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Genre Versus Literary Fiction

June 9th, 2021

You often hear the word ‘genre’ bandied about in writing – but what exactly does it mean? The dictionary defines it as ‘a style or category of art, music or literature’.

So, we have detective stories, thrillers, romance, historical novels, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, erotica… Each of these different genres has its own conventions. Loner detective with drink/hostile partner problem; Eastern European drugs/arms/people smugglers; dungeons and dragons; haunted houses…  You will probably find yourself wanting to write in one of these genres if you enjoy reading that type of story and feel you can bring something new to the conventions that faithful readers expect.

But what is the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction (the kind of story that wins the Booker Prize)?

In genre fiction the plot reigns supreme and gives the characters a reason to be on the page. The characters overcome challenges and spend their time trying to achieve specific goals. The characters should also face inner struggles, but the book will focus mainly on the external plot.

In literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface and the characters themselves are the reason for the book’s existence. What happens in the minds and hearts of the characters, their desires and motivations, are paramount, together with any social or cultural aspects that affect the characters. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a plot, but this is less obvious than in genre novels. The high and low points often come as internal revelations.

If you want some good examples of accessible literary authors try Kazu Ishiguro, Hilary Mantel, Chimamand Ngozi Adiche, Donna Tartt and David Mitchell, to name just a few.

Obviously some books cross the boundaries between the two. A perfect example is Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels which combine the (almost) traditional detective novel with literary genius. But whatever you do, never dismiss writing genre fiction as being less worthy than writing literary fiction. The best genre authors can hold their own against more ‘literary’ figures any day as the popularity (and selling power) of their books demonstrate.

And before I leave you, just a quick reminder that our Poetry Competition is now open for entries. The prizes are £300, £200 and £100 and each winner receives a Writers Bureau course of their choice and publication of their poem on our website. The entry fee is £5.00 per poem (£4.00 if you are a member of the Association of Freelance Writers) and the closing date is 31st July.

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About The Author: Diana Nadin

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