Literature vs Generic Fiction: What’s the Difference?

The Reader Views blog of January 30, 2022, written by A J Smee, answers this question on four dimensions.

A. J. SMEE has been an international teacher for over twenty years, specializing in environment, languages, philosophy and design. He holds an advanced degree in Environmental Studies and an MA in Political Philosophy. His passion for learning and experience has carried him around the world, living and teaching in numerous countries in South America and Asia. He lives internationally with his wife and cats.

A J Smee

Mr Smee says, “Understanding the underlying purpose of these two different genres is a starting point. Broadly speaking, genre fiction aims to entertain, and there is a technical toolbox that accompanies this type of popular fiction, which reaches into movies as well. But literary fiction probes deeply into our humanity, demanding more of both the author and the reader. What differentiates literary fiction from genre fiction can be summarised by four hierarchical points. As an author, if you write literary fiction or would like to venture into the genre, adhering to these targets will help you to penetrate the genre’s true depths.

  1. Dealing with Social Constructs

In some respect, good literature will contend with existing social constructs, economic, and social systems that we have created to help advance and establish social order. The caveat, of course, is how the protagonist fits into these systems and how these systems are failing her. The character’s confrontation with this world is what, in part, defines the actions of the protagonist; her response to the world is, in part what drives the story. Consider the social constructs that are most compelling to address and you’ll likely find a good literary story to write about.

2. The Human Condition

As the protagonist confronts the social situation, she is forced to discover the best and the worst of humanity. This may be evident from various sides. Antagonists that embody or advance the established systems often exhibit some element of human virtue that are most unbecoming, clashing with the protagonist’s ideals and forcing her to reconsider established beliefs. Out of this come actions and reactions that exhibit the behavioural tendencies of our humanity. Why we do what we do is a common thread that the reader is forced to consider in these literary stories.

3. Internal Struggle and Compromise

As stories in the literary genre are character driven as opposed to plot driven, much of the conflict should be centred around the internal struggles of the protagonist. Ostensibly, this leads the story and helps define it as literature. Committed to dealing with the conflict of the situation, the character must manage the internal frailties of her own moral and ethical fabric. How she comes to terms with her flaws or how she discovers aspects of herself that help her to overcome the conflict demonstrates the growth of the character. The depth of this character arc hinges of the authors ability to develop the internal conflict of the protagonist.

4. Style in Writing

To generalise, genre fiction is created to target specific audiences that would be most entertained by that type of writing and storytelling. Because of this, certain expectations about language, grammar and the story must be upheld. This constraint around the technique of storytelling in genre fiction has evolved mostly because of commercial factors; the author must comply with audience expectations. The literary genre has greater flexibility in this area, as the audience comes to applaud digressions from the norm if they are done effectively. This may include the complexity of language (although I don’t consider this a critical condition); a play with language that influences the effect on the reader; originality in exploring time, backstory and memory; or innovative ways to put the words on the page. And for the author, this can be liberating and creative in terms of how they choose to get their story across to the reader.”

“Whichever genre you prefer, some writing in the literary genre can prove to be an enlightening and useful endeavour. Not only can it aid in the author’s process of self-discovery, it hones an ability to write more complex characters, easily translating to other genres you write in. The literary genre most definitely presents other challenges to your writing, but some honest effort will surely improve your skill and technique as a writer.”

I think this is an excellent analysis.

How Many Pages in a Book?

In yesterday’s email, Harry Bingham of Jericho Writers discussed this question. Here are the excerpts of what he said.

“The length of your manuscript matters. Partly, there’s just a crude commercial standard, varying somewhat by genre, as to how long a book needs to be. Subject to one major qualification (more on that later), the crude commercial standard is a thing of iron. You need to live within its constraints, or not be published.

“Let’s start with the Crude Commercial Standard. Every market for books has a set of largely standard prices. In the US, for example, a standard hardcover novel will retain at about $25. The same book with paper covers will sell at about $16-17. The cost of manufacturing a 200-page book is very largely the same as manufacturing a 400-page one. Most of the actual cost of the book lies in things like the author’s advance, the editorial process, the publicity and marketing, and so on, most of which are largely independent of length. That’s the main reason why price doesn’t vary much with quantity.

