Genre vs Mainstream vs Literary Fiction


Okay, from what I read on various on-line bulletin boards, I’m seeing a lot of what I feel are erroneous definitions of “genre,” “mainstream,” and “literary” fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an expert, but here is what I’ve always been told are the meanings of these words. If I'm wrong, let me know, but I'm deriving my meanings from various experts on the subject of writing including writers like Sol Stein and Dean Koontz.

Genre - these are primarily plot-driven stories, caring little for the development of a character, but telling a gripping story instead. It's more about will the good guy catch the bad guy, army "A" be victorious over army "B," or will he/she fall in love, etc.

Mainstream - to me, while having a plot, is normally more character driven. My novel "The Bridge Beckons" is a young adult/mainstream novel. It is character driven, but still has a plot and a theme. Character driven stories are NOT the exclusive property of literary fiction, if at all. Mainstream fiction is concerned with the human condition, and explains how a character (i.e. character driven) copes with his circumstances.

Literary - is usually character driven but even more, language and style driven, to paint a picture or make a commentary on some world condition. It is the darling of the elite, or ivy-towered group. In my opinion, literary fiction is little more than an essay dressed-up in a fictional style. That may explain why literary “novels,” if one can really classify a literary work as a novel, do not usually sell well. Who wants to read an essay or commentary, when what the general public wants is a story with characters they can curl up in bed with?

Read "Lilies of the Field" or "Red Badge of Courage" for examples of what I mean by literary fiction. I may be wrong, but I had a hard time figuring out a plot line in either of them. Oh, I suppose they had some modicum of a story, but neither of them gripped me, but had wonderful descriptions of the conditions at hand. If they had told a gripping story, rather than repetitious descriptions of conditions, I might have liked them.

There are varying degrees in each category of course. However, most genre novels are primarily plot-driven, whereas, mainstream are primarily character driven with a plot line and theme.

There are many novels "labeled" mainstream that are plot-driven, but become classified "mainstream" by their appeal to a wide audience. However, in my opinion many of them are still genre, but with a wide appeal.

About Paul West

Paul West is a freelance writer and novelist. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Paul claims to be a "Prune Picker," though he now makes his home in Taylorsville, Utah.

You can follower him on Twitter: @PaulWWest

Published: Wednesday, July 27, 2005

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I suppose everyone has a slightly different technique in getting to know their characters. Mine is probably as unique as anyone's.

My novel "The Bridge Beckons" is character driven. I prefer to write and read this kind of fiction. If one writes plot-driven stories a strong well-defined character isn't always needed and may even get in the way of the suspensful plot. But in character-driven fiction, it's imperitive to know your characters, how they think, how they react to circumstances, their background, goals, fears, loves, hates, etc.

When I began writing my first novel, I tried to create characters using the personality traits of people I knew. Of course, I had to modify them so the actual people wouldn't recognize themselves. As I did this, I tried to get into their heads. I tried to imagine myself in their shoes. How would I think, act, react, feel, etc. if I were them? From trying to empathasize with my characters, I've been able to write not only from the protagonist's point of view, but also from the antagonist's. I think my main antagonist is as real as my protagonists. My female characters are as real to me as the male characters. I know it's perhaps difficult for a man to think like a female, and vice-versa, but I think it can be done if we're truly sympathetic and empathetic to what makes the opposite sex tick.

Maybe that's part of the secret to successful marriages too?
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I've written my novel THE BRIDGE BECKONS from both male and female viewpoints.

My main character is Mark Wilkerson, a boy suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome brought on from his having witnessed his family's demise in a fiery crash on the Carquinez Bridge in California. He is musically talented and dances like a professional. He had been somewhat popular in his previous school, but in his new school, John Swett High, in Crockett, no one knows him, nor do they care. They only know he's strange, being afraid of the bridge.

Genie Lombardi is the main heroine of this novel. She is a lovely young lady, yet not very popular, who only wants to find a boy she can respect and love. A lot of my writing is through her viewpoint.

I also use the viewpoint of Charisse Davis, a popular, if somewhat shallow, cheerleader that Mark has a crush on. She tries to use Mark to further her popularity.

Probably the most interesting character through whom is wrote, is that of Jeff Marino. He’s the main antagonist. I've tried to make his story sympathetic as he rationalizes why he hates Mark and goes insane near the end of the book.

I've had several women, including my daughters, who have commented that I've painted my female characters very accurately. I have them thinking, saying, and acting the way girls really think, talk, and act.

