Genres in Fiction Writing: Literary Fiction vs. Everything Else

creative writing

How do you classify creative writing, or do you?

In creative writing, we talk about form and genre. Form is what we write: fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction. Genre is how we further classify each of these forms.

In fiction writing, there’s literary fiction and everything else.

In fact, literary fiction and all of the other genres are so at odds with each other that some writers simply say they are either literary fiction writers or genre writers. But what does that mean? Isn’t all fiction considered literary?

Yes and no.

What is Literary Fiction Anyway?

Let’s start with a simple definition of the word literary. Dictionary.com offers several, including the following:


  1. pertaining to or of the nature of books and writings, especially those classed as literature: literary history.
  2. pertaining to authorship: literary style.
  3. versed in or acquainted with literature;  well-read.
  4. engaged in or having the profession of literature  or writing: a literary man.
  5. characterized by an excessive or affected display of learning; stilted; pedantic.

So we can use the word literary whenever we’re talking about writing or authorship in general, but it can also mean an excessive or affected display of learning. That’s a nice way of referring to snobbery.

Wikipedia offers a more specific definition of literary fiction: “fictional works that are claimed to hold literary merit.” The article goes on to say that “to be considered literary, a work usually must be ‘critically acclaimed’ and ‘serious’. In practice, works of literary fiction often are ‘complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas.'”

In other words, literary fiction has meaning and significance. I’ve also heard literary fiction defined as paying diligence to the craft of writing (or the art of stringing words together), exploring the human condition, and making bold commentary or criticism of society and culture.

Literary Fiction vs. Everything Else

I love literary fiction. Some of my favorite novels are The Grapes of Wrath, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird, all of which would be classified as literary fiction. These are the kind of books that people study and analyze. They’re taught in schools. People read them for decades, even centuries, after they’re published. They win prestigious awards and are beloved and celebrated by bookworms and scholars alike.

As much as I love literary fiction, I’d have to say that my heart belongs to science fiction. From A Wrinkle in Time to The Hunger Games trilogy, the science fiction that I love best has done everything that literary fiction can do and then some.

In an interview with the Paris Review (which I highly recommend), the great Ray Bradbury said that “Science fiction is the fiction of ideas.” He also observed that science fiction often goes unrecognized for having literary merit and expressed his chagrin:

“As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible… The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery.”

Some of the other genres have it even worse. When was the last time a romance novel or horror story won critical acclaim or took home the highest literary honors? Science fiction and fantasy writers have enjoyed more critical and commercial success in recent years: J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyers, and Suzanne Collins have dominated book sales, and they are all genre writers. Ray Bradbury himself won several prestigious literary awards. Sometimes it seems like the literary academics (the literati) are coming around and slowly opening their minds to genre fiction.

Yet there is still a stigma attached to genre fiction in certain literary circles. Just recently, I heard someone say they refused to read The Hunger Games because it was about kids killing kids and was therefore garbage. Yet kids are killing kids all over the planet: in gangs, in wars, and in school shootings. It’s not garbage; it’s truth, and that is the purest form of literature.

Looking for Merit in Creative Writing

Of course there is an argument to made about the merit of a work of fiction. I’ve read plenty of literary and genre fiction that said absolutely nothing about humanity or the world in which we live. Some of the literary novels I’ve picked up recently have been so abstract, obtuse, and erudite that after a few chapters, I  gave up and moved on to the next book. And I’ve read plenty of genre fiction that is good fun but will never change the world.

Ultimately, each of us decides for ourselves which stories hold the most merit. We get to ask ourselves whether we want a gripping story or a story that makes us think, feel, and question. Do we read to be entertained and to escape or do we read to broaden our perspectives and enlighten ourselves?

Have you ever watched a film or read a book that you thought had a lot of artistic or intellectual merit only to learn that the critics shot it down? Have you ever experienced a story that you thought was just awful and learned that it won awards and prestige? What are your thoughts on the divide between literary fiction and genre fiction? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

23 Responses to “Genres in Fiction Writing: Literary Fiction vs. Everything Else”

  1. What a great post! And I had to chuckle with “an excessive or affected display of learning. That’s a nice way of referring to snobbery.” I know someone like this, who also refuses to read The Hunger Games for the same reason you heard.
    My ABNA entry did not advance into the next round (though I’m pleased as punch to have gotten as far as I did!). The PW review of three sentences contained nothing of value to me as a writer and only ridiculed the genre as well as my tartgeted audience. I’d call that literary snobbery! :-) Of course it will not deter me from pushing on with the project; earlier reviews were good and I still think it holds great promise!

