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What’s the Difference Between Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction?

People can get confused when publishing industry folks throw around the term “literary fiction.” Unfortunately, the definition is frustratingly vague. Basically, “literary fiction” is anything that isn’t genre fiction. “Genre fiction,” meanwhile, includes books that fall into specific categories.

Here is a list of the most popular fiction genres:

Popular Fiction Genres: romance; women's fiction; action-adventure; suspense-thriller; science fiction; fantasy; young adult; middle grade; horror; western

One basic difference between the two is that literary fiction tends to be character-driven, while genre fiction is often more plot-driven. Genre fiction is also more formulaic. For instance, in romance, the characters have to have a “happily ever after,” or “HEA,” at the end or the book can’t be considered to be a romance. It's also thought that literary fiction tries to create a better understanding of the human condition and real life, while genre fiction helps readers escape from reality.

If you want to be snooty, you can say one more difference is literary fiction aspires to be art, while genre fiction is more focused toward entertainment. And if you’re really pretentious, you may say that genre fiction has no merit at all. This belief gets perpetuated because literary fiction titles win a larger share of prestigious awards.

These latter perceptions can lead to “reader shaming,” where people who read only literary fiction look down on genre-fiction readers.

Give me a break.

I think it doesn’t matter what people read, as long as they are enjoying themselves. One book doesn’t have more value because it doesn’t fit into a genre or is about nineteenth-century aristocrats instead of twenty second–century robots. Books gain value if readers place value upon them. Period. Can I get an Amen?

Just look at this list of famous genre-fiction titles and tell me they are not good and worthwhile reads:

  • Game of Thrones series

  • Hunger Games series

  • Lord of the Rings series

  • Harry Potter series

  • 1984

  • Brave New World

  • Dracula

  • Alice in Wonderland

  • A Wrinkle in Time

  • Flowers for Algernon

  • Pride and Prejudice

  • Outlander

  • In Cold Blood

  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

  • Basically everything written by Stephen King

In my research for this article, I found many titles that were listed both in genre-fiction lists and literary-fiction lists, as if literary fiction is willing to claim a genre-fiction book if the powers that be deem it worthy enough. Examples of titles that crossed over are: The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange, Slaughterhouse-Five (which is my favorite book), American Gods, and Jayne Eyre, among many others.

In the end, if you’re a writer, don’t try to make your book something it isn’t. If your heart wants to write a fantasy, then write a fantasy or a thriller or a western or whatever you want. And if you’re a reader, hold that romance book up high as you commute to work on the train, or if you want to post a picture of your new favorite sci-fi, do it. We only live once. Why waste time feeling insecure about what you like to read instead of actually reading?

Erin Servais is a book editor and author coach who helps women reach their publishing goals, no matter where they are in the writing process. If you just finished your draft, or you’re struggling to settle into a writing routine, she can help. To learn more, click here or email her at

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