I'm not sure how I'm able to do this. Maybe it's just because I try to empathize with them, trying to see the world as they see it. I've been around enough women and girls that, while I'm no expert in how they think, I evidently can portray them fairly accurately.

I've seen some great authors who have done the same. Nicholas Sparks and Richard Paul Evans come to mind. I think Anita Stansfield does a pretty good job of describing how men think and feel.

All-in-all, I don't think it's impossible for a person to write convincingly about someone of the opposite sex. You just have to observe and try to understand what you're observing. I keep trying and hope to get better as I keep writing.
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Not long ago, I was asked, "When do you find time to write? My whole day is taken up with my career, kids, housework, church work, etc. I find if I don't write every day I get lazy and let my writing slide, but I simply don't have time for it every day."

I didn't know exactly what kind of advice to offer. Everyone is different.

To me, writing is so important that even if I've been away from it for several days, and in the past it's even been months and years, I feel so compelled to write that I just have to get back to it. I just can't wait to sit get down and pound out my story, even if it's no good (maybe my grandchildren will like it someday).

As for when I find time to write, I try to write at home, but my wife always has plenty of honey-dos for me, so that doesn't always work well. Mostly, I write at work on my breaks at work. I know that doesn't work well for those who like to socialize, but that's never been a big issue with me. I've never felt a need to join with other people to feel fulfilled.

While I like being around people, I'm not what one would call a party-goer. I'm quite content to be alone with my thoughts, and a computer on which to express them. That drives my wife crazy, however. She thinks someday I'll go insane, living in dream world where my only friends are those I write about. That's certainly not going to be the case. I love being around people, especially those with whom I have common interests. I just don't feel a NEED to be around them constantly as she does.

I feel if one wants to write bad enough, he'll find the time, even if it's a minute here and a minute there.

I've read some posts by James McDonald, the popular author of several science fiction novels. He claims that if a writer is to be successful he must be willing to put his "BIC", as he terms it, or "butt in chair" for at least a half hour each day, longer if possible, and do nothing but pound the keyboard. Personally, while I think there is some merit to his advice, I find it too restrictive. Like the person who asked for my advice, I can't always find 30 minutes every day to put my BIC and type away. Sometimes, it's only 10 minutes, some days it's not at all, and other days I find I can devote several hours and have difficulty quitting as the muse becomes very strong and exhilarating. The key, I think is to be consistent. Keep at it, whenever you get the opportunity. Don't be deterred. And stick to one story at a time. I've heard of some writers who keep starting new stories but never finishing any of them (but that's perhaps another issue for another posting).

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There's a discussion currently going on at one of the on-line writer's community websites regarding writing dialect. I see many writers who think they have to spell out a character's dialect to characterize him as someone who doesn't speak fluent, well-polished English.

Samuel Clemens did this in "Huckle Berry Finn." I've read that book a couple of times and got awfully tired of reading the "Southern" dialect he uses for Huck Finn and the "Negro" dialect of his companion Jim. George Bernard Shaw used his description of Eliza Doolittle's cockney dialog in the stage play Pygmalion, but after the first chapter he desisted, realizing it would be horribly laborious for the reader.

Perhaps it would have been better for Clemens to do as Shaw did - that is, start the first scene using the dialectical dialog to show how she speaks, then revert to normal dialog for the rest of his story, but I believe there is a better way.

In my opinion, both Clemens’ and Shaw’s styles are less than desirable. As Sol Stein pointed out in his book, "Stein on Writing," (1995, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, p. 118 - 121), “Spelling out pronunciations is almost always a bad choice. I would also like to caution against the use of dialect in which speech is differentiated from the standard language by odd spellings. . . . Dialect is annoying to the reader. It takes extra effort to derive the meaning of words on the page; that effort deters full involvement in the experience of a story. . . . As a substitute for dialect use word order, omitted words, and other markers.”

I think writers would be better off using colloquialisms, broken sentences, sentence fragments, awkward or unusual sentence structures, words added or deleted where they normally would be, etc., to show the dialectical dialog. But all the time maintain proper spelling. The reader's mind will supply the strange or foreign accents, dialectical pronunciations, etc.

I've tried to do this in my book "The Bridge Beckons." I have Mexican, Italian, and roughian dialects all portrayed in it with no misspellings, and have received many comments on how realistic it sounds.
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Postpartum (of your novel) Depression

It's a work of love you’ve been working with for a long time, maybe even years. Finally, you’ve sent it to a publisher, and he wants it! It's done! Kaput! You rejoice. You celebrate. Break out the cake and ice-cream.

So why should you feel so depressed?

I think most writers go through some variation of depression when their “baby” finally goes off to market. That's why I've started my second novel "GRETA!" even before THE BRIDGE BECKONS sells.

