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How to Choose Between Literary and Genre Fiction?

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Published on: 14 Oct 2022

It's easy to define fiction. It's a work born from your imagination. It's a world created apart from reality. But fiction has two branches that are often pitted against each other. We are talking about literary fiction and genre fiction. David Mitchell mentions in an article on literary fiction vs genre fiction published in the Guardian: 

“One thing you tend to notice after a while, though: it’s almost never writers of genre fiction who are picking the fight. To be fair, it’s often not literary writers either – it’s academics taking up the cudgels on their behalf; considerately telling us which stories are worth serious consideration and which aren’t. And I guess we appreciate the help, right? Because it’s a bewildering fictional landscape out there and an innocent young seeker after truth could easily go astray.”  

This blog speaks at length about what literary fiction and genre fiction mean and which branch would go best for you. Let's read!

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What is literary fiction?

Simply put, literary fiction is fiction that doesn't bind itself within any genre. It does not fit into any category like mystery, fantasy, thriller, or science fiction. Hence, it's more challenging to classify into a category or subcategory.

Popular examples of literary fiction:

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Malgudi Days by R.K. Narayan

What is Genre fiction?

Genre fiction includes books or stories that are easy to categorise into genres. Most books that people read are a part of genre fiction. For instance, Danielle Steele, James Patterson, Dan Brown, Vikram Seth, and Jane Austen. These are notable authors who have worked in this category of fiction.

Popular examples of genre fiction:

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

A Love of Long Ago by Ruskin Bond

The Promise by Danielle Steele

examples koolstories

The line between literary fiction and genre fiction

Literary fiction and genre fiction are two different categories. But, some authors try to intersect these two sections. Collaborating elements of the genre and literary fiction have given some unique stories.

For instance, have you read the books written by John Updike? The writer's novels break the traditional barriers between literary fiction and genre fiction. His stories also spin unconventional and complicated webs of sex, love, and the human mind.

Another great example is J.R.R. Tolkien. At first glance, his book 'The Lord of the Rings' may seem like a fantasy trilogy. But, the allegory analyses the relationship of man with nature and politics in depth. It mimics the corruption of the human mind and how power can withhold humanity in its clutches.

The most significant differences between literary and genre fiction lie in their characteristics. Let's learn the diverse characteristics of literary and genre fiction.

Characteristics of Literary Fiction

There's no rigid definition for literary fiction. But, there is a loose set of "rules" or "characteristics" followed by authors of literary fiction. Here's a list of these characteristics:

1. Narrative is character-focused

2. Use of metaphors, allegory, and symbolism.

3. Use of advanced vocabulary combined with vivid visual descriptions.

4. Plot points are ambiguous.

5. Ambiguous conclusion for free interruptions.

6. Exploration of philosophical themes about human behaviour and the exposure of human vulnerabilities.

7. Using trends from history, culture, or tradition as inspiration.

8. Rejection of adherence

Characteristics of Genre Fiction

Genre fiction is also written by following certain characteristics. Let's look into what these characteristics are:

1. Follows writing conventions that have existed for a long time.

2. Less allegories and symbolism. Even if there is any symbolism, it is more easily understandable for the reader.

3. More literal content with less obscurity.

4. Fits into specific genres like horror, fantasy, spy, romance, thriller, and comedy.

Difference between literary and genre fiction

Here are the top differences between literary fiction vs genre fiction.

1. The story is character driven in literary fiction. But genre fiction has stories driven by a plot.

2. Literary fiction uses themes that uplift the perspective of human psychology. Genre fiction uses themes to uplift the structure of the plot.

3. Literary fiction focuses on the story beyond any genre. Genre fiction adheres to the conventional characteristics of a genre.

4. Literary fiction is a straightforward expression of life. It is, however, complicated through the use of allegory and symbolism. Genre fiction is more creative but with simplified use of allegory and symbolism

differences literature vs genre fiction koolstories

Popular theme ideas for literary fiction

Literary fiction delves into specific themes that you can see through various examples. Let's understand better what these themes are:

1. Family value

Family value is an essential theme in literary fiction. Novels like "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Pachinko" focus deeply on human relations. For instance, in Pachinko, the core theme focuses on family struggles. It explores how far the characters can go for the survival of the family. The struggles are implied more via the juxtaposition of colonisation. It's more about how change can impact families before they can show "better" results.

2. The power of music, art, and culture against the society

A recurring theme in many literary fiction novels is the presence of art, music, or culture. For instance, Jeffrey Eugenides's award-winning novel Middlesex explores Greek mythology. It also has themes like rebirth, nature, and breaking the constructs of society.

One of the most popular literary fiction examples is Kafka on the Shore. The novel highlights the power of music. It talks about Kafka and Nakata, who communicate through music on their journeys. Added themes in this novel are self-reliance, Shintoism, fate, and dreams.

3. War

Most authors are fascinated by the concepts of war. Hence, you will come across many literary fiction recommendations that focus on war. Novels depicting the after-effects of war have also been a keen interest for many writers.

One of the greatest examples is the book "Half of a Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The novel sets its story amidst a thematic landscape caught in a war. It shows how power dictates relationships. The novel explores in depth about power, corruption, and family values. It also presents other themes, including nationalism, capitalism, socialism, and pan-Africanism, among others.

