In a Nutshell
Popular fiction gets itself published and read by combining creativity and freshness with mastery of convention. It colors creatively within the lines drawn by genre, convention, and craft lore.
Literary fiction gets itself published and read by being intelligently unconventional. It colors creatively without regard to the lines of genre, convention, and craft lore that shape popular fiction.
In today’s fiction marketplace, that is the smallest nutshell into which the difference fits.
Core readers of popular fiction — readers who rarely read anything outside the realm of genre / commercial fiction — expect and want to see new stories built on familiar, relatable themes and predicaments, in easily readable and relatable language. We know they want to read such stories because those are the stories they buy. They appreciate some kinds of style, but they care most about story — about what happens — and they grow impatient with elaborate development of character or setting that distracts from getting on with what happens next and how it all ends.
They often know what character roles and plot points to expect, enjoy recognizing them as they appear, and experience disappointment if the author omits some of the expected ones or otherwise improvises too far outside the conventions they know. Most see fiction and life through the lens of conventional values. They strongly prefer satisfying endings that mete out just deserts, and they tend to be unhappy with moral ambiguity and lack of clarity about characters’ motivations or how the reader should judge them. Unclear or “unfair” endings tend to alienate them.
In fact, that’s merely a brief summary of the characteristics of popular fiction. There is a large body of craft lore that explains the dos and don’ts a writer must follow to get past the gatekeepers to the popular-fiction marketplace — that defines “good” writing in the popular context. In fact, nearly everything written in print or online about how to write fiction well or to improve one’s writing applies primarily or exclusively to popular fiction. (On some points, literary writers do the opposite.)
These characteristics are most pronounced in clearly defined genres, but apply as well to non-genre, general fiction written for a mass audience — in short, to all “commercial” fiction. Writers who stray too far from them see reduced access to and appeal in that marketplace. Writers who succeed are those who are able to bring creativity and freshness to combinations of traditional elements presented in traditional ways.
Fiction that does not cater to convention or popular-fiction craft lore is by today’s definition literary fiction. And as John Gardner opined on it in his 1983 classic The Art of Fiction, “there are no rules” when it comes to the writing of literary fiction.
Core readers of literary fiction — readers who primarily read outside the realm of genre / mass-market / commercial fiction — are drawn to different and often opposite values. Briefly, they value and seek out non-conventionality. While many see it in exactly that way, others merely seek characteristics — depth of character or milieu development, complex themes, moral ambiguity, freer forms of narrative, to name only a few — that de facto constitute unconventionality, and so the result is the same: literary readers are strongly drawn to unconventionality, whether they name it as such or not. Without such attraction, very few readers would have the patience to read most works of literary fiction.
To be sure, there are in-between forms. “Book club” or “upmarket” fiction is in essence popular, but includes more complexity and a higher reading level. “Hybrid” fiction is in essence literary, but may include elements that appeal to a more commercial readership.
The remainder of these thoughts explore characteristics often seen in contemporary literary fiction and contrast them to the values and practices of popular fiction.
Literary, not Literature
Before taking that deeper dive, let’s just clarify that literary fiction in the modern sense is not synonymous with literature. Literature is a body of writing that has been canonized into cultural heritage. Much of it was written in a time before today’s clear distinction between “popular” and “literary” crystallized in mainstream publishing, a time when all mainstream publishing was literary and other fiction was relegated to the pulp press. Many instances of literature laid the foundation for what we regard today as genres and tropes. Some works of literature would, if written today, be classified as commercial fiction, others as literary fiction. Some would be less easy to classify, because the “rules” for mainstream popular fiction had not yet taken shape when they were written.
So what follows is not about characteristics of literature — it’s about common characteristics of literary writing from circa 1960 to the present. We’ve already stated the sole defining characteristic: literary fiction is written outside the conventions and craft lore that shape commercial fiction. Beyond that, there are no characteristics universally present in literary writing, though there are some that are frequently found. Throughout discussion of them, it’s sometimes instructive to contrast these characteristics to those found in popular fiction.
Language and Readability
Popular fiction is written for the widest possible readership, for “the man or woman on the street” who may pick up a book for a weekends’ entertainment. Such a reader should be able to read, understand, and relate to the book without difficulty.
Literary fiction is not written for the widest possible readership.
Reading level is defined as a school grade level based on a combination of factors like word length, word rarity, sentence length, sentence complexity, cultural reference points, and more. Commercial tools like the scanners at readable.io exist for gauging the reading level of a pasted block of text.
Core readers of popular fiction are assumed to have no more than a 12th-grade reading level — at least that’s the nominal standard for popular writing. Upmarket fiction and popular writers with an established following sometimes exceed that level, but it’s the stated norm for the industry.
