Literary Fiction vs Popular Fiction

If you’re a book lover, you’ll often hear the words ‘popular fiction’ and ‘literary fiction’ being bandied about. In all likelihood, you’ll favour one type over another. But what do these terms really mean? To me, the words sum up differing attitudes to fiction. While literary fiction aims to hold up a mirror to the human condition, popular fiction aims to entertain, to thrill, to comfort. This difference manifests itself in various ways.

Plot

Popular fiction books tend to be driven by plot. They are big-hearted, bally stories that slip down as easily as punch on a summer day. Plot is less important in literary novels; often, very little happens.

Character

In literary novels, the character takes centre stage. They drive the story. The reader becomes fascinated by the characters, as they reveal themselves layer by layer. They tend to be outsiders, with a murky backstory. Characters in popular fiction novels are more likely to be stock figures, whose function is to serve the plot.

Setting

Places in popular fiction novels are either immediately familiar or exotic, offering the possibility of escape. In literary fiction, places take on characters of their own. Authors will often explore the foreign within the familiar, for example, the self-contained London Jewish community.

Language

Literary authors use language with care. Not a word is wasted; each word packs a punch. Unusual images and metaphors abound. In popular fiction, the language is plainer, closer to everyday spoken language.

Dialogue

Popular fiction is generous in its use of dialogue. Because popular fiction authors write as they speak, the dialogue rings true and is rich with the language of everyday life. Literary fiction relies more on description than dialogue. When there is dialogue, it is more like written language than spoken.

Theme

In both types of fiction, there is always a danger that the novel will be bogged down by issues, that the issue will matter more than the plot or characters. In both cases, the reader will feel that they are being preached to. Both types explore relevant, interesting themes and this exploration is most effective when it is channelled through characters or plot.

In reality, both types of fiction have their own appeal. And the lines between them are becoming increasingly blurred. there are intelligent blockbusters that pack a punch. And there are literary novels that are the equivalent of a limp handshake, lacking bite and sparkle. It’s time publishers, booksellers and readers stopped thinking in such narrow, genre-based terms and learned to celebrate quality, no matter what form it comes in.

What types of fiction do you read? Do you automatically think literary means quality? Does popular fiction pack a punch? Feel free to share your thoughts.

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27 thoughts on “Literary Fiction vs Popular Fiction

  1. Interesting article. I read both literary and popular fiction, I suppose it depends on my mood! And I wouldn’t necessarily think that literary means quality. I think any well-written book is a good book, regardless of who it appeals to.

  2. I think this amounts to another put down of literary fiction. Often what passes for literary fiction is ridiculously overblown stuff by the likes of David Foster Wallace, or Don Delillo, and others that won’t be read twenty year from now, let alone two hundred. LitFic as a genre, tends to be the product of LitProfs, rather than people with lives in the world, and is marked by obscurity, rather than clarity, and surface profundity that masks a hollow core. It’s a lot like listening to a bad rock band, so thick with pure amplifier noise that you can make out neither the notes or the lyrics.

    There a plenty of wonderful literary authors writing engaging fiction. It’s just that such work isn’t hip. Hip is the literary equivalent of The Emperors New Clothes. The pretentious stuff, that nobody gets, but everyone would like you to think they get; that’s what the critics tend to praise as literary fiction. It is rather the attenuated genre form, LitFic.

  3. Thanks for a well written and insightful post. While my novel doesn’t include many big words, I make up for that with small ideas (I hope). Having read your post here I’m becoming more comfortable with the label, “literary fiction”, even though the book is pretty entertaining!

    Thank you for helping me through my genre identity crisis.

    1. You’re welcome. I would feel that the best literary novels go for well chosen words rather than big words. Choosing your words well is the important things. And there are plenty of novels that cross the divide between literary and popular fiction. There’s even a sub-genre for them now – accessible literary fiction. Hope that doesn’t put the cat among the pigeons.

      1. Now that’s a saying I’ve never heard before, and it’s a good one, putting the cat among the pigeons. I hope that doesn’t happen where I live. Sometimes there are peregrine falcons here on a controlled basis, This does not bode well for the pigeons nor the two car washes.

