April 15, 2014

Literary vs. Genre Fiction: Which Do You Prefer?

Rustic gate opening to a wildflower field with text: Our Reading Habits: Do You Believe in Fate?

Last time we talked about how our literary education can affect our reading habits later in life. One interesting result of that conversation revealed—once again—just how subjective reading for enjoyment can be. The stories some of us hated, others loved.

Personally, I have no interest in non-genre stories. As I’ve said before, this is not a sign of my inability to think deeply, but rather a personal preference.

At the Desert Dreams conference a week ago, something the delightful Mary Buckham mentioned in her character workshop struck me, and I wondered if her idea could be related to this genre vs. literary preference. Let’s compare notes and find out. *smile*

Literary vs. Commercial (Genre) Fiction

Before we dig into the question, I first want to share what Mary Buckham said in her Down and Dirty Ways to Create Stronger Characters workshop. My note-taking skills aren’t quite what they used to be, so these definitions are paraphrased from her descriptions.

Literary Fiction

The point of the story is for the character(s) to understand themselves better. This is achieved through episodic events that force understanding. However, characters aren’t forced to internally change or to change their situations.

Commercial Fiction

The point of the story is to focus on how people change. This is achieved through external events that trigger choices and force internal changes in the character(s), both of which lead to external changes in their situations.

Obviously, those are simplified definitions, but I think there’s a lot of validity to Mary’s perspective. More importantly for my question, those different approaches create even more diverse themes.

Themes in Literary vs. Commercial (Genre) Fiction

Mary then compared what each style has to say about life and fate (again, this is paraphrased):

Literary Fiction

The lack of internal change in literary fiction creates the impression that things just happen and that there’s not a lot we can do about it. Whether intended or not, this subtext develops a theme that applies to most literary fiction stories: “Life sucks and then you die.”

Commercial Fiction

In contrast, commercial fiction often shows characters facing choices, and how they decide greatly affects the rest of the story (for good or bad). In other words, in genre stories, things happen and there is something we can do about it. This subtext creates a theme that applies to most commercial fiction stories: “Write your own fate.”

Story Themes and Our Worldview

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed how our favorite stories often have themes in common with each other and with our worldview. I mentioned how our reading preferences—from themes to types of characters—might be driven by our worldview.

I also suspect our worldview affects our preferences for literary vs. genre fiction. After all, we’re more likely to read stories that resonate deeply with within us, and the subtext of literary vs. genre is often very different.

As I’ve said about romance novels:

“Most modern romances contain the subtext of celebrating people who are empowered, those who are willing to fight for what they want and take responsibility for creating their own happiness.”

Empowered. Fight for what they want. Take responsibility for creating their own happiness. That certainly qualifies for the “write our own fate” theme of genre fiction.

Personally, I believe that we can change our future through our choices and that we do write our own fate. I believe all that because I have changed my own fate several times in my life. I’ve rewritten my future more times than I can count (and in hugely significant ways) by making choice A rather than B and by changing internally.

So really, is it any surprise that I prefer genre stories? Is it any surprise that stories where the characters don’t end up in a significantly different place from where they started (often because they never learn, never change, and keep making the same mistakes) irritate the hell out of me?

To me, drama and angst is pointless without a takeaway message shown through a character changing and learning. Without that, those characters deserve a “Too Stupid To Live” label. In the most frustrating “nothing changes” literary stories, I start wishing for a good ol’ genre attack (aliens, zombies, whatever) to take them all out and save me from their misery. *grin*

Obviously, that’s just my personal opinion. I’m not “right” and others aren’t “wrong.”

Plenty of people love the literary fiction books recommended by the Oprahs of the world. And I suspect that difference in preference has to do with our worldviews.

How Might Our Worldview Affect Our Reading Habits?

Some people might believe we can change our fate, but that change is too difficult for most people or often results in more problems. Others might believe only the privileged can change their fate. Others might believe the best human intentions will eventually succumb to the entropy of bad habits. Etc., etc.

Again, there’s no wrong answer. But if those are our beliefs, we’re more likely to enjoy stories that reflect our thoughts:

  • If we think change is possible but extremely difficult for most, we might be more accepting of stories where characters try to change but fail.
  • If we believe change causes more problems, we might gravitate to tragedies where characters’ choices make their lives worse.
  • If we think only the privileged can change their fate, we might be drawn to the trials of the underprivileged.
  • If we believe “life sucks and then you die,” we’d feel at home with stories that focus on unresolvable struggles.
  • And so on…

Of course we can encounter exceptions. Maybe we don’t relate to the worldview posed in a story, but we love the protagonist. Or we grew up in the same setting and read for the nostalgia. Or we’re in a similar situation and want to feel as though someone understands what we’re going through.

