would add, what’s necessarily lowbrow about escapism, anyway? Pride & Prejudice   and Tom Jones   are classics that are still engaging and transporting. Must “art” be solemn or difficult?

The argument boils down to differing views on the quintessential noir writer Raymond Chandler. Krystal argues that “Chandler’s novels are not quite literature,” despite being stand-out examples of the genre, because genre fiction itself is a more limited form with more modest ambitions. Grossman sees no problem in claiming Chandler as both genre and literature, because well-executed genre fiction is as moving and powerful as any other kind of storytelling.

Chandler himself is not available for comment. Meanwhile, the literary world seems to side with Krystal. It continues to draw distinctions between fiction and literature that can be harmless, even beneficial, since, as NPR reported earlier this year, literature (but not fiction) can do wonders for your brain :

On average, people who read parts of more literary books like The Round House , by Louise Erdrich, did better on those tests than people who read either nothing, read nonfiction, or read best-selling popular thrillers like The Sins of the Mother , by Danielle Steel.

Generally people don’t read to do better on tests, at least not after high school. We read for reasons that are social, personal, or, as Choire Sicha puts it , aspirational (“which means ‘I want to be the kind of person who buys this book,’ which is less obnoxious than ‘I want to be seen reading this book,’ which is less bad than ‘I want to tell people I’m reading this book.’ I mean not that I haven’t done all those things, so you know.”)

Literature targets the aspirational reader. It wins the big prizes, garners the highbrow reviews, and enjoys pride of place on carefully curated bookstore tables. And, unfortunately, it remains a bit of a boy’s club.

Krystal, guardian of the literature gates, uses masculine pronouns to refer to writers throughout his piece, whereas the more democratic Grossman is careful to refer to writers of both genders. Accidental? Irrelevant? Not when so much is at stake. Books by women shunted aside as mainstream or women’s fiction may not lose out on readers—Jennifer Weiner, with her commercially successful but critically overlooked books, is crying all the way to the bank —but they lose out on prestige, “Fresh Air” interviews, magazine profiles, and the like. For women writers especially, the innocuous-seeming practice of sending fiction one way and literature another has demonstrable, detrimental effects.

So while some armchair internet experts point to structure as the key distinction between fiction and literature, and others suggest sophistication , a recent article in the Guardian argues that there is a third, more insidious possibility: sexism .

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, although women read more than men, and books by female authors are published in roughly the same numbers, they are more easily overlooked. Their marginalization by top literary journals, both as reviewers and the reviewed, is confirmed in a yearly count by the organization Vida: Women in Literary Arts. Perhaps the problem lies not with whether women are published, but how. Lionel Shriver complained when her “nasty book” Game Control  was given a “girly cover,” and I’ve listened to female writer friends grouse when their books are given flowery covers at odd with their writing; when reviews, or even their publishers’ press releases, describe their work as “delicate” when it is forthright, “delightful” when it is satirical, or as “carving a niche” when it is staking a claim. “My own feeling,” said Claire Armitstead, the Guardian ‘s literary editor, “is that there is an issue of confidence among women writers.” Yet the female authors I know are bold and ambitious; I’m not sure the issue lies with them.

Jennifer Weiner, presumably, would agree. So would Meg Wolitzer, whose recent essay “ The Second Shelf ” maintains that “women writers are still fighting to have their work taken seriously and accorded as much coverage as men’s,” and that their books are shortchanged throughout the publishing and marketing process, from trivializing covers on down.

With that in mind, it’s worth revisiting Grossman’s argument for a literary meritocracy, where books are labeled as literature solely on the basis of their sophistication, ambition, and complexity—in other words, their quality , without regard to whatever genre conventions they may also include, or the author’s gender. True, it means that standard bearers like the New York Times will have to learn not to judge a book by its cover, but the rest of us remember that from elementary school. All they have to do is catch up.

literary novels vs

The Daily Free Press

World of Literati: The debate between literary fiction versus genre fiction is meaningless

The debate between literary fiction and genre fiction is a long-standing one. Genre fiction is accused of being insignificant and shallow while literary fiction is called pretentious and boring. There is a perceived hierarchy between the two, where literary fiction is considered superior. But what’s the difference?

Literary fiction is classified as novels that have literary merit. Examples include “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf, “Beloved” by Toni Morrison and “1984” by George Orwell. Genre fiction is known as popular, commercial or category fiction. Examples range from “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins to “A Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin.