Core readers of literary fiction have a high reading level regardless of formal education. They appreciate and seek out nuanced or complex writing.
Core readers of popular fiction tend to be irritated by encountering words they don’t already know. They rarely take the time to look them up, and sometimes leave negative online reviews about them.
Literary readers tend to delight at discovering a well-chosen word they don’t know. If its meaning is not apparent from context, they do look it up and remember it for later, sometimes treating it like a special shell found on a beach walk, or a gem or arrowhead or other exceptional discovery.
Except when a character is lying or engaging in obvious irony or sarcasm, characters and narrators in popular fiction nearly always mean only what they say.
Literary fiction sometimes relies more on implication and a reader’s inferences, requiring the reader to look deeper than the words on the surface to recognize all that a character or narrator is implying.
Writers of popular fiction are coached to use crisp, snappy language with more vivid verbs than one usually finds in everyday speech.
Literary writers often avoid such popularized language, choosing to rely more on subtlety and style, writing with nuance that is often missed by core readers of popular fiction.
There’s an apt analogy in photography since the digital revolution. Contemporary photography aimed at mass markets tends to use hypersaturated colors and a high level of artificial sharpening, whereas the photography in art books and galleries more often relies on natural or understated tones and sharpness to create more subtle impressions. Of course there are no rules in the world of art, so flagrant exceptions to this observation can be found.
Literary readers tend to value prose that is elegant, poetic, or otherwise distinctive.
Relatability and Convention
Core readers of popular fiction expect common, familiar (or at least recognizable) forms and treatments that combine recognized and self-relatable themes, conflicts, tropes and language into new and exciting stories. They like reading familiar idioms and descriptions, the ones they know from everyday life or have read before. They rarely want to notice the language, which should be a transparent window onto the action the story depicts. They want to relate characters to familiar archetypes — protagonist, antagonist, hero, sidekick, ally, nemesis, villain, false friend, secret ally, and the whole roster of stock roles. They may not know the archetypes by name, but they recognize them, expect to see them, and enjoy watching them emerge. They tend to classify and judge characters, and so they want clarity about whether they should like or dislike a character, or possibly consider a character redeemable or tragically fallen. Reversal and surprise are allowed, but ambiguity is uncomfortable for such readers.
They expect familiar story and chapter arcs and feel disappointed or confused if those don’t emerge as expected. They want clear resolutions that tie up loose ends. They have little tolerance for unclear, ambiguous, or unsatisfying endings or those leaving loose ends, even though such endings are often more true-to-life. They expect stories (and sub-plots) to end the way it oughta be instead of the way they all-too-often see things end in real life.
Literary writing does not prioritize relatability for “the average reader” and tends to avoid conventionality. Literary readers often find conventional tropes to be tedious or annoying.
Scenewriting vs free narrative
Since about the last quarter of the 1900s, popular fiction has increasingly been written as a series of “scenes” depicted in-the-moment, the way they’d be shown in a movie or a television show. This seems so natural to readers born in that period of time that they may wonder what other orientation is possible. But before that period, “scenes” were for stage, television, and cinema, while “chapters” were for fiction. Even in popular fiction, the traditional chapter blended in-the-moment scenes with above-the-moment narrative to an extent that has nearly vanished in popular fiction today.
While literary writing has no universal characteristics, it is often significantly less scene-oriented than popular fiction, may be less linear, and may hop freely into and out of a selection of moments. Just as significantly, it often characterizes moments and periods of time rather than depicting them explicitly. Such free narrative is prized by literary readers. It differs from mere exposition in that it actively tells the story, only not inserting the reader into the moments and places it takes place.
A masterful example of free narrative written just before the turn toward scenewriting would be Chapter 13, The Conductor, of Erica Jong’s 1973 novel Fear of Flying. In style the book was literary writing of its time, although its then-controversial, populistic, four-letter frankness about sexuality led to sales of 26 million copies, arguably moving it into the hybrid category. The chapter in question is almost entirely sceneless and written above-the-moment, so that it tells about a period of time while dipping here and there into a bit of dialogue, some of it direct and some indirect, or recollected happenings and details. Much of Thomas Savage’s 1967 The Power of the Dog is written in free narrative as well. An example from more recent times would be the opening and much else in Charles Frazier’s 1997 Cold Mountain.
But these examples are exceptional only by comparison to most popular fiction, and chosen for citation here only because I happen to have been re-reading them recently. Extended stretches of free narrative not closely bound to scenes or moments appear in most literary fiction — certainly of the 1900s, and still to a large extent today.
Literal vs interpretive storytelling
To use painting as an analogy, much popular fiction can also be likened to literalist painting in the hyperrealistic or photorealistic style. The writing itself is constructed to be so transparent as not to distract from the things described and the story being told. Such transparency is a demanding skill in its own right.