        The cats were never much of an issue for the pigeons, though I’ve watched one play tag with a bunny late at a night . . . that’s what falcons do to cats.

  4. A list of titles for both types (and maybe even a list of the blurred between the lines) would be of interest. As I have been teaching my 6th grader about different genera she was not able to understand each until we put book she read into lists of each type.

    1. Thanks for that. Popular fiction would be the likes of Jackie Collins, Danielle Steele and Jeffrey Deaver. Literary fiction would be the likes of Philip Roth, Barbara Kingsolver and Marilynne Robinson. A good example of an author who blurs the lines would be Anita Shreve. Her books are written in an accessible style, but deal with meaty topics in a subtle way.

  5. I think mostly people are interested in popular fiction instead of literary fiction. Popular fiction is more easier than literary.No doubt popular fiction is based on literary fiction. Todays movies are more prominent examples of popular fiction. But I am in the favour of literary fiction.

  6. It’s funny you’d ask whether I “automatically think literary means quality” because if I hear “literary” I automatically think “boring”! 😉

    I’m an avid reader, fell in love with books ever since I learned to read (I even read while walking the dog!). But I’m a plot guy. I’ve always loved good stories. That’s why I read – to be enchanted by good stories.
    Lit fic simply doesn’t make it for me. Pretty much every time I try a literary book I end up feeling like having wasted my time on an eventless, boring story (or often non-story). I’m just not interested in the themes that lit fic seems to focus on.

    I must object to your assessment, though, that “in popular fiction, the language is plainer”. Granted, this is usually the case but not always. I was thrilled by the language Michael Shea used in his fantasy “In Yana, the Touch of Undying” which is all but plain. (I’ve heard that his style is reminiscent of Jack Vance’s but since I haven’t yet read anything by Vance I can’t comment on this.) Stephen R. Donaldson has been criticized for his use of obscure, thesaurus-heavy language because “peasants don’t talk like English majors” (I’m paraphrasing). And the late Terry Pratchett can hardly be accused to have used language without care, all the contrary.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I can understand why literary fiction doesn’t satisfy if you prefer plots. Like any genre, literary fiction isn’t perfect and I’d agree that some lit fic books are a little too subtle for their own good! Your point about language is interesting, but I’d still contend that by and large, literary authors use language with more skill. They can pack a punch with just a few words. If language is too flowery or too plane, it’s not going to have the same emotional impact on the reader. But it comes down to taste and what you’re reading for. And yes, Terry Pratchett was very skilled with language.

  7. This is a gross over-simplification of both popular and literary fiction. While genre fiction might be more plot-driven, Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a prime example of popular fiction to which character is central. Similarly, to say little happens in literary fiction is laughable. What about War and Peace? Lastly, literary style varies from writer to writer. George R.R. Martin can hardly be accused of writing popular fiction in a style similar to his speaking voice. Popular Fiction is genre fiction, plain and simple. It fulfills certain generic criteria (or subverts that criteria), while literary fiction does not operate within those bounds. It would be more helpful to readers of your blog if you were to research your subject more thoroughly before posting.

    1. Thanks for your comments. These are conclusions I have drawn based on a lifetime of reading. Others may not agree, but that does not necessarily mean either of us are wrong. Also, this is not an academic blog, just an expression of opinion, and it is by no means definitive, but I hope some will find its points valid, even if they do not necessarily agree.

      1. I do appreciate differences of opinion, but as an academic who specialized in, and who teaches, popular fiction, it’s concerning to see such broad brushstrokes applied to a multitude of genres. I teach my students to recognize the “literariness” of popular fiction, rather than diminishing those texts to these types of incorrect generalizations. We none of us can read everything over the course of our lives (try as we might!) and readers will always interpret texts differently, but there are some generalizations here which are simply incorrect (see examples I gave in my previous comment), and which diminish both genres.

      2. It is fair to say that there are lines where popular and literary fiction cross – a lot of what I read falls into this category. It would certainly be worth doing a post on those sorts of books in the future. I don’t often receive such erudite critique of my blog, so thanks.

      3. You’re welcome! And thanks for being so receptive…sometime I default into poncy academic voice, so apologies for that! I’m looking forward to seeing what you think of The Recovering Academic. It’s a new venture so any feedback would be much appreciated!

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