Style in Literary & Genre Fiction

For the love of brevity, why can’t I ever blog about something that can be addressed in under 500 words?  Maybe I should just blog about comic books and YouTube videos, heh.

In any case, I think today’s post was partly inspired by one of T.S. Bazelli’s.

Literary Technique & Snobbery

I’d like some perspective on this because I think it directly affects my work and has been on my mind recently.

I have this notion in my head that literary fiction is still somewhat regarded as “snob” fiction today, and also that the use of literary techniques such as metaphor, allusion, alliteration, etc. is something that’s paid more attention to in literary fiction than it is in genre.

Is this true?

Admittedly, I don’t read a whole lot of literary fiction these days.  I still cherish certain classics I had to read in high school and have come to appreciate them way more than I could have at that age, but really I haven’t read much more of that stuff since then.  Though, I distinctly recall that the literary techniques used in those novels were a distinguishing feature in what made them so special (along with their characters’ stories).  But maybe this is only because that’s what we focused on in class!

It’s strange…ever since it’s been suggested to me that I’m working on a character-driven story, I’ve been thinking more about what, exactly, makes literary fiction literary (and genre fiction genre).  I’ve been wondering if my own perception of it is skewed.  I’ve also wondered whether I’m writing something that straddles the border between genre and literary because character-driven stories and literary fiction are so often linked together, and plot also gets some prominent stage time in my WIP, mostly in the second half.

Didn’t you just write a couple of posts on the difference between genre and literary fiction when you talked about plot- and character-driven stories?  I thought we’ve been over this before.

Yes, I have, but I still feel the need to contemplate on this.  I originally wrote those posts because I wasn’t sure which one I was writing.  To be honest, I feel like I may be writing both.  (Of course, it’s hard for someone else gauge these things if you’ve only shown your work to one person, heh.)  I like to focus on character and use literary techniques–not because it’s been ingrained in our brains in school to look out for these things but because that is naturally what I do.  The more I edit and get past plot inconsistencies, the more I seem to pay attention to my writing style.

At first, it was all about getting the story right–the plot and characters and whatnot; now, I feel it’s more about getting the execution of that story right aesthetically–paying attention to things like rhythm and cadence (sometimes I will switch out a word simply because it doesn’t fit the “rhythm” of a line as I hear it in my head).

Anyway, all of this makes me wonder whether my developing writing style is more fitting to genre or literary fiction.

What does it matter whether your work is more “genre-ish” or “literary?”

It doesn’t really, per se; I’m just not sure where I stand.

Naturally, I don’t like to pigeonhole myself into categories, but you kind of have to know how to explain your work to other people if you plan on selling it eventually, right?  If you tell people you’re writing fantasy and you give them something that reads like The Puttermesser Papers (not comparing myself here, just pulling out a crazy example), then is “fantasy” really an appropriate genre description?  (The same goes for the flip side, too.)

Essentially, I’m writing fantasy because there’s a fantastical element.  I just wonder why it seems like mostly literary fiction uses literary devices more prominently than genre fiction does.  I’m not saying this is good or bad, but when I read something like Grimspace by Ann Aguirre, or Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder, the use of literary techniques doesn’t exactly pop out at me.  They may be in there every now and then, but they don’t really stand out (which, to me, seems is what happens in literary fiction).  I don’t remember these books because of their literary style but rather the plot/adventure and worldbuilding.

Which is fine.

I guess I just want to learn to write fiction that has both sides to it–memorable worlds and adventures as well as a distinctive style (and memorable characters.)  Maybe that’s why it’s taking me longer to finish my WIP?  Heh.

I know there’s more and more crossover fiction being written these days that traverses genre and literary, and I really should read more of them.  I think this would give me a better idea of what I’m trying to explore/understand.  (I suspect Neil Gaiman fits this bill, though I haven’t read him yet–don’t stone me!–and I’m currently reading Susanna Clarke now.  After reading Windup Girl, I think Paolo Bacigalupi might fit into this category, too, but I’m not all that sure.)

Am I making any sense today?

I find all of this hard to sort out and express clearly.  I just feel like there’s a lot of greyness in my understanding of these things.  (And maybe that writer’s/blogger’s “identity crisis”  I mentioned the other day has something to do with this.)

So…am I asking a question here?  Hm, I don’t know.  Let me see…

All right, so here’s my question to you: What do you make of the role of style in genre and literary fiction?  Does that matter to you?  Also, would you say your style seems to be a better fit for genre or literary fiction?  How come?

I’ve read plenty of articles on the old genre vs. literary fiction debate, but really I’m more interested in the general public’s perception of this issue.  I wonder how well that perception lines up with everything that’s been written about it.  Sometimes, I wonder why the distinction is even necessary, and if people even care.  (And by the way, I don’t want to seem like I’m getting overly caught-up on this stuff.  I’m just trying to get some perspective.)

Okay, break time’s over for me.  Back to work. ~


15 thoughts on “Style in Literary & Genre Fiction

  1. To be honest Tiyana, I feel that the best of each genre transcends the formula, and as such I think it is excellent and admirable that you strive to achieve this yourself.

    I haven’t read fantasy for a long time, but my favourite fantasy book of all time is Magician by Raymond Feist. Now, this is a fantasy book, it still falls into this genre, but it is also so much more. Ironically, the later books he wrote became less ‘literary’ and more forumulaic, and he churned them out quicker and quicker, and I lose interest.

