“Literary” or “Popular”: Which Kind of Writer Are You?

A half-dozen genres constitute “popular” fiction: romance, mystery, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Genres matter to publishers, because a book has a better chance of selling when readers know its category: there’s a proven market. So, the likeliest way for an emerging writer to break into the business is with a genre book.

But some novels don’t fit a genre, and are often classed as “literary.”

What differentiates literary fiction from popular fiction? Well, there are no hard rules, and there’s a great deal of overlap, such as the literary thrillers of John LeCarré. However, in broad terms, I would differentiate the two by these five criteria:

Action. In popular/commercial fiction the protagonist is pro-active; he or she is actively seeking something, actively dealing with conflict. In literary fiction the protagonist is often more passive and introspective.

Conflict. In popular fiction the protagonist struggles against primarily external forces of conflict: other people. The literary protagonist often faces mostly internal conflict: him/herself.

Causality. In popular fiction the world is a place of cause and effect: characters take actions that have meaningful results. This expresses the connectedness of life. In literary fiction, randomness often rules the universe, expressing the disconnectedness of life, the sense that people have little control over the haphazard nature of existence.

Language. In popular fiction all that’s necessary in style and language is clarity, what George Orwell called “windowpane” prose. Literary fiction focuses on artistic language. The aura of poetry is the hallmark of a literary novel.

Closure. In popular fiction closure is essential—that is, at the end there’s a meaningful resolution to the protagonist’s struggle. Literary endings are often open-ended, sometimes even ambiguous.

So, which kind of writer are you?

All my best,

Barbara Kyle

P.S. Find out more about what agents and publishers are looking for in my book PAGE-TURNER. It’s available online from Amazon!

 

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