Friday, May 26, 2017
For the most part, both short stories and novels fall into two categories: literary and mainstream. Agents and editors differentiate between them in several ways, but the two forms often overlap.
Mainstream fiction is categorized as entertainment. A mainstream work of fiction usually incorporates overt conflict, whether between characters or humanity at large. The reader is told what is happening in a physical, clearly-defined world. Action drives the story forward. Tension is more apparent and less nuanced in "popular" fiction, making the work more accessible to a wider range of readers. Plot takes precedence in mainstream -- also called commercial -- fiction. In this type of fiction, the protagonist does the work.
Commercial genres include romance, mystery, and thriller, sci-fi and fantasy, and even some forms of humor in fiction.
Literary genres are more difficult to define.
Literary works can be a manifesto of sorts, where the ideal is more complex than the plot. In literary fiction, the reader does the work. This type of fiction is directed to impact society in thought-provoking, and often controversial, ways by taking on social and cultural issues. Readers are led to question preconceived notions. Writing style for this kind of story doesn't rely on convention, but can be experimental, transcending structural elements, with subtext often used to reinforce the theme. The language is broad, elegant, and imaginative, putting the art of prose foremost. The pace is slower in literary fiction than in commercial fiction.
It used to be said that mainstream fiction was "light reading" and literary works were "serious fiction." But today, the genres often overlap into a category called "upmarket," a cross between literary and commercial fiction. The work is still literary but will also appeal to commercial readership. The story is written with a high command of language, but without being pretentious or "stuffy," which makes this type of fiction easier to market than it once was.
In the past, literary fiction was easy to identify, Most of these stories were classic English assignments: Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies, Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird, among others that most of us have read. (Whether we wanted to or not. And hurray for Cliff Notes.)
Today's A-list literary fiction authors include writers like Alice Sebold, Jodie Picoult, Annie Proulx, Toni Morrison, Sara Gruen, and Joyce Carol Oates.
As writers, we should read in the categories we most want to break into with our own work. Remember that a well-read writer will soon turn into a well-read writer. (Think about that and it will make sense.) Actually, that's all we writers want, we want readers to read our work.
And money. We want money.