Of course, there is a big sigh of relief when your work finally goes off to an agent or publisher. But, after that initial sigh, while waiting for the verdict, or the final product to hit the bookstore shelves, I think we can drop into a funk if we don't quickly get busy with another project. We need something to take our minds off the project that just went out, or we can worry ourselves to death.

As with most writers, I have this overbearing feeling that my work is dumb, stupid, juvenile, not worthy of anyone's reading, let alone their respect. But, I think that's normal. I think if we writers ever thought otherwise, we'd be arrogant about our work, rather than humble, and I'm not so sure an arrogant writer can put his best efforts into his writing, as he'd probably think, "Hey I’m good. I don’t make mistakes, I don’t need to revise, and I just know everyone will want to read my work." I think there are writers, some of them best-selling authors, who have this attitude. I’ve heard rumors of a few. However, might not their writing be even better if they were to take the humble attitude and say, “I know it’s not the best. What can I do to make it better?” That’s the attitude of truly great writers, in my opinion.

Revision is the key to good writing. I think I’ve revised and edited THE BRIDGE BECKONS a hundred or more times. I’ve been working on it off and on for the past 18 years and I’m getting sick of it. I’ve had it critiqued by several people, and I still think there’s room for improvement, even as I’m currently sending out queries to agents and editors. Over the years I’ve learned a great deal about writing. I’ve read several books on the art and have tried to apply what I’ve read. Of course, I write for a living, but it’s technical writing. Fiction writing is a whole different ball game.

With all I’ve learned, I’m hoping GRETA! won’t take nearly as long to write, and will be even better than THE BRIDGE BECKONS.
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Regarding gender-neutral references.

Some time ago, I got into a discussion with several writers regarding gender-neutral references.

I've seen a lot of writers who use he/him/his/she/her/hers interchangeably when speaking of people as a group (i.e. writers, etc.). This has always bothered me. Am I being sexist to use the grammatically proper "he/him/his"?

This question came up when I read a message in an email newsletter. He/she/it (the editor) quoted E.B. White:

"Delay is natural to the writer. He is like a surfer--he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? Of courage?) that will carry him along. I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words. I walk around, straightening pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor--as though not until everything in the world was lined up and perfectly true could anybody reasonably expect me to set a word down on paper." - E.B. White

Then he/she/it made the following apology:

"I hope you'll understand E.B. White's sexism with all the "he/him"; it was acceptable in his day."

When I was a boy in grammar school, and also in high school, I was taught that the words "He/him/his" are considered gender-neutral when referring to a group of people. As in "MAN-kind," "chairMAN," etc. I realize that was centuries ago (at least my kids think so), but I still don't consider this sexist, but proper grammar. Have the rules of proper grammar been changed? If so, who changed them?
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First , for a bit about me. I fancy myself as a fiction writer but will try to post my thoughts on several issues including fiction writing, plus my thoughts on politics, religion, and whatever else might be on my mind.

I live in Utah and work as an environmental biologist. Over the years, I’ve completed a novel-length manuscript titled THE BRIDGE BECKONS. While I’m trying to market it, I’ve begun another titled GRETA!

I grew up in a small town in the California Bay Area called Port Costa, and even though I now live in Utah, I still claim “Prune Picker” status (native Californian’s should know what that means). We liked to joke that Port Costa has a population of 150 if you count the dogs and cats. It’s a picturesque old town with a colorful history and picturesque countryside.

One day, I came across a wonderful site The owner of the site, Clayton Bailey, is a resident of Port Costa and seems to share my love of the town and it’s environs. He’s posted pictures of the countryside, the town, and occasionally some of the townsfolk, many of whom I still recall from my childhood. I refer to his site often as I write about the town in which I once lived.

The rustic San Francisco Bay Area countryside, the quaint small town in which I grew up, the colorful people, all have teamed to fertilize my mind with stories that are screaming to be told. From my high school days, my English teachers saw some sort of raw writing ability, both for fiction and non-fiction. In college, my professors seemed to see the same ability and encouraged me to mold that ability into a talent. I like to flatter myself into thinking I have done that.

After settling on my career, the stories swarming through my head kept crying to get out. So about 18 years ago I began writing fiction, but only as a hobby at first. But now, it’s becoming an obsession and I hope to get THE BRIDGE BECKONS published soon. I just know it will be a best-seller and make me millions of dollars (joke).

In addition to my writing, my wife and I enjoy spending time with our four children and two grandchildren. I also love gardening, researching my family history, and reading good books.
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