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Why Literature is Different than Genre Fiction

Updated: Feb 1, 2022

Even though I fathom myself a writer, what I actually do to earn money concerns education, something I’ve done for over twenty years. I teach a variety of upper school subjects including philosophy and literature for the International Baccalaureate program. Teaching the discipline of literature, picking apart books and unpacking linguistic contributions have helped me to gain a keen grasp on the what the literary genre means. However, writing it is a different story if you’ve only written in other genres before. Having recently published my first YA dystopian+ novel and now just completing a rough draft of a literary novel, I can attest first hand to the value of understanding the contrasting aspects of these two genres, both of which have unique demands on the author.

Understanding the underlying purpose of these two different genres is a starting point. Broadly speaking, genre fiction aims to entertain, and there is a technical toolbox that accompanies this type of popular fiction, which reaches into movies as well. But literary fiction probes deeply into our humanity, demanding more of both the author and the reader. What differentiates literary fiction from genre fiction can be summarized by four hierarchical points. As an author, if you write literary fiction or would like to venture into the genre, adhering to these targets will help you to penetrate the genre’s true depths.

1: Dealing with Social Constructs

In some respect, good literature will contend with existing social constructs that push and pull on the character. These include the constructed political, economic, and social systems that we have created to help advance and establish social order. The caveat, of course, is how the protagonist fits into these systems and how these systems are failing her. The character’s confrontation with this world is what in part defines the actions of the protagonist; her response to the world is, in part, what drives the story. Consider the social constructs that are most compelling to address, and you’ll like find a good literary story to write about.

2: The Human Condition

As the protagonist confronts the social situation, she is forced to discover the best and worst of humanity. This may be evident from various sides. Antagonists that embody or advance the established systems often exhibit some element of human virtue that are most unbecoming, clashing with the protagonist’s ideals and forcing her to reconsider established beliefs. Out of this comes actions and reactions that exhibit the behavioral tendencies of our humanity. Why we do what we do is a common thread that the reader is forced to consider in these literary stories.

3: Internal Struggle and Compromise

As stories in the literary genre are character driven as opposed to plot driven, much of the conflict should be centered around the internal struggles of the protagonist. Ostensibly, this leads the story and helps to define it as literature. Committed to dealing with the conflict of the situation, the character must manage the internal frailties of her own moral and ethical fabric. How she comes to terms with her flaws or how she discovers aspects of herself that help her to overcome the conflict demonstrates the growth of the character. The depth of this character arc hinges on the author’s ability to develop the internal conflict of the protagonist.

4: Style in Writing

To generalize, genre fiction is created to target specific audiences that would be most entertained by that type of writing and storytelling. Because of this, certain expectations about language, grammar and story must be upheld. This constraint around the technique of storytelling in genre fiction has evolved mostly because of commercial factors; the author must comply with audience expectations. The literary genre has greater flexibility in this area, as the audience comes to applaud digressions from the norm if they are done effectively. These may include the complexity of language (although I don’t consider this to be a critical condition); a play with language that influences the effect on the reader; originality in exploring time, backstory and memory; or innovative ways to put the words on the page. This flexibility is acceptable and even expected to some extent. And for the author, this can be liberating and creative in terms of how they choose to get their story across to the reader.

Whichever genre you prefer, some writing in the literary genre can prove to be an enlightening and useful endeavor. Not only can it aid in the author’s process of self-discovery, it hones an ability to write more complex characters, easily translating to other genres you write in. The literary genre most definitely presents other challenges to your writing, but some honest effort will surely improve your skill and technique as a writer.

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