Contemporary literary fiction is often akin to a more interpretive approach to painting. Perhaps the style of a given story calls to mind Andrew Wyeth’s painting Master Bedroom, which is quite literal and in a sense realistic, yet unmistakably non-literal and interpretive, with understated colors and contrast; existing within a particular moment while also standing distinctly outside that moment to make it more than merely a moment, in Wyeth’s characteristic style. Or perhaps a story’s style is comparable to John Haymson’s Michigan Boulevard or any of his many other street scenes in which trees, people, houses, automobiles, etc, are still recognizable as themselves, but parts of the paper or canvas may be blank, and subjects not so much literally depicted as characterized in lines and colors. Conceivably, the style of a story might even be analogous to some of the abstract painters of the early 1900’s.
Show and tell
The most widely repeated and abused dictum in the writing and critiquing of popular fiction is Show, don’t tell. A common naive interpretation of this guidance is to enact most of what happens into action and dialogue. Critique group fiction tends to be even more highly enacted than published, successful popular fiction, but high enactment is surely one of the most defining traits of modern popular fiction.
In contrast, artful telling (as in –ahem– “storytelling”) is the essence of much literary fiction. After aconventionality, artful telling is the closest thing there is to a single defining characteristic of literary writing. Free narrative epitomizes artful telling, but it is not the only form. Literary readers tend to experience “high-showing” (more aptly “high-enactment”) approaches to narrative as tedious. Contemporary literary writing tends to be conservative in enactment. It often uses indirect dialogue or free indirect style (which can also appear in popular writing). It can often be characterized as artful telling with a sufficiency of showing [enactment]. Such writing may use snippets of dialogue or specific moments the way some editions of Treasure Island used visual illustrations, simply to make the overall narration more specific and interesting. Such narrative can convey subtleties and insights that mere enactment typically cannot. It also avoids drowning the reader or the tone in a flood of detail and impressions.
Core readers of popular fiction want clear resolutions. They want a story to end with a satisfying revenge or comeuppance, or with long-frustrated lovers in church or in bed (or at least heading for one of those destinations), or with similarly clear and satisfying resolutions that tie up loose ends. They have little tolerance for unclear, ambiguous, or unsatisfying endings, even though such endings are often more true-to-life. They expect stories (and sub-plots) to end the way it oughta be instead of the way they all-too-often see things end in real life.
Literary fiction frequently has ambiguous resolutions that leave loose ends. Poignancy and authenticity to real life are two of the motivations for such an approach, and literary readers expect and welcome ambiguity’s emotional complexity. Many literary readers are suspicious of traditional resolutions that tie up threads too neatly.
Plot and story
Popular fiction is always foremost and nearly always exclusively about what happens. Core readers want to know what comes next and how does it all end. They want expeditious storytelling with Chekhovian parsimony, in which every other element exists in service of plot and story, and any detail that does not advance their dynamic is extraneous and therefore undesirable.
Popular fiction has standard and expected plot points and follows one of several familiar action arcs through them. Some of these are universal, while others are specific to certain genres or even to certain authors or franchises. Readers expect the familiar progression of plot points and experience disappointment or irritation when some points are omitted or treated in a manner that feels too unconventional.
The balance between surprise and predictability in popular fiction tends to tilt purposely toward predictability. The story needs to be fresh, with unexpected elements and turns, but core readers like guessing at uncertain outcomes or truths about characters, and they especially like being shown correct in their guesses — though they like it even better when it looks for a time like they were wrong, but then they turn out to be right in the end. That kind of “good predictability” brings readers back to an author time and again.
Most often in literary fiction, plot is a pretext that exists in service of everything else, or at least something else. Plot and story in literary fiction tend to form a trellis, a framework on which to hang other things. The true content varies widely, but plot is rarely paramount. It merely needs to be serviceable to the real point of the novel or story, which is often to illustrate character, milieu, ideas, or style. Needless to say, Chekhovian parsimony does not apply. Even the famously minimalist Ernest Hemingway was dismissive of the notion, and deliberately included details that stood on their own, unrelated to anything else.
Literary fiction is often unexpeditious in its narrative — digressive, going off on tangents that are merely incidental to plot, or discursive, elaborating at length on central points, or both. Literary readers expect and enjoy well-written digression and discursion. Straightforward plot alone, told expeditiously, is seldom enough to satisfy.
The balance between surprise and predictability usually tilts toward surprise in literary writing. Even in the case of a tragic character or tale, where an astute reader understands that the end is foretold in the beginning, core readers of literary fiction prefer a twist that shows their predictions “correct, but” — or where the tragic outcome is averted by some unforeseen circumstance or intervention. Core readers like being right in some guesses, but they like even more when it looks for a while like they’re going to be right and then they’re not.