    So when you are describing your book, I think you can still say you write fantasy, it’s when you describe the story and the characters and the worlds that you can show that you use other literary techniques in your work as well. 🙂


    • Oh no–another book I must add to my endless list! Haha. I will probably die with a book in my hand, and several others left open at my side. Thanks for the example. Looks interesting.

      I see that a lot with books in series, how they become more formulaic, as you say. I imagine the need to “just get it done” gets in the way if you’re writing under contract, but still I wonder how it’s possible to keep the magic of the (main) characters and storyworld going once you’ve explored them intimately in the first novel (except to explore new/different characters and locations, I suppose). The honeymoon period is pretty much over by then, heh.

      And that last bit makes sense. No need to get into details anyway unless someone asks, right? Thanks for the comments, Luke!


  2. Judging from the length of your posts, I imagine your WIP is massive. Phone book massive. So when you look at having explored your characters, setting, etc. in such depth in your first book — I’m wondering if you have enough for two or three books in YOUR first book!

    I think literary fiction has become its own genre. To me, anything with words is somewhat literary to begin with! Look at books many would consider genre-ish, like The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. In my opinion, you could consider this science fiction classic a literary work.

    Maybe the new definition of literary novels should be: that it stands the test of time. Generation after generation can read the book and despite the language and setting, it is still relevant.


    • I don’t think about it much, and I don’t think you should worry about it. Just write the best book you can, in the style that seems to get the story across best. I’ve seen books that straddle the lines. There’s a spectrum rather than a divide. A good book is a good book, no matter where anyone decides to shelve it in a bookstore 🙂


      • Thanks, Theresa. I’m may just be getting ahead of myself. Focusing on telling the best story I can should be my main goal until I’ve written the final manuscript.


    • Jay: Yeah, the WIP is not quite Brandon Sanderson massive, but it’s larger than most–which makes me realize that either I’ve got to cut it down significantly (ha!) or make sure every word matters and tells an engaging story. Probably both, though I’m more concerned about telling the story as best I can.

      As for whether there’s more than one book in the manuscript…I guess I’ll let first readers decide that, though I’m convinced there isn’t.

      I think that’s another great quality of literary fiction, Jay: timelessness. Not sure if this is something authors (should) consciously aim for when they write, but I imagine it’s pretty difficult to attain!


  3. I think one of the main dividing lines between genre fiction and literary fiction* is the type of stories they choose to tell.
    There are stylists in Fantasy/Sci-Fi (I can’t speak for other genres). Guy Gavriel Kay is my favorite but there are others that also write beautifully. But the emphasis in genre fiction is always on the story. Things that distract from the story, including writing style (which is not the same as voice) are ruthlessly purged.

    Genre fiction also tends to involve the exotic and the otherworldly, there is an emphasis on the sense of wonder. Plot tends to be more important than a character’s inner life.

    So for genre writing, let me gently suggest that the writing should not get in the way of the story. A magnificent metaphor or poetical language can distract from the emotion of the scene.

    But there is nothing wrong with focusing on your writing style. Always write what you enjoy writing.

    *not wild about that phrase, what H.G Wells isn’t literature? Tolkien isn’t?


    • “*not wild about that phrase, what H.G Wells isn’t literature? Tolkien isn’t?”

      Yeah, right? Jay mentioned this, too. Maybe this is why I’m still having trouble wrapping my mind around it, or rather feeling “settled” with the definitions. (Haha, Luke, there go the clichés again!)

      Luckily, I don’t think I have to worry too much about my writing style getting in the way. I can’t write all poetic and stuff for long periods of time; it can be exhausting! (I could write four-times as much text, at least, in the time it takes me to write a more stylized version.) Guess I’m kind of a sprinter in this regard.

      I do like to try it sometimes, but more often than not it’s sprinkled in amongst more straightforward prose.


  4. This is like asking which came first- the chicken or the egg? I think Theresa is on the right track when you need to focus on writing the best you can and then focus on style in the editing process.


  5. I try not to think about this that much. I just want my writing to make people think… lots of genre types make people think… I sometimes don’t think I have the writing prowess to write a “literary” type book. I guess I read a healthy mix of both… and I hope both influence my writing.


    • I’d like to read more literary fiction because in the past five years I’d say my reading has been dominated by genre fiction and historical/educatoinal texts. In the last two years I’ve maybe picked up three “literary” works: two of them by Frank Moorehouse (who, now that I look back, has probably influenced me more than I first realized) and the latest by Susanna Clarke. I seem to read a bit of everything else, though.

      Does anyone know of any good examples of fiction of a fantasy/sci-fi slant that has attributes of both genre and literary fiction?


      • The Handmaiden’s Tale. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (which is Sci-fi first but still qualifies, I think). Carter beats the devil. The Magicians: A Novel. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The Road. Slaughterhouse Five. The Time Traveler’s Wife. The Club Dumas. The Alchemist. The Red Tent. The Metamorphosis. A Clockwork Orange. Fahrenheit 451. Animal Farm. 1984.

        Much of Michael Criton’s work is sci-fi, though I’m not sure how literary he was…

        …but forget all that. Look for the stylists in the genre you like best. Look for sci-fi and fantasy writers that are in love with words. Guy Gavriel Kay again, Patrick Rothfuss is making a name for himself.

        Anyway, I hope that helps.


        • Wow! Thanks, Mark! Looks like I have a couple of those on my list already. I’ll have to go check out some of the others, though.

          Maybe I just need to learn to read faster, haha.


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