Literary vs. Genre writing

One might argue that everything is “literature” and that literature should not be divided into “genres”–that there should not be the elitist group branded the “literary works”, separate from the more commercially accessible books branded the “genre novels”. But I’m looking at the body of writing through a publishing stand-point. Despite the supporting arguments (and I know there are many), in the end, when an individual tries to query, they will have to categorize their work. You can’t write: [insert title] is a work of literature that focuses mainly on romance. It’s either you write “romance” or a “literary fiction” focused on a love story.

So I began wondering… What is the difference between the writing style belonging to authors who categorize their works in their query letter as being a “literary fiction focused on a love story” and a “romance” novel?

It was after I read House Made of Dawn and compared Momaday’s writing to my own (ha…ha…ha…*sobs*) that I’ve come to understand the difference between “literary” writing from “genre” writing (by “genre-writing”, I’m focusing more on the writing in romance novels, because this is the genre within my field of knowledge). I always thought that to write literature, you just had to know how to drag on and on and write about things so complex that you’d lose the reader. However, I realized that one major factor of what makes literature literature is how the sentences are sculpted so carefully that even a single phrase might contain a significant story of its own. For example, take the opening sentence from Moby-Dick: “Call me Ishmael“. An English class can spend a whole hour studying this sentence, the meaning behind it, and how it might apply to the book’s major theme.

I’m not implying that romance novels are completely absent of literary merit. I’m just saying that the focus in these two category of writing is different. The writing in romance novels tend to be straightforward because a reader is meant to breeze through it–or else how can such a novel be used as the “escapist” novel so many women crave for? Whereas with literature, we aren’t meant to breeze through it, but to pause time to time and wonder what-the-heck the author is trying to tell us. And even if you have no idea what the entire book was about, you’re left in awe, because the writing was just so darn beautiful.

Yes, so I just found this difference fascinating, even though it must seem pretty matter-of-fact to others.

What do you think is the difference between literary and genre writing? Or do you think there is no difference at all? –that everything is subjective and depends entirely on the writer?

18 thoughts on “Literary vs. Genre writing

  1. Really great post, June–it’s a hard line to draw, and you’re right that it’s a focus thing, not a merit thing. I just…um…really like words. I love reading literary fiction even when the story loses me because I’m like…oooh! They turned a phrase so…so…sigh. Yes.

    But losing myself in a good story is fun, too. Room for all types on my bookshelf 🙂 For me as a writer–hmm. I would love to think that I write literary fiction but…well, I try to write literary fiction. Not because I think it’s better–because I think my strengths (hahaha…sounds so snobby! I don’t really think I have strengths…) are in the language rather than in plot. I’m rubbish at plot.


    • I remember reading your work and loving the way you arranged the words. Personally, because I was always so focused on the plot, I never focused too much on my writing. So now when I read I focus more on how the author weaves his/her words together–rather than focusing entirely on the storyline. I think I’ll learn alot through this practice!



    The writing world seems to be a bit exhausting to me at times with the way “literary” seems to turn their nose up at “genre” and within the “genre” world you have those who put down the fantasy and romance writers.

    I think we should always be reading all sorts of books (literary and genre), but in the end, just write what you like to read. There’s no shame in that and there’s no reason you ought to compare your writing to another’s. Learn, yes. Compare, no.

    I don’t want to see anymore *sobs* from a beautiful writer such as yourself. 😀


    • Becca!

      I’ve come to terms with the fact that writing grows as we grow. I can’t force myself to be at a level I’m not at. It takes time. I need to take everything step by step!

      I must stop comparing my writing. It really is veryyy bad. And instead, like you said, I must “learn” from them instead.

      And thanks for the link!


  3. The biggest difference between literary and genre writing, I think, is the different concentrations. Genre writers are focused WITHIN the world of the book, and simply wish to provide us with laws of right and wrong within the story. But literary writers are intending to use the story to example the outside world – the ‘real’ world, and their works are mediums with which to analyze the human condition.

    Genre writing is story telling.
    Literary writing is an essay told in narrative, fictional form.
    : )


  4. 🙂

    Genre writing can be literary. Just not on the sales racks. There, you just have to classify.

    Aren’t some of Doris Lessing’s works sci-fi/ Fnatasy? And yet there she is with a Nobel.