The main difference appears to be the purpose. Literary fiction aims to provide insight that creates a stronger understanding of the world and of the human condition. Genre fiction can tackle complex themes as well, but it’s more of an entertaining story that allows the reader to escape from reality.

Encompassed under genre fiction is almost every story that has fantastical, dystopian or science-fiction elements.

In having different goals, the construction of literary fiction and genre fiction requires different techniques. These discernable differences boil down to writing style and plot scale. Literary fiction has more carefully-crafted sentences, often relies heavily on symbolism and is character-driven. In contrast, genre fiction uses an accessible writing style to deliver a fast-paced plot.

While it might appear on the surface that literary fiction has more meaningful content, the line between literary and genre is definitely more blurred than the standard definitions imply. For example, though “A Game of Thrones” has an extensive plot, it is also rich with vivid and intricate characters.

Furthermore, literary authors have been known to write works that are considered dystopian or fantasy. An example of this would be Margaret Atwood with “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

There is no universal tool by which to measure which novels produce a richer understanding of the world. The answer would be different depending on who is asked. An African-American girl would probably extract a deeper understanding of herself and society if she read Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” the story of an African-American girl who witnesses shooting of childhood friend by a police officer, as opposed to Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” the story of a battle between a fisherman and a fish.

Furthermore, genre fiction has more value beyond entertainment.

Lev Grossman, a New York Times bestselling author, stated in a Times article , “When you read genre fiction, you leave behind the problems of reality — but only to re-encounter those problems in transfigured form, in an unfamiliar guise, one that helps you understand them more completely, and feel them more deeply.”

In having the “literary fiction” label, a dichotomy is created within readers: those who read literary fiction and those who don’t. There is a preconceived notion that one has to have a formal education in English literature or have read literary fiction to have informative conversations about books.  

This false idea leads to what is called “reader shaming,” wherein people who have read literary fiction look down on those who haven’t. Every reader has their own likes, dislikes and their own way to read. Every reading experience has the potential to be valuable, and no one should feel that their insights on the material are insignificant.

My argument is not that genre fiction is better than literary fiction but that it can have just as much value. We shouldn’t waste our time arbitrarily dividing book categories. At the end of the day, reading is reading, no matter the subject matter, medium or format.

One Comment

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Wonderfully said. I couldn’t agree with you more.

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A Better Way to Think About the Genre Debate

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By Joshua Rothman

Last month, when the fiction finalists for the National Book Awards were announced, one stood out from the rest: “Station Eleven,” by Emily St. John Mandel. While the other nominated books are what, nowadays, we call “literary fiction,” “Station Eleven” is set in a familiar genre universe, in which a pandemic has destroyed civilization. The twist—the thing that makes “Station Eleven” National Book Award material—is that the survivors are artists.

Mandel’s book cuts back and forth between the present, when the outbreak is unfolding, and a post-apocalyptic future, when the survivors are beginning to rebuild. In the present, actors are putting on a production of “King Lear,” and a woman is writing and illustrating her own comic book—a mournful science-fiction story set on a malfunctioning, planet-sized spaceship called Station Eleven. (The comic book sounded so interesting that I searched for it on Amazon—unfortunately, it’s fictional.) Meanwhile, in the future, a group of survivors have formed the Travelling Symphony, a wagon train that travels the wasteland, performing Shakespeare and Vivaldi in the parking lots of looted Walmarts. (“People want what was best about the world,” one man says.) Eventually, past and present converge: a few issues of the comic book outlive the chaos, and end up influencing the survivors just as much as “Lear” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“Station Eleven,” in other words, turns out not to be a genre novel so much as a novel about genre. Unlike Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” which asked what would remain after the collapse of culture, “Station Eleven” asks how culture gets put together again. It imagines a future in which art, shorn of the distractions of celebrity, pedigree, and class, might find a new equilibrium. The old distinctions could be forgotten; a comic book could be as influential as Shakespeare. It’s hard to imagine a novel more perfectly suited, in both form and content, to this literary moment. For a while now, it’s looked as though we might be headed toward a total collapse of the genre system. We’ve already been contemplating the genre apocalypse that “Station Eleven” imagines.