    • I actually didn’t want to read The Hunger Games at first myself. My reason was that I figured it would be dark and sad, probably disturbing, and I guess I wasn’t in the mood for that kind of story. But I certainly didn’t pass judgement on it without having read it! I just needed to wait for the right time (and I loved it).

      I’m sorry to hear that your entry didn’t make it to the next round but it sounds like the people in charge aren’t open to genre and don’t respect fans of genre literature. There are plenty of other paths for you to take, and you will find your readers. Keep writing!

  2. Sarah Allen says:

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, in trying to classify my own writing. Literary fiction is definitely my favorite. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot. But then I also love writers like J.K. Rowling and Connie Willis. I think my plan is just to write the stories I want to write and let other people worry about classifying it.

    • Ha! I like your attitude. Keep in mind, though, that if you choose to self-publish, you’ll have to pick your own genres. But that’s something you can worry about once your stories are finished and polished. You’ll probably know by then where to classify them.

  3. Aziza says:

    I love this discussion! I’m (very slowly) doing my Masters in creative writing and our fiction classes are filled with both genre writers and literary writers. I think the most common distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is the author’s approach to language.

    Salman Rushdie (for example) writes complex stories, but his use of language is just as exciting as his plots – honestly I have spent weeks poring over his metaphors (and hating him for his talent). Not everyone’s cup of tea, but you have to admire lit fiction writers’ innovative approaches to language, story and characterisation.

    I don’t read a lot of genre fiction (due to class readings) but I read The Hunger Games series. It was action packed, fast paced, thrilling (etc) but it also had a lot of stiff dialogue and cliched writing. This is acceptable in genre fiction, not because genre fiction readers are less educated, but because plot driven narratives rely on recognisable conventions, and at times cliches, to transport the reader to the action ASAP.

    I’m learning that it’s more important to write about what you love to write about – if you want to create a new worlds, loads of suspense or heart pulling tales of love, do that. If you want to explore the genesis of a character’s intense hatred for his mother and small dogs in handbags using Candide as your template, do that. Screw the critics, what do they know about the ecstasy of creating anyway?

    • Aziza, I agree with you 100% – write what you love! I appreciate authors who take a thoughtful approach to language, but in fiction, it’s not enough (for me) if the story isn’t compelling too. I would rather read The Hunger Games, which has relatable characters and a gripping plot than yawn my way through a lengthy narrative that is beautifully styled but lacks intriguing substance. Now, poetry is another matter. I think that’s a perfect place to dig into language. Of course, these are just my own personal preferences. To each her own!

  4. Mary says:

    Excellent. I’ve had a big problem with genre work being discredited because it doesn’t fall under the definition of “true literature.” Some of the best books I’ve ever read are genre. I think it’s a pretty “snobbery” was a beautiful way to put it.

    Thanks for this wonderful commentary!

    –Mary

    • I guess I come from the live-and-let-live philosophy, so I don’t quite get why there are such harsh judgements against genre. It’s one thing to dislike a particular genre or to engage in thoughtful or meaningful literary criticism but to look down’s one nose at the stuff other people adore and lump it all together without actually experiencing it is indeed snobbery. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Aiculik says:

    I read everything, from literary books to manga. But it’s true that there are very few genre books among my favourites. I didn’t understand why until I started writing in English and visiting ‘creative writing’ forums. There I finally understand why I don’t like genre fiction that much.

    Authors of genre fiction think “inside the box”. They always think about expectation of publishers and readers, and impose too many idiotic rules on themselves. There’s a rule for everything, from how many ! you can have in 25000 words, to irrational statement that ‘reader can’t imagine if you say the character ‘said something angrily’. Readers are idiots, what they can’t see, they don’t know. Well, that’s not said, but it’s implied. Just today I had a phonecall with my mother and I didn’t have to see her to immediately know that she’s very angry – from the first two syllables after she picked up the phone… But dare to say that at these forums, and they’ll eat you alive.