We can also read and enjoy different types of stories depending on our mood. Maybe some days we’re more optimistic than others. Or maybe some days we’re more irritated with people than others. *snicker*

More importantly, this theory of worldview and reading preferences should bury for eternity the idea that literary stories are somehow “better” than genre stories. As I’ve said before, genre stories can have the same well-developed characters, lovely turns of phrase, etc. as literary stories.

The difference isn’t in quality but in worldview. It’s not “better” or “superior” to believe that people can’t change or that fate can’t be avoided. And the idea that choices and changes can affect our future isn’t contemptible. It’s simply a different point of view.

As for me, the Oprahs of the world can keep their tales of woe. I won’t put down their perspective—or feel guilty for my own. I’ll just continue to embrace my Pollyanna worldview and enjoy my genre stories.  *smile*

Do you agree or disagree with Mary’s take on the point, theme, and subtext of literary vs. genre stories? What type of fiction do you prefer? Does this preference match with some of your worldviews? How so? If you like stories opposite your worldviews, what makes them enjoyable to you?

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Hmm… That delineation seems pretty accurate.

I happen to be pretty fond of genre/literary hybrids. (Think The Handmaid’s Tale, or arguably The Time Traveler’s Wife.) I do have to be in the right mood to appreciate more literary fiction, though, probably because I’ve been having life issues of my own for the past several years and don’t need anything else telling me “Your efforts are futile.”

I also often read worldviews I disagree with on purpose, as a way to help me comprehend where people who believe those things are coming from, but my absolute favorite books, which resonate with me, probably all have some major theme or some such thing that I agree with (or at least appreciate).

Linda Maye Adams

I would tend to count literary as a genre. Genre’s just a marketing tool, so that if you want a certain type of story, genre will guide you to getting what you want to read. Literary’s no different than mystery or romance or fantasy in that regard. Readers pick it up because they’re looking for something specific.

I also thought the “commercial fiction” section that’s being applied to genres was pretty overgeneralized. I’m not sure it would apply as broadly as it appears across all the genres. Each genre has its own specific traits that readers buy them for, but it’s also easy to assume that certain things are the same in each one — and that’s not necessarily true.

For example, I really like stories that have a lot of characterization. But in fantasy, people come to the story for the world, and that’s a part I ignored in my writing because I didn’t find it as interesting as the characters. As a result, I didn’t have enough of the parts fantasy readers want. I’m writing in multi-genres, so I’m learning to pay attention to what makes each one different from each other.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Wow….yeah I will have to disagree on this one. I’ve read plenty of literary classics where character’s choices DO change their fate, lol, whether for good or for worse. I think this might have arisen from the stereotype that ALL literary novels are depressing and have tragic endings and are just fatalistic, haha. Here are examples of literary works where character’s decisions DID completely change their “fate”. (The below examples are all SPOILERS, so be careful if you want to read on!) –For Little Women: If Jo accepted Laurie’s marriage proposal, then she wouldn’t be able to marry Prof Bhaer, who is not as good-looking, yet has more similar interests with Jo, so she and Bhaer can nerd and geek about literature and writing together. 😀 Whereas with Laurie, Laurie’s not really into literature or writing at all, so that would be an unfortunate disconnect between Jo and her husband, and might even lead to marital boredom. =( –David Copperfield: If David didn’t decide to run away from the poorhouse (child labor) factory, then he would have just…rotted there quite tragically. -_- Instead, he runs away to his aunt, who sends him to a great school where he makes friends and even meets his future wife, who is a wonderful girl! –Les Miserables: If Jean Valjean didn’t choose to adopt Cosette, then he wouldn’t be able to enjoy the happiness of paternal and filial love. Silas Marner (by George Eliot) also decided to adopt an abandoned baby girl. This changed…  — Read More »


I have to agree with Jami. I see your examples, and my first thought is “Those aren’t literary fiction. They’re classics.”

Literary fiction and classics are two quite different things. 🙂 A classic can be literary fiction, but it isn’t necessarily so.