It’s hard to talk in a clear-headed way about genre. Almost everyone can agree that, over the past few years, the rise of the young-adult genre has highlighted a big change in book culture. For reasons that aren’t fully explicable (Netflix? Tumblr? Kindles? Postmodernism?), it’s no longer taken for granted that important novels must be, in some sense, above, beyond, or “meta” about their genre. A process of genrefication is occurring.

That’s where the agreement ends, however. If anything, a divide has opened up. The old guard looks down on genre fiction with indifference; the new arrivals—the genrefiers—are eager to change the neighborhood, seeing in genre a revitalizing force. Partisans argue about the relative merits of “literary fiction” and “genre fiction.” (In 2012, Arthur Krystal,  writing in this magazine , argued for literary fiction’s superiority; he  fielded  a pro-genre-fiction riposte from  Lev Grossman , in  Time .) And yet confusion reigns in this debate, which feels strangely vague and misformulated. It remains unclear exactly what the terms “literary fiction” and “genre fiction” mean. A book like “Station Eleven” is both a literary novel and a genre novel; the same goes for “Jane Eyre” and “Crime and Punishment.” How can two contrasting categories overlap so much? Genres themselves fall into genres: there are period genres (Victorian literature), subject genres (detective fiction), form genres (the short story), style genres (minimalism), market genres (“chick-lit”), mode genres (satire), and so on. How are different kinds of genres supposed to be compared? (“Literary fiction” and “genre fiction,” one senses, aren’t really comparable categories.) What is it, exactly, about genre that is unliterary—and what is it in “the literary” that resists genre? The debate goes round and round, magnetic and circular—a lovers’ quarrel among literati.

To a degree, the problem is that genre is inherently confusing and complex. But history confuses things, too. The distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is neither contemporary nor ageless. It’s the product of modernism, and it bears the stamp of a unique time in literary history.

The relationship between novelists and genre has shifted several times, often in ways that seem strange to us today. In 1719, when “Robinson Crusoe” appeared, many people considered “the novel,” in itself, to be a genre. The novel was a new thing—a long, fictitious, drama-filled work of prose—and its competitors were other prose genres: histories, biographies, political tracts, sermons, testimonies about travel to far-off lands. What set the novel apart from those other prose genres was its ostentatious fictitousness. When Catherine Morland, the heroine of Austen’s “Northanger Abbey,” is rebuked for reading too many Gothic novels, the proposed alternative isn’t “literary fiction” but non-fiction (a friend suggests she try history). “Northanger Abbey” was written in 1799. In England, “Middlemarch” is often cited as the first novel you didn’t have to be embarrassed about reading. It was published in 1872.

A vast cultural and technological distance separates “Robinson Crusoe” and “Middlemarch.” Between those two books, modernity and mass culture were born. Bookselling became a big business, as did culture in general. Realism appeared and ascended. The novel  splintered ; it came to seem less like a genre in itself, and more like all of literature except for poetry. It grew to contain genres: “Journey to the Center of the Earth” was published in 1864; “A Study in Scarlet” introduced Sherlock Holmes, in 1887; “Dracula” was published a decade later. Over time, the novel attained respectability and became an institution. At the top of that institutional hierarchy the social novelists, like Arnold Bennett and H. G. Wells, pulled away from the eccentricities of the Victorians; they aimed to recreate, in novel form, the non-fiction prose that the novel had displaced. By 1924, Virginia Woolf was complaining about the stuffy, intellectualized sanctimoniousness of those books. To finish them, she said, “it seems necessary to do something—to join a society, or, more desperately, to write a cheque.” The big-time novelists, she went on, “have developed a technique of novel-writing which suits their purpose; they have made tools and established conventions which do their business. But those tools are not our tools, and that business is not our business. For us those conventions are ruin, those tools are death.”

The modernists saw, correctly, that novel-writing, once an art, had become an enterprise. More fundamentally, it had internalized a mass view of life—a view in which what matters are social facts rather than individual experiences. It had become affiliated with manufactured culture, with the crowd, and with the sentimentality and repetitive stylization that crowds, in their quest for a common identity, often crave. In reaction, they created a different kind of literature: one centered on inwardness, privacy, and incommunicability. The new books were about individuals, and they needed to be interpreted individually. Instead of being public resources, novels would be private sanctuaries. Instead of being social, they would be spiritual.

