Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Difference Between Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction

I finally figured out the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction.

A member of the writing forum that I frequent was struggling to write the beginning of her novel. If I remember correctly, she is attending a prestigious masters program in Creative Writing. (I might have that bit wrong, but it is something to do with literature and writing.) In frustration she said: "I have eight books on craft and not one talks about how to write the beginning of a story."

I've been puzzling over this for the past few days. I have a lot of writing books and they do cover how to start a novel. Why wouldn't at least one of her text books cover that element of fiction?

And I puzzled three days til my puzzler got sore
Then I thought of something I hadn't before:**

Most how to write fiction books don't cover literary techniques like allusion, synechdoche, alliteration, et al. Genre writers don't concern themselves as much with literary technique as they do about plot, character, world building, beginnings, middles, and ends. We might use those techniques in our writing, but we don't talk about them or how and when to use them. We might not even know that we are using them or know that we are using them but can't tell you what it is called. Think about it: When was the last time you saw a writer of genre fiction blogging about hyperbole? I bet at least one of you has run off to dictionary reference dot com or wikipedia to look up allusion, synechdoche, alliteration, or hyperbole.

So it follows that a textbook for a prestigious program in creative writing or literature is going to focus on literary techniques like those previously mentioned. You can find a list of them on wikipedia: And won't cover the elements of fiction like plot, characterization, world building, and yes, beginnings, middles, and ends.

When I took literature classes back in the dark ages when dirt was young, if we talked about a character we discussed hubris not whether we could relate to the main character or whether the MC was likeable or not. We didn't talk about the kind of plot that was used, we talked about foreshadowing and red herrings and things like that.

But just think of how powerful a novel would be if it incorporated both literary techniques and the elements of fiction. There's no reason in the world that genre fiction writers can't use literary techniques nor literary writers incorporate the elements of fiction into their stories. And it just might make the writer's story that much better. It's something to think about.

** If you didn't recognize the literary technique or did but can't remember what it is called, this is an allusion to How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss.


  1. Dude! I love literary technique and use it all the time, deliberately and with relish, but almost everything I write is genre- and the little stuff that isn't is literary in the same way Kafka is literary. And I think you'll find and awful lot of genre professionals do very much the same (Ursula LeGuin, Neil Gaiman, Peter S. Beagle, Gene Wolfe, Rachel Swirsky, heck, Catherynne Valente seems to eat literary technique for breakfast.)

    I dunno, I feel like the distinction is often pretty arbitrarily drawn and defended more readily than it needs to be.

    1. Dudette! You and one other (known to me as Lion) are the only ones that I know of who could write compelling literary spec fiction that I would enjoy reading.