    But the difference is that literary works suggest conclusions. Non-lit fiction tells you what when and how.

    In romance novels, the main point that always frustrates me is when author tells me that the heroine is intelligent. After which, of course, our heroine does absolutely nothing to prove the point.


    • What I find disappointing is that most of the genres (fantasy, sci-fi, even horror if Steven King counts as a horror-fic writer) can do a crossover with literary fic. Our university has courses on horror and fantasy writing. But romance writing? Nope. If one writes a romance novel with a literary slant, it’s placed on the ‘general fiction’ shelf. I think romance novels are fascinating in itself. I’m sure there is a scholarly way of studying these books.

      Oh, I hear you about romance authors calling a character intelligent yet never showing it. I guess it’s because the authors are so eager to get into the romance that they don’t want to bother proving their character’s personality narrative. Well, it’s something I do, and am now trying to get out of


  5. Wonderful post, June! I mulled over similar lines in my blog not too long ago, and came away with sentiments very similar to yours…

    It’s not easy to categorize most books (especially your own when it comes to querying) one way or the other. I believe the voice of the writer and the plotline at most times determines where the book falls.

    Which is better? To each his own, I guess! 🙂 I heard that the current market does not encourage pure literary works, though — a shame, because how will the kids learn to chew on not-so-clear concepts and feel the euphoria when they finally crack them?


    • Really?! Pure literary books are discouraged now?! wow… I guess those books don’t do too well on the sales? But, then again, what IS pure literature? Books that are so intelligent that they’re inaccessible? Maybe?


  6. I think the definition of “literary” and “genre” changes over time. I’m not familiar with say, Jane Austen’s writing, but where her works are read as literature today, they would probably have been appreciated on a more entertaining and “chick lit” level than it is today. Same with the Canterbury Tales. You can’t believe some of the tales they have us read and analyze 😛

    I think I tried “literary” in the past, but it was simply too hard and I don’t see myself as a sufficiently-talented writer to venture there. Besides, genre has its own fun. There is more focus on just telling a story as opposed to presenting new and inventive literary themes, elements, and so forth. However, I do find literary works more “universal” in the sense that they aren’t as caught up in the tropes and specifics of particular genres. Genre fiction tends to cater to a specific group of people who DO enjoy and even fantasize over elements of that genre. For instance, I took a class in Science Fiction last year, and I simply could not get into the reading because it was too scientific, and too rooted in the science-fiction way of thinking. In one of my stories, the writer dedicated maybe three pages to describing the biological/chemical functions of cells in an alien’s body – which would interest some readers who are into that stuff, but not me! I suppose a more literary way of presenting that story would be cutting out the scientific specifics and maybe just focusing more generally on the aliens’ relationship to us. so in a way, literary writing can be broader and more universal, sort of like the cake, but not give you the “zest” – the icing – you get from a genre piece.


  7. Yet in the end, what matters more: the icing or the cake? So I think literary and genre works can be equally impacting, taking into consideration what ultimately resonates with the reader.


    • Literary doesn’t work for me either. I realize that it’s just not my “voice”. I love storytelling with a “zest” as you put it haha.


  8. Great post, June. And all the comments. I fall on the storytelling side of writing and generally read genre fiction. I don’t think Anita Shreve is considered literary per se (maybe I’m wrong?)but how can you read “The Weight of Water” and not realize it’s literary; it’s art, not just a story, but the story is strong. I was so enthralled w/ her style in that book I read more. I put one away because the story just wasn’t there, no matter how beautifully she trying to “sell” it.
    I think all writers would do well to read and study literary writing; it causes us to stretch and grow no matter where we fall on those book shelves.


    • I have that book–Weight of Water. But I’ve never read it! I will now, now that you’ve stirred my interest!

      But that’s what I envy so much about such stories–stories in which the story is strong, yet also literary…

      I think the main reason why I’m going through a burst of envy is because the prof is analyzing the novels in such a brilliant way!


  9. I think that you categorize it perfectly. Romance novels are meant to be a breeze which is why people often don’t spend much time on them. Literary fiction one the other hand is meant to take longer and make readers think more, so more can be packed into them.

    I myself LOVE a good romance novel. And there are some pretty successful romance novelists out there so, the romance genre definitely has some merit 🙂


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