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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.