    The result is that most genre fictions feels the same, with same bland, dry, quasi-Hemmingway style, unimaginative, un-creative. The moment the author decides to ignore this ridiculous limitations, tones down the action, adds description, and experiments bit with the form – it’s literary. At least according to what I heard on those forums, though I don’ treally agree with it.

    Also, there are as many snobs among readers of genre fiction as among the readers of literary fiction. Inf fact, they are usually much more fierce. How many times I heard, that if the author experiments with the form, they’re only doing it because they want to show off, that if books are not read and loved by majority, it’s failed literature, that those who like such books are also just show-offs and snobs.

    • It’s true there are snobs on both sides, and I agree with you that genre fiction is is more likely to be formulaic. But why did the literati exclude genre from the beginning? Why was Ray Bradbury and his peers in science fiction treated as inferior as soon as the genre was born? That was a harsh and premature judgment on the part of the academics.

      We see the same thing in Hollywood. To this day, I find it absurd that the first Star Wars film did not win best picture at the 1978 Oscars. One of the most beloved, celebrated, breakthrough films of all time, right up there with Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. It lost to Annie Hall.

      My point is that there are works of excellence in literary fiction and genre just as there are terribly flawed works in literary fiction and genre. It is shortsighted and ridiculous to dismiss an entire genre as having no literary merit just because it can be categorized as romance or science fiction. It’s also shortsighted to assume that all works of literary fiction have merit. Yet those are not uncommon attitudes.

      As for genre writers thinking inside the box, I would have to disagree, at least when it comes to science fiction. After all, it is the fiction of ideas, especially ideas from outside of the box.

  6. I enjoyed reading this post. I’ll admit I have never completely understood what makes up Literary Fiction. It seems as if it could soak in so many works of quality. I took several classes in college, participated in writers’ groups, and despite the education literary fiction is still one of those things that isn’t clear to me. I like how you placed the definitions in your post. Believe it or not, it does make a difference.

    Since 2006, I have researched, written and continued to edit my book manuscript while I worked. I was never in a hurry to send off a query letter. Never, at any moment, was I ready to label it. In the end, it’s Young Adult. If I am required to be more specific: YA Historical Fiction.

    I understand how Genre Fiction has a formula or some writers are encouraged to write a certain way. I admire Harry Potter novels. I believed they were well written. My Writing the Contemporary Novel teacher in college believed the Harry Potter novels were too generic. She assigned us unique novels. In truth, I was only able to complete one. It was a graphic novel about the Holocaust.

    I apologize for the long response. I did enjoy your post. Thank you!

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences, Rebecca. I had a college professor (Children’s Literature) who not only loved Harry Potter, she assigned it as required reading. That just goes to show the spectrum of opinions about what is unique and what has merit. Personally, I like a good, engaging story over a piece of writing that is “unique.”

      One of the problems with genre is that some writers just want to tell a story. They don’t write for genre or for market. Then, when their books get published, their work is forced into a category, and ends up sitting on a shelf next to a book that was written to formula. That’s why every so often, a genre story breaks out and gets a little recognition from the literary folk.

  7. Olga says:

    I stumbled upon this blog today, and I really enjoyed your post. However, I have to say I have mixed feelings about both literary fiction and genre fiction.

    As a reader, I thoroughly enjoy magistral pieces of writing (prose, poem, whatever). I love nineteenth-century literature, and most of my favorite authors would be considered heavy “literary” authors. I also immensely enjoy genre fiction when it is well-written and has captivating characters. I love the Harry Potter books, and many great novels of the fantasy genre. I know they are not monuments to mankind or unending sources of wisdom, but hey, they are great fun. I also have a passionate dislike for badly written genre fiction, like the Twilight series or any novel by Paulo Coelho (bleargh!). But anyway, if they sell so much, it means there are people who are willing to read them. To each his own.

    As an aspirational writer (does that word even exist? lol, English is not my first language, so pardon any mishaps) I would never even bother to try and write literary fiction. First, because I know superb writing when I see it, and I am self-conscious enough to know I am not brilliant; so, I won’t even bother. Second, I am not a native English speaker. It is hard enough to write in your own language, but to write in a foreign language is hard work! (I have decided to write in English in order to reach a broader audience) Finally, at the end of the day, I want writing to be a fun experience. I want to have a lot of fun doing it, and I want people who read what I have written to have as much fun as I did. I have no intention to change the world with my writing. Really, I just want to make people have a good time!