For instance, Jane Austen wrote romance. Sherlock Holmes is mystery (though that author also wrote sci-fi). HG Wells is sci-fi, but some of it could be argued to be literary sci-fi.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Just to continue this topic, just because it’s very interesting: Wow, even Middlemarch and Les Miserables are NOT literary fiction? O: Just curious, Jami and Carradee, how do you define literary fiction? Looking up the term in Wikipedia, I gather that wiki defines it as a work that: —-has an intense, introspective focus on complex, interesting, and developed characters —-is about the inner emotional journey of a character and the character’s detailed motivations, rather than about external events —–has a style that is ” “elegantly written, lyrical, and … layered” ——usually has a serious and thus often darker tone —–has a slower pacing With this list, I can see why it can be hard to distinguish between genre fiction and literary fiction. For instance, a lot of genre fiction are very into character development and motives too, and many having very lyrical writing styles, as well as a darker tone. Yet, couldn’t a story have ALL of the above elements, yet STILL celebrate the power of choices to change fate? I think of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss right now that is one of my favorite novels ever (alongside Crime and Punishment). The Mill on the Floss DEFINITELY fulfills all of Wikipedia’s criteria for literary fiction: intense and complex characterization, very introspective, extremely about the inner emotional journey of the heroine, is most definitely elegantly written and layered, is very serious in tone, and has quite a slow pacing. Yet the heroine DOES make a choice—she resists the…  — Read More »

Gry Ranfelt

Haha, Lord of the Rings is genre fiction at its best and look at THAT lyrical language 😀
Catcher in the Rye is DEFINITELY literary fiction.
Basically about a guy who wanders about and at the end sees his sister go on a carousel and realizing that it isn’t so bad to grow up.
Nothing HAPPENS, though.

Gry Ranfelt

I’ve not read all of these, but Macbeth and Little Women most definitely fullfill the “external plot” requirements of commercial fiction.
Which is why I’ll argue that the problem here is that we all disagree what works belong under the “literary” title.
When people say “literary” what they’re really thinking is “classics”. And classics can be either or both.

Kathryn Goldman

This is the first time I’ve been given an answer to the question, “What is the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction?” I’ve been exploring the world of writing for about a year now and recently have started doing some writing of my own, but I’ve been an avid reader since I picked up Matilda and Her Kittens in the first grade. As a reader, I never knew to even ask the question. Now that I’m starting to write, I’m reading differently.

So, using the anecdotal evidence of one book I just finished, In the Kingdom of Men by Kim Barnes, I will test this definition. Amazon has the book listed as literary fiction. The protagonist does not change, she does not learn, and she does not grow. Events just happen around her. So, the definition seems to hold true, here.

Now, as for liking books that reflect my world view. I did not enthusiastically like this book. I found the history and cultural aspects of it to be interesting. But I don’t like books in which women consistently make bad decisions. One bad decision, okay, especially when she’s young. But over and over, again? No.

This was a helpful post, Jami. I will continue to test the thesis.


Hi Jami – Just want to say thank you. I now realize that though I think of my work in progress as historical fiction, it fits the definition of literary fiction. That’s taken a huge weight off my mind as I complete revisions – I’ve been trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. lol


This post depressed me! I loved Serena’s comment about the older classics. So much modern “literary” fiction is crap. I just like to read good fiction, whether it’s genre or classic or whatever. Dickens is good fiction. So are Austen, Tolstoy, and many other “classic” writers. I am a Shakespeare freak, even though his stuff falls under the “drama and poetry” headings (rather than fiction). All of these writers at the time were considered “popular.” I honestly doubt that the modern “literary” writers will be considered classics 150 years from now. J.K. Rowling, on the other hand, will be right up there with Dickens, Austen, etc. 🙂

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Totally with you on Rowling becoming a classic! 😀

Glad you liked that comment, and I would totally see why Dostoyevsky (one of my favorite authors) would be considered popular too. His books are so full of tension and psychological drama that they compel you to read on! And I mean psychological drama! 😀

Gry Ranfelt

of course much modern fiction is crap.
It’s not that older works are better per se.
It’s that they’ve stood the test of time.
In 200 years only the best of the works from our time will be remembered as well and readers will think of our time as one filled with awesome fiction.
Because the CRAP won’t be passed on.

I agree about the best commercial fiction being the stuff we remember.
But I doubt Twilight will be remembered.
Equal for all the classics, from Homer to Hemmingway, is the depth of character.

Ann Stanley

I am going to disagree with this definition. I love modern literary fiction, and I find that the characters often not only change internally, but also externally. In Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, for example, the main character discovers biology and ends up leaving her boring husband to go to college. In Maya’s Notebook, by Isabel Allende, the protagonist goes from being a selfish young girl who gets herself into terrible trouble to a grown up. It’s true that this growth and change doesn’t have to happen, and some literary fiction is depressing, but literary fiction is a rich and varied world. To consider any fiction commercial and genre just because characters change themselves or their circumstances seems a very odd distinction. Consider mystery series, where the detective is always the same. Yes, they solve their cases, but their lives are unaffected by their success.

