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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