Something of that spiritual aura still hovers around our sense of what it means to read and write “literary fiction.” And there are some ways in which the modernist critique of mass literature is just as trenchant today as it was back then. (The modernists never got to see “fandom”; if they had, I doubt they’d be pleased.) On the whole, though, we live in a different world. Today, the novel isn’t an ossified institution; it’s an uncertain one. (Television is the prestige medium; it’s where the “social novelists” work.) Literature has moved on: the books we now regard as “literary fiction” are actually very different from those the modernists sought to create and elevate. They are more diverse, and more extroverted. And mass culture has also changed. It’s been replaced by what Louis Menand  describes  as “a great river of pop, soulful, demotic, camp, performative, outrageous, over-the-top cultural goods”—in short, by pop culture. The distinction between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction” accurately captured the modernists’ literary reality. But, for better and for worse, it doesn’t capture ours.

It’s tempting to think that we might do without these kinds of distinctions altogether. Why not just let books be books? The thing is that genre doesn’t have to be vexing. It can be illuminating. It can be useful for writers and readers to think in terms of groups and traditions. And a good genre system—a system that really fits reality—can help us see the traditions in which we’re already, unconsciously, immersed. As it happens, there is such a system: it was invented by the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye, and laid out in his 1957 masterwork, “Anatomy of Criticism.” (Frye, who trained as a minister and never earned a doctorate, is one of the most influential genre theorists of the twentieth century.) It’s ideally suited for an era in which the novel seems more diverse and unpredictable than usual.

Frye’s scheme is simple. In his view, the world of fiction is composed of four braided genres: novel, romance, anatomy, and confession. “Pride and Prejudice” is a novel. “Wuthering Heights” isn’t: it’s a romance, an extension of a form that predates the novel by many hundreds of years. (“The romancer does not attempt to create ‘real people’ so much as stylized figures which expand into psychological archetypes,” Frye writes. “That is why the romance so often radiates a glow of subjective intensity that the novel lacks.”) Novels take place in the regulated world—in “society”—and are driven by plots. Romances take place “in  vacuo ,” on the moors, where “nihilistic and untamable” things tend to happen. The characters in romances are often revolutionaries, but “the social affinities of the romance, with its grave idealizing of heroism and purity, are with the aristocracy.” For that reason, novels, which thrive on social sophistication, often incorporate romance in an ironic way (“Don Quixote,” “Lord Jim”). Many young-adult books, like those in the “Hunger Games” trilogy, are pure romances: maybe, instead of asking why so many grownups read young-adult novels, we ought to be asking why novels are losing, and romances gaining, in appeal.

It’s still possible to find nearly pure novels (“The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.”) and nearly pure romances (“The Days of Abandonment,” “The Road”). But the confession and the anatomy, Frye argues, are just as influential, even if they are less likely to stand alone. Rousseau, of course, wrote the prototypical confession: a single prose narrative in which the personal, intellectual, artistic, political, and spiritual aspects of his life are integrated. “It is his success in integrating his mind on such subjects,” Frye writes, “that makes the author of a confession feel that his life is worth writing about.” (By this light, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” is a confession rather than a novel.) The anatomy is similarly intellectual; the difference is that it’s impersonal. It deals “less with people as such than with mental attitudes,” and proceeds through the “creative treatment of exhaustive erudition.” Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy” is Frye’s ur-example of an anatomy, but you can recognize the anatomy’s presence in books like “Gulliver’s Travels,” “Moby-Dick,” “Infinite Jest,” and “ In the Light of What We Know .” Frye’s scheme is, on the whole, value-free: none of these genres are better than the others. But he can’t help being impressed with compound forms. He praises “Moby-Dick” for being a romance-anatomy, but he’s even more admiring of “Remembrance of Things Past,” which combines confession, anatomy, and novel. He is blown away by “Ulysses,” because it combines all four genres of fiction. He calls it a “complete prose epic.”

“Station Eleven,” if we were to talk about it in our usual way, would seem like a book that combines high culture and low culture—“literary fiction” and “genre fiction.” But those categories aren’t really adequate to describe the book. Using Frye’s scheme, we can see that it’s actually triply genred. It’s a novel, with carefully observed scenes set in the contemporary world of the theatre. It’s a romance, with heroes wandering a desolate post-apocalyptic landscape. (The in-set comic book is also a romance.) It’s also, as many post-apocalyptic books are, an anatomy: it tells you a lot about how the world is put together and examines, satirically, the mental attitudes of a world that’s ended. (It doesn’t incorporate the confession, but three out of four isn’t bad.) Much of the book’s power, in fact, comes from the way it brings together these different fictional genres and the values—observation, feeling, erudition—to which they’re linked. Reading it with Frye in mind, you can better appreciate the novel’s wide range. Instead of being compressed, it blossoms.