Gry Ranfelt

I think the Notebook most definitely is commercial fiction.

Deborah Brasket

I don’t agree at all with that conference speaker’s distinction between literary and commercial fiction. Many reasons why I disagree have already been mentioned in your comments. But here’s another: A quotation explaining the difference between entertainment and art. Art evokes thought, entertainment distracts thought. -Steve Levie Commercial fiction’s main goal is to entertain. It’s escapist, meant to distract thought. That doesn’t mean it’s “thoughtless” or that you can’t learn about life or people or the human condition, but it’s main purpose is to entertain, not to make you think more deeply about things. Commercial fiction moves fast and takes you on a thrilling, sexy, ride. Or it distracts you with a mystery, or gets you caught up in a magical world with far-out things going on. We need that. I love a hot romance or good thriller or wild fantasy once in a while. But what I really love to read is literary fiction, which aspires to art, to move us in the same way that a Rembrandt painting, or Michelangelo’s Pieta, or Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or Kandinsky’s mobiles. Only it does so through words, through story-telling, and if its really good, it pulls you in and you recognize yourself and people you know, and you gain insights into the human condition, in what makes us tick, in what makes life meaningful. It evokes thought. It deepens and broadens our experience of the world. That’s what it’s created to do. What it aspire to. Some of it fails.…  — Read More »

Gry Ranfelt

I agree with Jami, just because something entertains doesn’t mean it has deep thoughts.
Battlestar Galactica sets a lot of thoughts in motion within me and is definitely one of the most thrilling stories I’ve met for a long time.
It comes down to how people receive a story.
An author is always a conveyer of a message and must choose which sort of form will relay that message the best.
To tell people to never lie it might be better to take them along for an emotional ride with a character who wants to lie so badly and you totally get why and they do it and you’re like “yeaaah!” but then things end badly and you not only think “WHY did that character do it?” but “WHY did I support it?”
By investing people emotionally you engage other thoughts.
HOWEVER, literary stories, the more “thoughtful” stories as you put it, engages the mind in other, less thrilling, ways, but ways that can be just as effective.
When I read The Picture of Dorian Grey I almost couldn’t put the book down. Not because I was dying to know what would happen – I figured that out pretty quickly.
No, because I felt like I was having a discussion with the book, and being an avid debater I couldn’t resist that.
But not every book works that way.

Gry Ranfelt

My thoughts on this could fill up two separate blog posts, and I think I might elaborate on it, but for now, here goes: First: The titles/definitions you’re working with don’t work for me. When I think literary I think “stuff that’s recognized as good” and commercial fiction is rather “pop fiction” or “light reading”. I consider Pride and Prejudice a Literary work, but by your definitions it goes under commercial fiction. (Arguably it is – at its time it was definitely viewed as entertainment and not enlightenment.) “Commercial fiction” has such a bad rap that I just can’t bring myself to consider Jane Austen “that low”. To me, commercial fiction is the TV equivalent of sitcoms. Equally I consider Lovecraft commercial on many points but since Lovecraft worked with the very theme that “people have no choice in what happens” he would – by your definition – belong to genre fiction. I also read a book named “Dying Inside” which OBVIOUSLY fit your description of literary literature – nothing outwardly changed, no plot per se, but he changed and his perception of himself and the world changed. That book, however, was classified as science fiction. I think we need new definitions x) Or the waters become murky. Second: Let’s just go with literary fiction as a term for internally driven stories about change or lack thereof and commercial fiction as stories about change showed through actions and external conflict. I think you’re spot on about the fact that our…  — Read More »

Gry Ranfelt

FYI many studies show a correlation between reading fiction and having a better understanding of social relations and language.
Studies showed, however, that “pop fiction” did not have this effect.
In order for the book to have this effect the characters in the story would have to be so REAL that they imitated what we meet IRL.
This finally gives us a way to define “good” stories from “bad” on a more objective note. How DEEP are the characters, their problems and their reactions?

I think that’s my problem with many romance stories and mysteries.
However, I also think there’s a lot of “literary” stuff that just doesn’t touch that level of deepness.
I roll my eyes at the character in the three musketeers.
Moby Dick has nothing to do with real characters.
1984 (which obviously would have worked better as an essay than fiction) also had cardboard characters.