Popular themes in genre fiction

Themes in genre fiction are more about the genres. Currently, these are the top 4 genres invading the fiction scenario. Let's dive into these.

1. Sci-fi

Science fiction, a.k.a Sci-fi, are stories set in societies with new or different technologies. Have you watched the Back to the Future movie series? These are standard examples of science fiction.

Science fiction can include anything like:




-new planets


-strange viruses

-scientific discoveries.

A sci-fi novel aims to delve deeper into the relationship between technology and humans. 
For instance, read the novel "The Time Machine" by H.G. Wells. The story focuses on a man travelling through time, especially into the future. The book is often interrupted to be the author’s views on class differences that had invaded the society during his time.

2. Thriller

Thriller novels are meant to give the reader goosebumps. The "thrill" is specifically derived from the suspense created in these novels. Such stories always have a complex protagonist and a narrative of the "hero's" journey. It generally includes a physical or a mental chase (or multiple chases).

For example, you can read the book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by String Larson. The book targets how society fails to provide justice to women who have faced violence. The complicated plotline explains the dehumanised and misogynistic nature of a neoliberal world.

3. Mystery

Most mystery novels include a crime (murder, kidnapping, robbery, or anything of that sort). The protagonist either faces the accusation or is somehow dragged into the mess. Hence, it begins a dark journey of solving the crime and finding the true culprit.

Mystery novels may bend other types of genres too. For instance, read Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code". The story involves the murder of Jacques Saunière, for which Robert Langdon, the protagonist, is framed. The novel then explores further historical, archaeological, biblical, and mythical genres. It's a complicated tale that leads to a "shocking" discovery in the end.

4. Romance

L'amour. La passion.

The world of novels would have felt a huge void if romance novels didn't exist. Romance novels present to readers the complexities of relationships. Falling in love, how lovers are meant to be despite who they are. Each lover is handed a journey of self-analysis and self-realisation. It finally takes them to the destination of self-discovery.

Take one of the biggest cult classics as a genre fiction example: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

The novel presents Elizabeth Bennet, a plain girl from a modest family. She meets the handsome Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy, who is as broody as he is rich. The two characters instantly begin with a love-hate kind of bond. What follows is a heap of misunderstandings and mishaps that shape the destiny of these two lovers.

So, after knowing everything, which one is for you?

Literary or genre fiction?

We have made it easy for you in the next section.

Which one should you choose: literal or genre fiction?

Want to decide which category of fiction works best for you? Here are two major points based on which you can decide. Let's check out those points:

1. Purpose of reading

The main reason why most people choose genre fiction is entertainment. Genre fiction novels come with a compelling story for an escape from reality. Genre fiction is to escape from mundane life. At the same time, these stories also provide a better means to understand the world.

On the other hand, literary fiction books are for serious readers. People want to get a deeper perspective from a story. They read to soothe themselves and get a new view of life. Literary fiction is seldom for entertainment.

2. Result of writing

Are you writing only for the sake of selling your novel?

Or are you writing to win a prestigious award?

History says that prestigious awards are mostly given to literary fiction novels. This is probably because literary fiction carries a sense of seriousness preferred by senior authors.

At the same time, genre fiction books have caught more commercial attention from readers. Most readers read for entertainment. This is why commercial genre fiction is preferred by many authors.

Does that mean literary fiction writers are better than genre fiction writers?

Certainly not. Literary fiction writers are different from genre fiction writers. But that in no way means that one is better than the other. In reality, both fulfil different requirements for readers.

Look at the works done by Thomas Harris, Stephen King, and George R.R. Martin. These authors may have written genre fiction novels, but their stories have been epic. Even Shakespeare, the most noted playwright of all time, wrote genre fiction novels.

Want to learn how to create your own fiction?

On KoolStories, you can find micro learning courses that can help you learn more about writing. Meet your favourite experts and begin your upskilling journey today.


What is the biggest difference between literary fiction and genre fiction?

For starters, literary fiction does not follow any genre. It is free of any subcategories. Genre fiction has many subcategories like thriller, drama, horror, or romance. Another difference is that literary fiction does not follow any commercial characteristics. Unlike genre fiction, literary fiction has no tropes or climax 'expectations'.

Is literary fiction a genre in itself?

Literary fiction is a category of fiction, but it's definitely not a genre. Category is a broad term used to describe various aspects of a subject. Genre is a subcategory that precisely describes the content of a book or a novel.

Do people prefer literary fiction over genre fiction?

Definitely not. Both categories have faced equal amounts of attention. Literary fiction is for serious readers who want to dive deeper into human psychology. It also highlights the intricately bonded lives of people. Genre fiction is more well-categorised. It is for those who are specific about the themes they want to read about. A romance-novel-lover will read something like the Bridgerton Series by Julia Quinn. At the same time, a serious reader would go for a book like The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho.

How many words do fiction novels carry?

A mid-sized fiction novel can have anywhere from 35000 to 5500 words. Based on this data, you can write a longer or a shorter book. Literary fiction books have more than 55000 words in general. Genre fiction novels can have lesser words if meant for children. The word limit goes higher if written for adults.