News | 2008 | The Difference Between Literary and Genre Fiction

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway

I teach a fiction class in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, and as I was prepping for today's class on genre conventions, I came upon this little gem of a distinction between literary and genre fiction. I've been asked many times to define what literary fiction is, and usually, I have a hard time explaining it to someone who isn't interested in reading it. Sometimes, people feel defensive about the fiction they read: they can feel genre fiction is inferior to a degree or that literary fiction is elitist. However, this definition, which comes from Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, isn't demeaning, and it sets everything out quite nicely. I rather like what she has to say--and I must remember it the next time I'm asked to define the difference.

Literary fiction differs from genre fiction fundamentally in the fact that the former is character-driven, the latter plot-driven. There is a strong tendency--though it is not a binding rule--of genre fiction to imply that life is fair, and to let the hero or heroine, after great struggle, win out in the end; and of literary fiction to posit that life is not fair, that triumph is partial, happiness tentative, and that the heroine and hero are subject to mortality. Literary fiction also strives to reveal its meaning through the creation of unexpected or unusual characters, through patterns of action and turns of event that will surprise the reader. Genre fiction, on the other hand, tends to develop character stereotypes and set patterns of action that become part of the expectation, the demand, and the pleasure of the readers of that genre.

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