    So, if I’m trying to say anything, it’s: literature for entertainment, if it serves its purpose, is as valid as any other.

    PS – On a side note, I think it was Terry Pratchett who united both the fantasy and sci-fi genres under the banner of “speculative fiction”. I thought it was an interesting term, somewhat close to Bradbury’s “fiction of ideas”. I am more of a fantasy girl myself — don’t enjoy reading too many scientific details.

    • Hi Olga, I agree. If writers want to write for entertainment, that’s their prerogative. Live and let live, that’s what I always say. I like a mix, myself: stories that are emotional, thought-provoking, beautifully written, and entertaining. Yes, I guess I want it all.

  8. Kevin Conroy says:

    Thanks for the interesting post. I’ve taken a few Lit Criticism classes in the course of my college career (I’ve currently got one semester left), and one thing that I did pick up is that the literature that is considered “great” at any given time has a lot to do with the school of Literary Criticism that happens to be in vogue at that time (New Critics, Structuralists, Marxists, etc). Also, it’s interesting to note that critics are still holding so fast to this “literature vs. genre fiction” distinction. Deconstruction, a highly influential school of thought that was prominent a few decades ago, makes the claim that all binaries bleed– in other words, as soon as you set up hard and fast distinctions between things, i.e. natural vs. unnatural, light vs. dark, literary fiction vs. genre fiction, you can come up with examples that cross those boundaries and break down the barriers between them.
    For example, we read “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler. It’s essentially a hard boiled detective story, with a heavy focus on plot and action. It is genre fiction. When discussing the novel, though, our prof. asked us if we thought it was literature, and the general consensus was yes. It’s characters are pretty deep and intricate, and there is a lot of symbolism and other literary devices.
    As far as my own creative writing goes, I tend not to worry about the classifications. I just start out with an idea or an image and see where it goes. I recently wrote a short story about a young man that studies literary criticism, deconstruction in particular, and it pushes him over the edge in becoming suicidal (there were other things going on that also contributed). Now I’m about to start writing a novel that is in some ways a ghost story, so it could be classified that way, but it’s a lot more than that. Anyway, I’ve rambled enough lol. Thanks again for the post, I really enjoy reading them!

    • I’m glad you had a professor who was open-minded to genre. There have been some excellent works by genre writers, a few of which have floated to the top of our literary canon. I think genre is useful for sales and marketing but in universities, it should be set aside and each work should be judged strictly on merit rather than arbitrary labels. I have to say, I do appreciate genre when I go to the bookstore because I know which aisle to visit ;)

  9. Cathy Treadway says:

    Melissa, I feel we are kindred spirits of sorts since I too was weaned on science fiction as a child. I have always wanted to be a writer since college when I wrote a short story (science fiction) for a humanities class assignment. I enjoyed putting my ideas into words and creating something unique and seeing it come to life through words on a page. But life has a way of getting in the way, so to speak, and after many years, I have yet to complete a story and have it published. I am currently on my third attempt to complete a story and am finding myself getting once again frustrated and lost as before. But I refuse to give up, so that is how I found your web site. I was looking for tips and “words of wisdom” for writers. So, just wanted to let you know, that I look forward to future dialogues about writing and am encouraged by what other writers have to share about their experiences.

    • Thanks for commenting Cathy. The real secret to becoming a writer is to simply refuse to give up. Three stories is not a lot, so I’d say it’s a bit early to get overly frustrated. Just keep at it :) You might even think about joining a writers’ group or taking a workshop. You’ll learn a lot, get plenty of inspiration, plus feedback that will help you over the next hurdle. Best of luck to you!

  10. Don says:

    I mean come on…yes literary fiction in its worse is boring but if you want to know why genre fiction isn’t considered for awards, most of it is published with typos and filled with cliches. Characters have no dimension other being than being plot devices and the whole idea is usually relying on something ridiculous that is never really re-explained in a unique way: vampires, magic etc. Of course there are amazing writers who turn all this upside down but they are a VERY small percentage. Same goes with romance and crime novels. Could you imagine if writers could crank out books like Bel Canto or Lovely Bones in the time it takes to write Anita Black Vampire Hunter? Nobody would read genre novels if that were the case because there would be plenty of gems to go around. Bottom line is that a reader and a critic can tell how much time and effort was put into a book and I think that books that win critical acclaim do so no matter what the subject matter is. FYI Ray Bradbury is alright but I wouldn’t consider him one of the best literary writers even if he didn’t write science fiction.

