Fiction: Genre vs. Mainstream vs. Literary

Jam & Judicious Advice

So you write fiction. You know it’s fiction because a) it’s written in prose and b) the story is one you made up. Isn’t that enough? Er, no, not really.

Sure, you can write your story without worrying about what category it fits into, but once it’s finished, you need to have a snappy reply when someone—e.g. that agent you’re trying to impress—asks what kind of story it is. Agents—and editors, booksellers, and librarians—need to know where your story fits so they can decide how they’re going to market it and where they’re going to shelve it.

After you’ve determined that the piece of work in question is fiction, you need to decide if it is genre, mainstream, or literary. What follows is a brief explanation of each of these categories. It’s meant to clear up the confusion surrounding these terms, and help you decide where your writing best fits. It is not meant to imply that one category is better than another. As well, it is recognized that there will always be books that break the “rules” of their category and ones that crossover among categories, etc.

Genre Fiction:

Genre fiction is usually written with a particular category in mind (rather than fitting the category to the book after the fact). Science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, thriller, and western are examples of genres. These novels tend to concentrate on story (plot), rather than character development or philosophy. The primary plot in a genre novel is always compatible with the genre, e.g. the primary focus of a romance novel will always be the romantic relationship between the two main characters, whereas the primary focus of a mystery will always be the main character solving a crime. Genre fiction is written with the primary goal of entertaining the reader. Stories are told in a straightforward, linear manner, and they meet reader expectations: endings are usually happy, questions are resolved, and loose ends are tied up.

Publishers like genre novels because they have a built-in market, e.g. fantasy readers, western readers, science fiction readers. In bookstores and libraries, each type of genre fiction is usually shelved in its own section.

Examples of successful genre fiction writers: Stephen King (horror), John Grisham (legal thriller), Sue Grafton (mystery), Kathleen E. Woodiwiss (romance), J.R.R. Tolkien (fantasy).

Mainstream Fiction:

Mainstream fiction consists of stories that can’t be slotted into a particular genre. It can cover any topic, in any time period, be any length, etc. Like genre fiction, mainstream fiction tends to focus on story, though usually with greater depth of characterization. The primary goal of mainstream fiction is entertaining the reader; secondarily the writer might touch on some philosophical issues. Stories are usually told in a straightforward, linear manner, and meet reader expectations in much the same way as genre fiction does: endings are happy (or at least satisfying), problems are resolved, no loose ends are left dangling. The reader does not have to struggle to “get” the story.

Mainstream fiction is harder to market than genre fiction, because there’s no built-in audience. It’s generally sold on author name recognition, with new authors marketed on their similarities to established authors. That said, mainstream fiction is still seen as highly marketable by publishers. Books in this category are expected to sell well because of their potential to attract a diverse audience. The majority of books found in the general fiction section of bookstores are mainstream novels.

Examples of successful mainstream fiction writers: Pat Conroy, Maeve Binchy, John Irving, James A. Michener, Amy Tan.

Literary Fiction:

Like mainstream novels, literary novels aren’t confined to a specific genre. The writer of a literary novel can tackle any subject, any theme—though these aren’t necessarily the most important part of the story. In literary fiction, careful use of language, style, and technique are often as important as subject matter. Literary fiction tends to focus on character development over plot, and explore philosophical issues and ideology. In comparison to mainstream fiction, it often contains more introspection and exposition, and less action and dialogue. It is often said to challenge the reader. There may be layers of meaning beyond the surface story. The story may be about something “bigger”—more universal—than the story being explicitly told. Multiple reads are usually necessary to absorb all of the meaning embedded in the story. Literary fiction is most likely to break traditional fiction conventions, e.g. endings may be upsetting or ambiguous, plots may be next to non-existent, the writer may forego punctuation rules such as placing quotation marks around dialogue.

Literary novels generally sell fewer copies than genre and mainstream novels, and writers don’t expect mass readership. Publishers are most reluctant to take on this type of book, as it is least likely to be commercially successful. Writers of literary fiction generally break into the market by publishing short stories in little magazines or placing in contests. Literary fiction is usually shelved with mainstream fiction, but is occasionally set off on its own.

Examples of successful literary fiction writers: Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway.

References:
Glossary
Writer’s Encyclopedia
Fiction Genre Definitions [pdf version]

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