Frye’s way of thinking is especially valuable today because it recognizes that the clash of genre values is fundamental to the novelistic experience. That’s how we ought to be thinking about our books. Instead of asking whether a comic book could be “as valuable” as “King Lear,” we ought to ask how the values of tragedy and romance might collide. Instead of lamenting the decline of “literary fiction,” we ought to ask why the novel, with its interest in society and rules, is ceding ground to the romance. And as for the rise of the romance—with its larger-than-life passions, revolutionary aristocrats, and “nihilistic and untamable” occurrences—maybe we’re living in a romantic age. The last time the romance achieved real currency, Frye points out, was in the nineteenth century. Back then, too, it suffered from the “historical illusion” that it was “something to be outgrown, a juvenile and undeveloped form.” In fact, romances were contemporary. They protested the new values of cities and industrialization. They yearned for a way of life that had “passed away.” Apparently, we yearn for it, too.

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly gave 1874 as the year “Middlemarch” was first published.

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Literary vs Genre Fiction: What’s the Difference?

literary novels vs

It’s an age-old distinction that affects both readers and writers alike: literary fiction versus genre fiction. They’re both books in which made-up stories play out, and yet one has historically been regarded as low-brow with little artistic merit, while the other is often held in lofty, high-brow regard (and just as often seen as boring).

But what’s the difference between the two? Is there a difference, or did we draw an arbritary line in the sand sometime around 1960 and forget to brush it away?

Here are some examples of literary fiction: The Handmaid’s Tale; Nineteen Eighty-Four; and pretty much anything longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Here are some examples of genre fiction: Game of Thrones; The Shining; Harry Potter.

Whilst those in the literary category may be more “cerebral” in nature, already it’s clear that the boundaries between literary and genre are blurred. Both The Handmaid’s Tale and Nineteen Eighty-Four are science fiction novels, even if they’re driven by philosophy and theme (which a lot of science fiction is anyway). As bestselling author Lev Grossman once said, “When you read genre fiction, you leave behind the problems of reality — but only to re-encounter those problems in transfigured form, in an unfamiliar guise, one that helps you understand them more completely, and feel them more deeply.” It’s often the same themes, just dressed up in a more entertaining story.

Arguably the main difference, according to Neal Stephenson, is that writers of literary fiction are often supported by patronage or employment at educational institutions, with the critical acclaim of their books helping to maintain their position, whereas writers of genre fiction supports themselves with book sales.

However, there are some typical characteristics of literary fiction. These books might concern themselves with social commentary or the human condition (again, much like science fiction), have a focus on character study over narrative plot, have a slower or less conventional pace, and be flamboyantly written with a greater tendency towards poetic language.

Equally, if you’re reading something in the following genres, it’s safe to say that most people would class it as genre fiction: crime, fantasy, romance, science fiction, western, religious/ inspirational fiction, historical fiction, and horror. These often get dismissed as poorly written (why?) and escapist (how is that a bad thing?), even though they may have beautiful writing and address heavy themes (and all too frequently receive higher scoring reviews than their literary counterparts).

If there’s one clear cut definition, it’s popularity. Even back in 2007, romance alone had a $1.3 billion share in the US book market. Literary fiction? Only $466 million.

So either literary fiction is simply a style of story – not much different than most other genres but overall less popular – or having such a “hard” line between literary fiction and genre fiction is just a way of enforcing a sort of reader snobbery – claiming that you’re not a true fan of the literary arts unless you read books for their perceived artistic value rather than entertainment… regardless of how entertaining a literary novel or how intellectually challenging a piece of genre fiction might be. It’s a way of looking down on something instead of celebrating that people are still reading at all.

None of this is meant to discourage people from writing what is considered literary fiction, of course. Quite the opposite. The literary landscape would be infinitely worse off without books that focus on the human condition, or that prioritise the beauty of the written word above a page-turning story. But to believe that one category allows for these things and not the other would be to ignore the merits of both, as well as to ignore how each has borrowed the other’s strengths for decades.

