Monday, July 5, 2010

Literary Fiction or Genre Fiction?

Once upon a time, when I was in college, a creative writing professor read a draft of the first few chapters of a novel I was trying to write. One of his comments was that it seemed as though I wasn't sure whether I was writing literary fiction or commercial fiction. I got the sense that I needed to choose one or the other.

Fast forward too-many years and here I am, still working on my first novel (the first one I've brought anywhere close to submission status anyway). I'm still wondering about the whole literary fiction vs commercial/genre/popular fiction thing.

My novel is intended for a Young Adult (YA) audience, and I would categorize it as High Fantasy. So it must be genre fiction, right? Well. . . I don't know about that. The book is intended to get people thinking about a serious, complex issue from both a philosophical standpoint and a real-world standpoint. It's not meant to be an "easy read" during which the reader can turn off his mind and simply be entertained. The ending is satisfying, yet leaves a lot of questions (at a higher level) unanswered.

I feel that my writing style in this book is more compatible with literary fiction than commercial fiction, but maybe I'm kidding myself. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. Do I need to be concerned that I may be combining literary and genre fiction rather than being firmly in one camp or the other?

I'd love to hear from anyone in the field on this issue. If you are writing or have written a novel, are you clear on whether it's genre (commercial) fiction or literary fiction? What makes this clear to you? How or when did this become clear? What criteria are you using?

Meanwhile, here's an interesting blog post on the subject: Writing YA Literary Fiction: What It Is and Why You Shouldn't Hate It.


  1. Scotti, when I first started submitting The Jetty, my first women's fiction manuscript (never sold), I remember getting a lot of feedback from agents that it was commerical fiction but with a literary feel to the writing (because my prose is emotional and smart and often poetic)and that this made it hard to sell - the subject matter wasn't literary; there was nothing esoteric if you will about the book -- but the writing was too upscale (sort of) for contemporary commerical fiction. When I wrote my second ms now, Swim Back to Me, that's what my new agent calls it: upscale contemporary women's fiction. The thing is, I don't write esoteric, I write universal, but it's still thinking women's universal. So, I guess they call it upscale. Sounds fine to me, if I still haven't managed to sell it. Sounds like your book may fall in the same realm - upscale genre fiction, or genre fiction with a literary feel. They're harder for the agents to position - or worse, in my case the publishers seemingly - which I just don't get at all.

    Anyway, I'm rambling. But suffice it to say, I know what you mean.

  2. Gae, the use of "upscale" in that context is so funny! Yeah, that positioning thing creates all kinds of problems for those of us who don't fit in a particular box.

  3. Wow what an interesting subject, and being new to the whole thing and only having written a fantasy fiction, it never even crossed my mind about what you two raise above. See I'm learning all the time ;)

  4. From my observation, if you debut with a high fantasy novel, you'll likely be considered a genre author regardless of the writing style. I'm too lazy to look up the post, but I believe it was Nathan Bransford who explained the difference thus: In lit fic, the internal conflict and resolution is the point of the book, and in genre fiction, the external conflict is the point. In a high fantasy, it's usually the quest which drives the book. Using the Bransford definition, if the quest is secondary to the character's growth, I guess you could classify it as literary, though I doubt others would.

    The book I just finished...I've always thought of it as a literary fantasy, because the MC's growth is the point, yet it could only happen the way it happened in the world I built. I fully expect it to be shelved in the fantasy section(if/when published :) ).

    BTW, I was using this theme for a while. I still love the look, even if it didn't have the layout I wanted. Sure is purty. :)

  5. @ Helen - I'm learning all the time too!

    @ Sherri - That makes sense. And the quest is definitely driving my high fantasy. In fact, I've been struggling with how/why/when to show the character's internal development when, in fact, it's just not the focus of the book. Of course there will be change or "evolution" of the character, but that's not the point of the book.


So, what do you say?