Anyway, just food for thought. I couldn’t find a reference for you >(

Christina Hawthorne

Wow, you really incited a firestorm on this one. I tend to agree with the definitions you share and even more so agree with your attitude towards fate in worldview.

If you want to call fate someone’s proper path, then fine, but otherwise I have no use for it. In fact, it irritates me. I’ve survived too much and overcome far too many odds to accept fate. If I’d believed the advice of professionals four years ago that my fate was 24-hour oxygen and prescription medications by the handful I’d have faded from this world by now. Yes, the “life sucks and then you die” outlook.

Too many people play the “fate card” to cover their lack of desire to live a full life. Fate, it would seem, is too often found in a widescreen television. Not looking there, but instead looking within, is a choice and that’s free will. My stories are rich with the battle between bogus fates and free will.

Jennifer Brinkmeyer

This topic must be going around! After reading your post I ran into this in the Atlantic about the science fiction genre:

I think preference also has to do with one’s perspective on reading and its purpose. I enjoy literary fiction and genre fiction, but in my early adult years I had an unstated belief that reading literary fiction made the reading gods proud of me. To admit that I love genre fiction and that it is of equal importance would have been sacrilege. Now when I meet someone who reads literary fiction in their spare time, I think, “Really? That’s your idea of fun?”

Genre fiction is less afraid to bend the rules. This may seem counter-intuitive, because literary fiction is usually considered more progressive or post-modern, but I’ve sat through classes with literary professors. They are full of rules for how characters should act and how plot should move. In fact, it can be even more predictable than genre fiction! The truth is, you can find good and bad in both, but I love this conversation. We are what we read.

Lolita Moroney
Lolita Moroney

I can honestly say I don’t know which I prefer as I tend to read whatever I fancy at the time. I do have a predilection towards classics, I read very little modern fiction. Even though I don’t identify with the characters, the situations or the society in classics, for me they just seem better written. My favourite is Wilkie Collins, I’ll read anything he’s ever written. Although he was a contemporary and friend of Dickens, he never achieved the same recognition which is tragic (incidentally I don’t like Dickens, too wordy and dreary for me). He had compelling stories and wrote them exquisitely which is why adore reading his work. It’s never crossed my mind to categorise his books or anybody else’s really. I’m drawn to ghost stories like a cast iron frying pan to an industrial magnet but the old fashioned type, not all the blood, violence and gore that seems to be prevalent these days. I also like anything weird that’ll blow your brain out in all directions if you think about it for too long! I have no idea what my WIP would be classed as. The main character survived an accident when she was 10 that killed others and she has grown up never understanding why she survived. She stumbles upon an old and intriguing object which to her surprise seems to be meant for her. To her it becomes the reason why she survived, that it was her destiny. Whilst her friends are initially…  — Read More »


[…] last post about our preferences for genre vs. literary fiction sparked a fantastic conversation. Discussions continued in the post’s comments, Twitter, […]


[…] Jami Gold examines the differences between literary and genre fiction. […]


I tend to go for more of the “life sucks, then you die. And then things are even worse for your hero in hell” type of stories.

Though I prefer it in the context of Dark Comedy, to keep it from getting to depressing. Otherwise I stop writing or reading it.:/

Erik Homme

An interesting and different take on the term “literary fiction.” This is part of a dichotomy I’ve studied for awhile, and still have no clear answer on just what people mean by it. I suspect that reason is that there is not a clear definition on just what is and what isn’t literary fiction. At my old university, I would often talk with the creative writing students about their work, and they would always say that they were heavily discouraged from writing anything like what you describe as genre fiction. They were also taught to define literary fiction differently, though. To them, literary fiction was anything that took place in a real-life setting. This is the definition that I think more closely matches the view of academia. Very rarely are stories considered worthy of study if they violate the laws of mundane reality. Older works like Shakespeare or Homer are permitted because they match the worldview of the time period they were produced in. I have also frequently seen literary fiction used much more nebulously in debates about “high art” vs. “low art.” I’ve had to conclude that, in most contexts I see it used, the term “literary” is often used as a tool of elitism, as a way to separate writing into something not unlike social classes. As a result, I’ve come to reject the classifications altogether. I have found great meaning in works that no person in academic authority would bother looking at, just as I have found…  — Read More »


[…] doesn’t appeal to us doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist. Like we discussed when comparing literary and genre stories, a preference should not lead to a judgment of value. Yet that’s exactly what banning books […]

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