• Literary vs. Genre Fiction: Your Reading & Writing Habits

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 20 comments

    For this week’s new episode of Yak Babies we discuss so-called literary fiction: What does the phrase mean, is it little more than a marketing term, how is it distinguished from genre fiction, etc.

    Growing up, I read only genre fiction, except for assigned books. Like I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, I started with the Hardy Boys, and then eventually moved into Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Clive Cussler territory. On the podcast I speculate that all teenagers are drawn to genre fiction, and then I say something like “No teenager wants to read Ann Beattie.”

    It would’ve been more accurate to say “Few teenagers” rather than “No teenager.” Of course there are teens out there who love Ann Beattie. But I think the spirit of what I’m saying is true.

    But here’s your chance to prove me wrong!

    Your turn #1: As a teenage reader, were you drawn more to genre fiction or to literary fiction? Why?


    Maybe a quick definition is in order, so we’re all working from the same foundation.

    The way I was taught, literary fiction is fiction that’s focused mostly on character development; it’s writing that is “character driven,” you’ll hear in lit courses. Genre fiction is focused more on plot than character. Genre characters are usually seen as less developed, because what matters more is the story itself.

    Sometimes literary fiction is described as the absence of genre. So if genre fiction includes sci-fi, mystery, fantasy, romance, horror, thriller, etc., literary fiction is, essentially, everything else.

    Here’s a question genre lovers will often pose: Does the term “literary fiction” then imply that anything that fits into a genre is not literary? And what does “literary” even mean?

    Your turn #2: As an adult reader, are you drawn more to genre fiction or to literary fiction? Why?


    So, I grew up reading genre fiction. Then as an angsty late teen and early twentysomething, I started reading lots of Vonnegut and Tom Robbins, guys who were irreverent but also toed the line between genre and literary.

    And then little by little, mostly for classes, I started reading classic literary fiction: your Brontes and Austens, your Dickenses and Hawthornes. And then when, in my late 20s, still (and again) an undergrad, I switched my major to English/creative writing, professors tried to make me believe that I should be writing only literary fiction.

    And then in grad school, that message was really pounded home. An MFA workshop can be a difficult place for anyone writing genre fiction.

    I bought into this, for a minute. I put away those adventure stories of my youth and began to read nothing but literary fiction’s in-depth character studies, whether I liked ’em or not.

    I still read mostly literary fiction, but I’m much more picky about it, and I’m more open-minded (once again) about genre fiction. Genre fiction sells far better, and there’s a good reason for that. It’s usually more fun.

    But of all of the fiction I’ve written, not a stitch of it would fit into any genre except literary. Maybe this is a function of all of those workshops I took, which were my first experiences with writing fiction, and where any hint of genre was verboten.

    Your turn #3: Do you write genre fiction or literary fiction? (Or something in between?) Why do you think this is?

    Also, in general, what do you think of the term “literary fiction”?


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and has written for books for the Dallas Morning News, the Iowa ReviewElectric Literature, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a writing project you’d like help with or an idea to get off the ground, check out our coaching, editing, and publication services.


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    frances hill

    Wow, I guess I must be in between these. I like my characters but enjoy giving them horrible situations to combat and don’t keep them in the same settings. They would be boring without the challenges of mystery, romance, fear and anguish.

    Kimberly Glunz

    Like you, David, I started enjoying books because of the story-line. Nancy Drew was one of my absolute favorites. In fact, I tried to write a Nancy Drew book myself. However, as I’ve grown a little, I more enjoy a Hardy, Dostoevsky or Dickens book over what’s on the New York Times best selling list. Because I read these books with a group of people I’ve known for years on the Amazon chat-rooms (we now communicate on email), I have taken the challenge to read these classics. And maybe I appreciate these antique tomes because there is so much to… Read more »

    Kimberly Glunz

    David, I quit writing the Drew books when my Mom once told me that for me to have written that “Nancy Drew perched, ‘You have to go away…'” wasn’t appropriate. People don’t ‘perch’ when they talk. But the only reason I used that terminology was that I was always struck by the fact that Nancy Drew didn’t just “say” things; she “exclaimed”, she “voiced”, she “injected”, but, evidently, she never ‘perched’. I realized I may not have had enough vocabulary at that point! As far as the book club, our recent books have been our courtesan favorites: “Cousin Bette” by… Read more »


    Oh, I think people do perch when they talk—it would be a great verb meaning “condescendingly speak” or maybe something sort of like but unlike preaching, or in Nancy’s case, it could just mean that she was very vigilant in her speech.

    Barbara Mealer

    I read both literary and genre fiction, enjoying them both, but I do write genre fiction as it is the one which is fun to write. What I find is you can write a genre fiction with good character development. I like 3-D characters and attempt to make mine believable. When I think literary, I think of all the descriptions and flowery language. It’s beautiful to read, but a pain to write and most don’t want to read it today. They want the Lee Childs, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, etc type of books. If you want to sell books, you… Read more »


    I usually have something literary and something genre going at once. If I’m going to sit at a dentist’s office or in a plane, etc., I bring the genre book. If I’m at home, cup of tea, quiet, I’ll read from the literary novel.

    Elizabeth Westra

    As a teen I also read genre, mostly Nancy Drew and others like that. When I was in my 20s and just out of college (and in college) I read mostly literary and read a lot of Dickens, etc.Now, I read some of each, but I’m not really into plowing through the archaic language and long, flowery sentences and description of a lot of literary fiction. I like mystery and suspense mostly now. I’m going to go back and reread some of Poe though.

    Elissa Malcohn

    As a teenager I was drawn almost exclusively not just to science fiction, but to New Wave SF. New Wave was considered to be more of a literary subgenre: heavy on character development, psychological in nature, and dealing with topics that were both socially relevant and taboo. Not surprisingly, New Wave reached its height during the social upheavals of the 60s and 70s, which were also the decades during which I grew up and came of age. I also believe the “genre vs. literary” distinction has more to do with marketing than with actual content. Authors like Kurt Vonnegut and… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz

    I’m puzzled by your classification of Dickens as literary fiction. I infer from some of the comments here that if it has a good plot, it must not be literary fiction, but Dickens was a master of plot. I relish a well-turned phrase every bit as much as an unexpected gunshot. I enjoy a well-drawn character, but that character had better get up and do something. Navel-gazing turns me off, unless some monster is going to erupt from that navel. So on which side of this (false, in my opinion) dichotomy should I put myself? I remember a Sci-Fi novel… Read more »


    The only “definition” I recall reading once was that “literary” fiction was “quality” or “serious” fiction, and that is definitely unfair. But if the genres are things like Action, Western, Mystery, SciFi, Fantasy, Horror, Romance, Historical fiction(?) then maybe “literary” is something like stories that can occur in what we normally think of as daily reality….and does not necessarily have to involve murder or guns

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