The Two Types of Fiction (and their intentions)

Greetings, readers! I only have a short blog post today, since I’ve been a little busy working out contracts with my publisher for my novel (amongst other things). Given that, I thought it might be good this week to have a little discussion about something that may be of interest to any new or established writers who are still finding their “style”, or to anyone who’s always wondered what the whole point is with this writing thing.

So, without further ado, today’s blog topic:

Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction – what the Hell are they and how are they different?

When it comes down to it, a writer’s duty is to tell a good story. No matter whether the story is intended to advise, caution, uplift or merely to entertain, the whole idea at the core of good writing is to tell a good story. Right?

As I learned to write and slowly ventured into the world of being an author, I always thought that all that was required of me was to tell an engaging story, and that if I did that, people would like what I wrote, and that would be that. I began a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing in order to improve my writing style, and now, two years later, I’ve come to understand something: writing is subjective. Good writing is in the heart of the beholder. Different authors have different reasons for writing, and different readers expect different things out of any given piece. It ultimately turns out that telling a good story isn’t all there is to being a writer, after all. Telling a good story is just the beginning, and it’s what the intentions are with a piece and whether those intentions are fulfilled that determine the difference between good writing and a failure.

In order to be a good writer, you need to understand your intentions as a writer, and to understand your intentions, you need to know that there are two distinct styles of writing fiction that appeal to readers in different ways and serve different purposes.

Some of it’s about unicorns, and some isn’t.

These two different styles are referred to as genre fiction and literary fictionand before any writer can define their own personal style and understand what they hope to achieve by writing, they need to know what these styles are, and which one appeals to them the most — for most writers, these two basic types of fiction determine their entire writing style, favoured themes, techniques and tastes.

To that end, I suppose that the purpose of this blog post is to explain to you what they are, but before I do that, I think it’s a good idea to point out that, while most literary academics consider the lines between these two types of fiction to be distinct and clear (and, for the most part, they usually are, with a work clearly conforming to one or the other), in reality, there is actually a fair degree of overlap, and that some authors actually combine elements of both literary and genre fiction in their own personal style (this is how I try to write) and so, if you don’t see your work clearly fitting into one or the other, don’t freak out — you could be in the middle ground.

So then, what are these “two types of fiction”, I hear you ask. Let me tell you about them:

Genre fiction is the more widespread of the two types of fiction, and it’s likely the type of fiction you read (and write) the most. Genre fiction, as its name suggests, is a work of fiction that is intended to fit into a chosen genre and fulfil the tropes of that genre. In some circles, it’s also called commercial fiction, and this should imply that works of this nature are intended to appeal to the mainstream market (the fans of a particular chosen genre).

To this end, this is where the point of writing is to tell a good story. Works of genre fiction are intended for entertainment. They’re all about interesting characters, exciting plotlines, a huge chain of events, exotic locations (whether on Earth or otherwise) and emotions. These are your typical fantasy, sci-fi, horror, crime and thriller stories. They’re meant for escapism and fun, and to be engaging page turners. Typically, the story comes first, and themes and “messages” of the text second. You can expect a great story, but not deep themes. The overall intention is to simply write something that the reader will enjoy. Famous genre authors include Stephen King, George R.R Martin, Suzanne Colins and J.K Rowling.

Then, of course, there’s literary fiction. Given that you know what genre fiction is, I’d say you can guess what lit fiction is all about. It’s right there in the name — it’s fiction with an emphasis on the literary elements. These are the stories you study at school. Works of literary fiction are all about the themes, addressing an issue, passing on advice and provoking thought.

Academics like to say that literary fiction is more “sophisticated” than genre fiction (though it’s actually just a different style of writing) because, in these works, an entertaining story isn’t the point. In literary fiction, storylines are often slower paced, more realistic and less exciting than in genre fiction. The intention is to present the reader with deep, involving themes or an opinion on a complex issue. Literary stories may not be as entertaining or as fast paced as genre works (in fact, the actual story may be downright boring to a genre reader, though this certainly isn’t always the case), but they will make you think. You’ll have probably heard of a few literary authors: J.M Coetzee, Ernest Hemmingway, J.D Salinger and George Orwell are examples.

As you can see, both styles of fiction exist for different reasons, and serve to express different authorial intentions. Being able to identify as an author or fan of either one means you’re one step closer to becoming the best writer you can be, because if you understand what you want out of your writing, then you can tailor your own personal style to suit your intentions. As I said before, there’s often a lot of overlap between the two — Cormac McCarthy’s stories are very literary with regards to themes, but are carried by exciting and violent Western genre plotlines, for example. The belief of many is that a lot of writing actually combines elements of both together.

Is it possible to have a fantasy or sci-fi piece that explores a deep theme? I like to think so. As a writer, I personally value a story that is both entertaining and sophisticated. If I can draw my readers in and thrill them with an exciting plotline and characters, but also make a statement on some aspect of humanity, I feel that I’ve achieved what I set out to achieve by writing a work. Understanding literary and genre fiction and what they entail has helped me define my style and determine that I fall somewhere in between. Ultimately, it comes down to what you want to achieve as a writer. Just write what you think you would like to write (or read) and somebody out there will identify with it.

So, which one’s for you?

4 Responses to “The Two Types of Fiction (and their intentions)”
  1. Zen says:

    Definitely genre fiction. I have short attention span when it comes to reading literary fiction, so I can’t imagine myself writing it at all!

  2. I think you overstate the distinct separation of these works.

    China Mieville is clearly a genre writer but with a literary vocabulary, Justin Cronin was clearly literary until the beginning of his Passage trilogy, Vonnegut is as much soft sci-fi, or perhaps spec-fic as he is genre.
    Looking back there’s plenty of examples of cross-over: Margaret Atwood? Ursula LeGuin? Each used genre conventions to explore literary themes. Many of the golden-age science fiction writers, Heinlen and Dick especially used the trappings of sci-fi (aliens, technology, foreign planets) to make literary social comment. Just as Orwell used animist fairy-tale and futurist sci-fi to critique his own society.

    Can we not have genre fiction with the intent to provoke thought or explore a theme? Can we not have Lit-Fic with a rollicking plot or entertaining characters? And even if we can’t, must the intent of the author necessitate the audience response to a text?

    • dgrixti says:

      Nicely spoken, J Michael. I totally agree with your comment. I personally believe that it’s highly possible for the two to overlap and that this often happens (in fact, I’m known to get into a few “debates” with my creative writing professor about it). I didn’t really get time to state this in the article because this was (unfortunately) something I wrote when pressed for time, and the authors I cited within are examples I was given in my course.

      “Can we not have genre fiction with the intent to provoke thought or explore a theme? Can we not have Lit-Fic with a rollicking plot or entertaining characters? And even if we can’t, must the intent of the author necessitate the audience response to a text?”

      I believe that we can — I tried to make that known in this article (but perhaps spent too much time defining the two than making clear the overlap), despite what academics may think.

    I’m going to add a discussion of this topic to my own musings soon I hope.

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