    • I’m sorry, but most genre fiction is not published with typos and filled with cliches. Nobody’s going to convince me that characters like Katniss Everdeen or Harry, Ron, and Hermione don’t have dimension. From Anne McCaffrey and Marion Zimmer Bradley to HG Wells, CS Lewis or the recent “Wool” series, there is plenty of quality genre fiction just as there is plenty of boring, erudite literary fiction. I’m not sure where you’re getting your genre books, but I simply have not had the same experience. As for Ray Bradbury, you’re entitled to your opinion, but I think he’s one of the best writers in the past century, a true visionary (like Gene Roddenberry).

  11. Lethi says:

    I only came across this article today, but I found both it and the comments extremely interesting. Thank you for posting it!

    I agree that there can be real snobbery about genre fiction, but there’s equally a real inverted snobbery against literary fiction which is very clear from some of the comments here about ‘yawning one’s way through’ literary novels or the implication (which I hope was inadvertent) that novels can be either literary or stonking good reads, but not both.

    There are wonderful books that are both genre fiction and extremely well regarded as literary works: Gulliver’s Travels, The Handmaid’s Tale, Morality Play, Slaughterhouse 5, The Road, Jane Eyre, Jekyll and Hyde, The Name of the Rose, The Turn of the Screw… the list goes on. Non-novel genre works can similarly achieve recognition for exceptional artistic merit, such as In Cold Blood, or The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or even The Wizard of Oz which you yourself mention in one comment. It’s not at all true to say that ‘the literati exclude[d] genre from the beginning': great literature is recognised as such regardless of what genre it draws on to convey and contextualise its message.

    I agree very much with Aiculik’s comment of 18 May. I think that by suggesting that genre writers tend to ‘think inside the box’ she means in terms of how they write, rather than in terms of the ideas they write about. I agree with her that an awful lot of people tend to be terribly conservative about how they write, and tend to have a checklist of Dos and Don’ts culled from forums and ‘how to write’ guides that they won’t step away from. Whether it’s lack of confidence, or lack of interest in or willingness to experiment and break these rules, it does result in a lot of identikit, even stale, writing style and technique, even when the ideas themselves can be truly breathtaking.

    That’s absolutely not saying all genre fiction is like that, but it’s true that an awful lot of it is. And that’s fine, if that’s what people want to write and read, but it does set up expectations in readers on both sides of the divide that that’s what they’ll get if they read genre fiction. So people seeking literary fiction will naturally look elsewhere, and people who try to write experimental or literary fiction within established genres will alienate readers who don’t want that.

    • Hi Lethi, You make some good points and I think you and I have a similar outlook. I can’t say that I’ve seen a lot of snobbery among genre readers and writers although they can be fiercely passionate about their genres. Keep in mind that snobbery means people are looking down at something because they think it’s beneath them. While a lot of genre people aren’t into literary fiction, I don’t find (for example) science fiction fans who think it’s beneath them (their attitude is more like “that’s just not my thing”). It’s more likely to find literary folk looking down at genre because they don’t think it has merit, and often this is without actually reading any of it.

      Obviously, both groups acquired these stereotypes because there is some truth to them. Genre fiction can be formulaic and literary fiction can be erudite to the point that it is boring or difficult to read. But there are countless exceptions on both sides of the fence.

      It’s true that some genre fiction has been recognized but historically, genre gets ignored by the more prestigious circles both in literature and film. That has changed drastically in recent years, but Ray Bradbury (in an interview over at the Paris Review) talked about how science fiction writers were literally laughed at by other writers when he was young and first starting out.

      Me, I just love a good story. I do lean toward science fiction but I also love literary fiction (those are my top two genres). I can only say that the last few literary books I picked up did not hold my attention (and one of them was an award winner). My sense is that sometimes, literary fiction isn’t concerned with good storytelling and is instead concerned with being experimental or academic.

      Anyway, it’s all good food for thought. In the end, I don’t care what people read or write. I just think we readers and writers need to stick together!

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