Literary vs. Genre Fiction: What are the Differences?

The differences between literary and genre fiction can be slightly elusive, so here goes what I have learned by reading descriptions of the forms in two well-respected books on writing: Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft and Sarah Stone and Ron Nyren’s Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers.

According to Burroway, literary fiction is mainstream fiction (meaning material with a broad appeal) if “its appeal is also lodged in the original, interesting, and illuminating use of the language; the term also implies a degree of care in the psychological exploration of its characters, and an attempt to shed light on the human condition” (367).

Burroway also points out that literary fiction is “character rather than plot-driven” and “posits that life is not fair, that triumph is partial, happiness tentative, and the heroine and hero are subject to mortality.”  She also states that literary fiction strives “to reveal its meaning though the creation of unexpected or unusual characters, through patterns of action and turns of event that will surprise the reader” (367).

Genre fiction, she points out, “has a strong tendency to imply that life is fair, and to let the hero or heroine, after great struggle, win out in the end.”   It tends to “develop character stereotypes and set patterns of action that become part of the expectation, the demand, and the pleasure of the readers of the genre” (367).  In other words, the girl gets the boy in the end and/or the murder is solved.

Stone and Nyren describe literary fiction as “adventure travel…where we only have a glimmer where we’re going and we usually end up dirty, startled, disillusioned, or exhilarated.”  They liken genre fiction to going on “the package tour” where our view of the world goes unchallenged and we have “all the pleasures of the familiar” (85).

They point out that some people believe that “gorgeous, sophisticated language is what distinguishes literary writing from genre work.”  They do address, however, that many literary writers work in “plain style,” which precludes flourishes of language (85).

So, hopefully, this information is edifying.  It is helpful to me since I struggle sometimes to discern what might be literary versus genre fiction.

Do you have any thoughts or insights regarding these two very different types of writing?  If so, please share in the Comments section.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. I have wondered in the past precisely what the difference is. Thank you for clearing up the mystery, Len. I suppose I’ve been too lazy to stop to check what’s what myself.

    1. Glad you found this helpful. So did I!

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