Don’t forget: one of this year’s Man Booker Prize winning books was a science fiction/ dystopian sequel (The Testaments). You can’t get much more genre fiction than that.

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here .

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From Writer's Relief staff:

The guidelines for literary and mainstream fiction often differ from those of popular fiction such as romance novels, fantasy novels, crimes novels, etc. Although the guidelines for submitting literary and mainstream novels are similar, the content of the work is very different, and it’s important to distinguish between the two.

If your novel doesn’t fall into the genre fiction categories, don’t automatically assume it’s literary fiction. Literary fiction tends to focus on complex issues and the beauty of the writing itself, and your novel may rely more on action, which is the tendency of mainstream fiction. So how do you know if your novel is literary or mainstream, and how best to move forward if your book doesn’t perfectly match the definition of either category? Let us explain.

Defining Mainstream and Literary

Mainstream : Sometimes referred to as literary light and general fiction, mainstream fiction blends genre fiction with techniques often unique to literary fiction. The language of the novel will at times delve into prose of a more literary vein (full of insight) while the rest of the writing will be more driven by the story. The premise of the story has to instantly hook the reader, but the narrative arc will be equal parts plot-driven and character-driven. Perspective is important, but the story takes precedence.

As with any good story, conflict will arise, but it will be presented in a way that’s more apparent and less nuanced than it would be in strict literary fiction. This distinction makes most mainstream fiction easier to read and accessible to a wider range of readers. Keep in mind that mainstream novels for new writers generally fall between 70,000 and 100,000 words.

Literary: Think of literary fiction as a manifesto of sorts—it’s driven by the ideas, themes, and concerns of the novelist, often producing a narrative that is at times controversial.

The style of prose is emphasized in literary fiction, whereas a writer of mainstream fiction will often forego stylistic writing in order to get to the meat of the story. The plot isn’t the main focus in literary fiction; rather, the history, social issues, and character developments that are a part of the story take precedence. Literary fiction for new writers may match that of mainstream fiction, while the word count for seasoned novelists can fall anywhere between 40,000 and 120,000 words.

Categorizing And Marketing Your Book

If you’re unsure if your novel is literary or mainstream, it’s likely mainstream due to the difficult nature and niche market of writing literary fiction. If literary fiction is indeed what you’re writing, it’ll help you tremendously to have publication credits and a degree, as well as being well-read in modern literary fiction. If you’re lacking a strong background, it’ll be best to market yourself as a mainstream fiction writer for the time being.

Whether your novel seems to fit in with the mainstream or literary fiction category best, there are markets for both. Some readers prefer to speed quickly through an exciting plot, and other readers would rather linger over perfectly worded sentences and deep thoughts. Once you’ve determined where your book fits into the market, this article will show you how to use that knowledge and more marketing strategies to write a strong query letter: The Query Letter—From a Marketing Standpoint.

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What is Literary Fiction? The Ultimate Guide in 2023

Literary fiction is a category of novels that emphasize style, character, and theme over plot. Lit fic is often defined in contrast to genre fiction and commercial fiction , which involve certain tropes and expectations for the storyline; literary fiction has no such plot-based hallmarks.

Though it's a tough category to define, you can certainly spot literary fiction once you know what you're looking for. Intrigued? In this short guide, we’ll unpack this elusive category and give you tips for writing with literary readers in mind.

Literary fiction is not a standalone genre

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You will rarely see novels marketed as ‘literary fiction’, or even shelved that way in a bookstore. This is because literary fiction still shares some features with genre and commercial fiction, though they’re presented more subtly in lit fic. But even when it’s shelved alongside commercial fiction, literary fiction has a few telltale signs, as you’ll soon see. 

It’s considered a prestige category

Literary fiction novels are often seen as prestige items in a publisher’s list: cutting-edge works of ‘serious fiction’ by artists of the written word. As a result, literary fiction — even from debut authors — will often get an initial hardback release. If you see a new hardcover on prominent display at the bookstore, it’s almost guaranteed to be literary fiction.

This strategy not only gives it a chance to be seen by plenty of devoted readers, it also increases the book’s chances of being reviewed. According to the editor of The Bookseller in 2018, some literary editors will only review novels launched in hardback .