Popular fiction generally adapts its stories into one of a number of expected narrative templates, of which every genre has several, some with variations. Each of these templates includes certain character roles, and the author invents characters to fit the expectations for each role. Some are required (protagonist, antagonist), others optional (love interest, sidekick, foil, foe, nemesis, villain, false friend, secret ally, and many others). The skillful popular writer is able to give the characters in the prescribed roles individuality and interest so that they feel at once familiar and fresh.
Core readers of popular fiction tend to classify and judge characters, and so they want clarity about whether they should like or dislike a character, or possibly consider a character redeemable or tragically fallen. Reversal and surprise are allowed, but ambiguity is poorly tolerated. Counter-examples exist in popular fiction, but in general the principle holds.
Core readers of popular fiction expect clarity about what a character wants, both overall and in any given chapter/scene.
Core literary readers are tolerant of complexity and obscurity of motive and emotional state, in many cases directly valuing one or both.
Literary fiction is sometimes described by other writers as character-driven. That’s both a simplification and an overgeneralization, but true in a sense. Literary fiction more often begins with ideas of certain characters not devised to fill a role, simply people with combinations of traits that interest the author, who then puts characters together in his or her mind and imagines how they would interact authentically, in real life — not according to (and usually avoiding) tropes, narrative models, or the pseudo-real-life shown in mainstream television or cinema, which has become a virtual world to which we’ve grown so accustomed that it feels to us real in its context. Contemporary literary fiction may show an awareness of archetypes and tease at the edges of them, but often avoids entirely embracing an archetype for a character – except, of course, when it self-consciously does the opposite. (Gardner: “There are no rules.”) Even then, there is often an ironic or other form of “twist” on the archetype.
Vicarious protagonists occur in literary but not popular fiction. Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, a novel first literary and later canonized into literature, provides the narrator’s voice, but he exists almost entirely to chronicle the actions, character, and destiny of the true protagonist Jay Gatsby. Similarly, Charles Ryder is the first-person narrator of Brideshead Revisited, but exhibits few of the attributes and behaviors we expect of a protagonist; he exists merely as witness primarily to the tale of the vicarious protagonist Sebastian Flyte, and secondarily of Sebastian’s sister Julia and friend Anthony Blanche. Probably the most famous prototype of the vicarious protagonist is Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, whose tale is told through the eyes of the humble observer Ishmael.
Core literary readers are less prone to judge and more prone to contemplate. Moral complexity makes characters more interesting to them. They simply want to understand characters, and often welcome complexity and ambiguity. Likability rarely comes up in discussions among literary readers and writers; it’s akin to asking how good-looking a character is.
Ideas / Meta
Sometimes ideas alone are enough to move writing into the literary category. I say “alone,” but novels of ideas tend to be written by writers who are already literary in other respects. Walden Two, Nineteen Eighty-Four, A Clockwork Orange, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and The Handmaid’s Tale are all books either written or still widely read after 1960 that propound ideas about society or ideology or philosophy or a specialized art or skill. (Of this list, only Walden Two was written by an author without other literary fiction to his name, although he published scientific treatises.)
Tension and Impetus
The tension in popular fiction is always provided by a combination of conflict, suspense, and desire. Other primary sources of tension providing forward impetus do not occur. Most often the conflict is man-against-man, less often man-against-nature, man-against-self, or man-against-destiny. The protagonist, etymologically the “primary actor” or “primary warrior,” is always active and primarily responsible for advancing the plot, though sometimes by reacting to external events.
Literary writers often explore forces other than interpersonal conflict, or even conflict at all, that can push a chapter forward. Discovery is one such force. Suspense is another. Revelation is another. Traditional conflict tropes are often avoided when they might interfere with some other dynamic in a chapter or an arc.
On the scale of the entire novel, there’s often a traditional, if perhaps token or diversionary, quest or conflict to resolve. But be wary of looking for the essence of the book in it.
Although there is a middle ground, popular and literary fiction are in essence opposite in a number of dimensions. Principles that apply to one often do not apply to the other; and recommendations that are good for one may be detrimental to the other.
There’s not a single standard or body of wisdom for “good storytelling” regardless of type. There are a number of respects in which what’s “good” in popular fiction is not good in literary fiction, and vice versa. Each needs to be understood on its own terms.
Reading level and conventionality are the fundamental differences that drive all the other differences.
Improving a work of popular fiction often consists in making it more conventional. Improving a work of literary fiction often consists in making it less conventional.
Understanding the target readership, both as a group (popular/literary) and in whatever respects may be specific to an individual book or genre, is the key to understanding how to write it successfully.
(Adapted from an earlier essay I posted elsewhere in April of 2022)