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Literary vs Genre Fiction: What’s the Difference?

by Tom Ashford

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.