Books in this category are also privy to publishing’s biggest prizes, such as the Booker Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. So if you see a sticker on the cover boasting that it’s been nominated for a prestigious award, you’re likely looking at a work of literary fiction.

Style and theme take priority

Another key quality of literary fiction is its attention to style, which in turn underscores major themes. Of course, when thinking of literary fiction, people tend to imagine ‘highbrow’ or difficult prose. This has led to generations of aspiring literary authors packing their prose with run-on sentences, florid metaphors, and other rhetorical bells and whistles. 

While this stereotype is certainly true of some novelists (James Joyce, for example, was no stranger to run-on sentences), many literary authors favor concise prose over fancy linguistic flourishes. Take it from George Orwell, who lived by the maxim “never use a complicated word when a simple one will do” — or Hemingway, whose famously lean prose has taught generations of writers that less is more. 

Basically, though you may associate literary fiction with insufferable purple prose , it doesn’t have to be that way. The defining feature of literary fiction isn’t one specific style of prose, but rather its impact on the reader, and its ability to deliver or embody the book’s theme.

literary novels vs


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Themes are explored in depth

Indeed, literary fiction isn’t all style over substance: meaningful themes are just as important in this category. After all, what use is an interesting voice if you don’t have anything to say? 

Literary fiction commonly examines ‘serious’ concepts like politics, social issues, and psychological conflict. But what makes the themes in literary fiction stand apart from those in genre fiction is the level of detail and narrative weight they’re given.

For example, Orwell’s Animal Farm is defined by its commentary on political structures. The plot and characters are just small parts that build the novel’s overarching metaphor for the Russian Revolution, as seen through Orwell’s satirical lens. 

As you can probably guess, the level of nuance required to explore serious themes calls for a great deal of time and effort on the author’s part. After all, it’s not easy to have a strong take on a weighty topic, and (crucially) understand how impacted characters would think, feel, and react — so if you intend to write literary fiction with big themes, make sure you’ve thought deeply about the real-world consequences.

They often drill into a single theme

Now, one might argue that The Hunger Games also tackles serious themes of social inequality — so how come it’s not considered literary fiction? Well, because this dystopian novel more strongly foregrounds elements of romance, coming of age, and an action-packed plot. The social themes, in many ways, are garnishes rather than the main course. 

Literary Fiction | The Hunger Games

In short, genre fiction’s focus on story means that it will rarely explore themes in as much depth as literary fiction. This thematic intensity doesn't make literary fiction “better” than genre fiction, or vice-versa — it just goes to show that there are many different approaches out there to meet the varied needs of different readers.

Character studies are its bread and butter

While authors of genre fiction certainly can’t ignore character development , their equal (or greater) focus on plot gives them less opportunity to drill deep into a character’s inner life. What’s more, most genre fiction has a protagonist who is lovable by design.

Meanwhile, in literary fiction, you’re much more likely to encounter morally gray and flawed characters , and find yourself absorbed by their history and psyche. That’s not to say every character in this category is inherently evil, incredibly flawed, or unlikable — they're just far more likely to be approached in a more complex way that exposes their faults, thus giving you the tools to dissect them.

Take The Catcher in the Rye as an example. J.D. Salinger’s hero is Holden Caulfield, a seventeen-year-old boarding school drop-out. Holden isn’t necessarily likable — in fact, he often alienates others by judging superficial characteristics extremely critically — but readers are intrigued by the book’s psychological insights into his personality. Though Holden is quick to judge others, particularly those he views as “phony”, he’s far from perfect himself; this makes trying to understand his behavior even more compelling. 

Instead of making Holden likable, Salinger makes the reader empathize with him despite his personality and actions — something that’s arguably much harder to do as an author. This challenging, thought-provoking nature is a definite hallmark of literary fiction. 

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The tone is often realistic and introspective

What do Of Mice and Men, Mrs Dalloway, The Remains of the Day have in common besides their dark elements and focus on longing? While none of these books would be mistaken for nonfiction , they are all grounded in a certain realism — their writers have taken special care in exploring the emotions and reactions of their characters in very specific settings.

Considering this, it won’t surprise you that literary fiction tends to rely on internal conflict of a character to drive the plot. In Of Mice and Men, for example, migrant farm worker George Milton is torn between his survival instincts and his loyalty to his simple (yet dangerous) friend, Lenny. While the novel arguably does have a villain — the landowner’s cruel son — the story’s true conflict takes place in George’s mind.

