It can be difficult, but not impossible, to discern the difference between fiction that is literary from fiction that is genre. In much the same way we’d know the difference between classical and hip hop music, we can know the difference between literary and genre fiction. In this analogy, music is music. Well, fiction is fiction, too. Music comes in types. Fiction comes in types. The important thing to remember is that the term literary is not a value judgment, much in the same way the term hip hop is not a value judgment, but rather a way to say what type of music it is.
Literary is a type of fiction. Genre is another. I have published novels in both types. My last novel PKgrrl is genre fiction. The novel I have coming out soon The Smallest Universe is literary.
Let’s attempt to discern between the two:
1. The term literary does not mean high brow. In other words, the term itself has a hard time being understood because at one time in your reading education you were chided for not understanding a story and from that day forward the term for such a shame was literary. Anything literary was this kind of writing only for smart people or the pretentious. NOT TRUE.
2. Language vs. Story. Here’s a biggie. In literary fiction you notice language (the words used, metaphors, allusions); in genre fiction you notice story (the plot, and then what happened…). If you are reading a book and it’s a page-turner and you can’t wait to know what happens next, you’re reading a genre novel. If, on the other hand, as you are reading a book you find yourself loving the words, the metaphors, the character being developed before your eyes, you’re reading literary. This is not to say a genre novel can’t be literature (a different term): I consider Dune, Frankenstein, Lord of the Rings, Childhood’s End, and others to be literature!
3. Character vs. Plot. In literary fiction the book is developed and focused around the character whereas in genre fiction the book is developed and focused around plot. This is a variation on #2. In other words, the language you use is very very important because you are developing a character. In genre fiction, you are concerned with structure, the structure of conflict-choice-consequences because you are creating a story/plot.
4. Who vs What. By now, you should have a good notion that literary fiction is about who while genre fiction is about what.
Here’s how you can tell the difference here: Take a representative page of your work. Read it and answer the following questions — Do I know more now about the character or the plot? In a work that is literary the answer is the former; for genre, it’s the latter.
Some other things to consider:
For any specialized writing course — science fiction, the short story, poetry, etc., it is very, very important to read in the specialized area. When you are enrolled in a literary fiction class, I suggest you pick up a literary book or two to use as models. In other words, when you’re stuck or need inspiration go to experts, published authors in the specialized area and see how they wrote, borrow from them, learn from them. While in a literary fiction class, you should be reading literary fiction. Only makes sense.
When you register for Literary Novel Workshop: Polishing the In-Progress Novel or any course for that matter, you need to understand what you’re getting yourself into, as best you can. This course could have easily been called Fantasy Novel Workshop: Polishing the In-Progress Novel and guess what, you’d need to understand what fantasy means, right; and be interested in writing it! Only makes sense.
5. Literary is incarnation and idiosyncratic. This is the heart of what literary is, it’s also its most hard to understand because it’s not something that can be readily taught. Let me break it down:
A. Incarnation: Make your character real. Simple right? Well, yes and no. To flesh out your character you have to, regardless of POV, see the world through them and in order to do so you must create them, and the only way to create something from abstraction (in your head) to concrete (on the page) is through words. So, in this way, the very words you choose to describe, set, put into action, all are directed toward the character. You get to play at being a god. You decided how words serve as the fire, the fuel, the DNA of the character so much so that when someone reads about your character they’re inside the mind or psyche of that character. Just look at yourself, what are your favorite words? What expressions have you always said? How do you look at the world; and what are the words you’d use to describe it? Because of my journey my words are different from yours because you’ve had a different journey. Think of your character as another entirely different person. Use words to make it flesh.
B. Idiosyncratic: This cannot be taught. I have a love for words and I love to encode my fiction with words that will blossom in the mind of a like-minded reader. I use words like music, in order to instill in the reader an emotion or a feeling I want them to have. I don’t say it outright, I use language to have it arise within the reader. I have a way of looking at the world, and so, I put that down on the page when I’m writing literary, because with literary works not only are you noticing the language, the character, but you are noticing the author him or herself.
—Wm. Anthony Connolly