Friday, May 26, 2006

Literary vs. Mainstream/Genre Fiction

Earlier this week, a writer queried me regarding my opinion of the difference between literary and mainstream/genre fiction.

The following checklist (excerpted from my article published at ) identifies the key elements of literary vs. mainstream/genre fiction as I have come to understand them.

I don’t consider all of these checklist points to be set in stone, and I readily mix them to suit each new story I create.

Literary fiction . . .

  • contains complex thematic intents or ideas
  • explores universal themes of truths or humanity in general
  • broadens the reader’s impressions of the human experience
  • draws philosophical reflections from both the writer and the reader
  • relies on form vs. plot
  • presents complex views of life and/or multidimensional characterizations
  • confronts characters with internal, often moral, conflicts that will permanently affect them
  • involves subtle, though no less profound story resolutions and/or ambivalent endings
  • often involves more use of passive voice
  • affords slower, more introspective pacing
  • uses an array of figurative, symbolic, archetypal and poetic qualities of language
  • frequently embodies allusions to characters and/or story elements from familiar literary works

Mainstream and genre fiction . . .

  • generates entertainment for the reader by allowing them to escape life’s trivialities
  • casts the world and humanity in predictable terms of good and evil
  • satisfies the reader’s expectations of easily anticipated story paths and resolutions
  • fulfills a traditional understanding between writer and reader concerning formal story elements
  • provides a recognizable and forward moving narrative
  • challenges characters with temporary problems requiring easy resolutions
  • depicts stereotypical and satisfying characters that display predictable actions/decisions
  • offers detailed settings and/or interesting facts, about the story’s world and its inhabitants
  • employs an active plot driven structure
  • affords a fast pace, with strategic breaks in the action
  • commonly adopts a stylistic and moral tone
  • typically concludes with a happy ending

I often source a number of similar checklists when I am asked to judge fiction contests or when I am revising my work, and now as a fiction editor. In fact, my forthcoming book, The Fiction Writer's Book of Checklists: A Comprehensive Guide for Revising, Editing, Assessing and Selling Fiction, contains over a hundred checklists. From time to time, I will post a few of these checklists and welcome comments.


Bryan D. Catherman said...

Thank you. This is very helpful.

Literary Fiction Writer said...

You're welcome, Bryan. I'm glad you found the article helpful.

Thank you for your service to our country, and best wishes with your writing.