Literary Fiction | Of Mice and Men

You might also look to Mrs Dalloway as a good example of realistic introspection. In this book, readers follow a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, culminating in her finally reconciling herself with life in the present — despite her strong attachments to the past.

The Remains of the Day creates a similar air of realism by exploring the human psyche: we follow the butler of a grand English estate as he comes to terms with how his unhealthy devotion to his work, subsequent repression, and his fears of intimacy have held him back for years. 

It’s about the journey

But while the resolutions of all these stories may be melancholy and uncertain, sad endings alone don’t make them lit fic — it’s about the characters’ journeys to get there.

Good literary fiction feels so real because there isn’t that certainty of a happily ever after. After this, the characters will continue on their journey, and readers can only imagine where they might go. They want to wonder what will happen to the characters based on what they’ve learned through the story, rather than simply arrive at an ending that’s wrapped up in a bow. 

That literary fiction writers allude to this “to be continued” reality in their novels, makes them that much more believable. 

But it can also be fanciful!

Literary fiction isn’t all dark character studies about people living on the verge of despair, mumbling to each other in a studio apartment. On the contrary, literary fiction can absolutely be fantastical while simultaneously presenting people and themes in a believable way — and what better way to study human nature than by throwing your characters into highly unusual situations? 

Plenty of literary fiction writers actually specialize in playing with genre tropes and devising the most inventive concepts. One recent example of fantasy-infused literary fiction is Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi , which follows Piranesi — a man who seemingly lives alone in a vast, statue-filled labyrinth that periodically floods to dangerous levels. Let’s be honest, not much besides the human insight is realistic in this novel (unless you happen to holiday in similar dangerous labyrinths). But the outlandish premise makes the perfect playground for Clarke to explore themes of personhood and isolation.

You might also point to Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black , a novel which is equal parts literary fiction and Gothic horror. Arthur Kipps is a young lawyer investigating a creepy house on a remote island — one that belonged to his deceased client.

Literary Fiction | The Woman in Black

Through Kipps’s seemingly supernatural experiences at the house, readers are asked to consider bigger questions about sanity and objectivity. While the harrowing events in this novel are hardly realistic in the way that a Sally Rooney novel might be, its rich narration, focus on human psychology, and themes of isolation align it with literary fiction.

Authors are more free to experiment

Writers of literary fiction benefit from the fact that their readers tend to enjoy more challenging works. In genre and commercial fiction, there is an expectation that the writer will always engage the reader, propelling them through the book with quickly mounting tension. In contrast, literary fiction readers are more flexible in their initial expectations — understanding that a slow start can still build to a satisfying reveal later. 

A great example of slow-burn literary fiction is Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin , in which elderly Iris Chase recounts her dramatic life and the events leading up to her sister's death. Though this novel has received wide critical acclaim, a lot of readers have unfortunately placed this challenging book back on the shelf early because of its slow-paced beginning. However, the novel’s unique ‘memory recall’ structure needs that time to build the twisting mysteries which ultimately make it a true page turner. 

Indeed, literary fiction readers often expect some level of experimentation that subverts the formal conventions of storytelling. Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch overturns readers' expectations by telling its story in reverse, moving backwards through the 1940s, starting in 1947. Waters’s unconventional style challenges readers by asking them to forget their curiosity about the future and try to focus solely on unraveling the past. 

Literary Fiction | We Need To Talk About Kevin

Of course, experimental or unusual structures aren’t just used in literary fiction for the sake of challenging readers. Typically, a nuanced structure works towards immersing the reader in the character or world of the book.

For example, a long stream of consciousness narrative (think Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea , in which the narrator’s thoughts gradually become harder to follow) might be a great way to make readers lose themselves in the narrator’s mental decline. Or utilizing an epistolary structure (as in Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin , which is told through a series of letters penned by a grieving mother) can really make the stakes feel tangible as readers dig through years of correspondence. 

Literary fiction is a broad and diverse genre, so it’s pretty difficult to track down an exact definition ― but hopefully, equipped with this field guide to lit fic, you’ll feel more confident identifying it when you come across it in the wild.

If all this literary talk has you feeling inspired, make sure to head over to the next part of our guide, where you can learn 10 insightful tips for writing your own literary fiction!

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