“But customers don’t think like that. If a customer notices that Someone Dies on a Train by Chris Agather is 400 pages long and selling for $25, they’ll resent paying the same price for the 200-page Someone Dies on a River by Aggie Christopher. Readers will buy the first book and ignore the second, while the latter’s publisher will learn not to put out a 200-page book.

“At this point, most actual readers will want to scream at me that some of their favourite books are very short. And OK, they are. But the customer hesitating between Someone Dies on a Train and Someone Dies on a River doesn’t know much about the quality of either book. The one certain piece of data is that the longer book will deliver more hours of reading than the shorter one – and for the same price. So (subject to the big qualification we’ll come to later) very short books don’t sell. They, mostly, aren’t even published.

“Following this logic, the Crude Commercial Standard therefore says that commercial novels need to be a minimum of 70 or 75,000 words to sell. Literary novels might start a bit smaller – say, 60,000 words or even 50,000. Nevertheless, the damn things need enough heft to satisfy the reader’s demand for value. The CCS doesn’t really have a firm upper end. There are sites on the internet which will tell you that 120,000 words is a hard upper limit, but it really, truly isn’t. My first book was more than 180,000 words long when it was published. The entire editorial process with HarperCollins didn’t shave more than a few thousand words from the original manuscript – and that shaving came mostly from me, not them.

“Likewise, epic fantasy fiction is meant to run long. Plenty of big historical fiction runs long. Plenty of thrillers run long. And of course, children’s and YA books run short. In every case, you just need to figure out how the CCS affects your particular market. OK. So much for the basics.

“The more Zen point is this. A professional reader – a Jericho editor, a skilled mentor, or a literary agent – will be able to read a synopsis and feel how long the book should be. Some stories feel like 80,000 words ones. Others feel like they need 120,000 words or more. I don’t pretend that this is an exact science, but it’s a real one all the same. I remember once reading a manuscript which was really good. A love story, with some extra trimmings, set in a great location, with good characters and some strong writing. That story should have been easy to sell. But it was 120,000 words long and the (fairly simple) story called for 80,000 words, or 90,000 tops. I told the author to delete text without removing content. That feels like a puzzling instruction – but I meant it literally. If you have five sentences of description about (say) a Victorian horse-market, you will almost certainly find that you can convey all the relevant atmosphere in three. If you have four paragraphs describing a rail journey from Vienna to Trieste, you can probably handle that in one or two. Authors who tend towards the prolix will also find that an eighteen-word sentence can be reduced to twelve without actually saying anything materially different. The mantra has to be, “Reduce length, maintain content”. If you do that, you’ll find you actually enhance your content, because you’ll be deleting the least effective words / sentences / paragraphs, so the impact of what’s left will be all the greater.

“(I should also say that although it’s much more common for people to need to cut their work, it can operate the other way round as well. Sometimes a writer delivers a book that’s fine – just too short. Journalists in particular, trained in being sparing and factual, can be guilty of this. The trick here, once you’ve recognised the issue, is to figure out where the book is missing. It’s often textural stuff: descriptions of place, of feeling, of character nuance.)

“The author of that 120,000 word book struggled at first to do what I’d asked. The manuscript came back with maybe 2,000 words shaved off it, then – after I’d yelled at her again – another 5,000 words. It was only after the book went out to agents (and secured plenty of interest, but no firm offers of representation) that the writer sat down and really properly addressed what I’d asked her to do originally. The book came down to well below 100,000 words, and it wasn’t just shorter. It was denser, it was better, it was richer, it was more alive. That book secured an agent and, subsequently, a book deal. It deserved to. The book had found its proper weight and, at its proper weight, sold easily. Oh yes, and the one big qualification when it comes to the Crude Commercial Standard? Simple. The better the book, the less the CCS matters. If you are an author of genius, then write whatever the heck you want. The market will find a way to sell it. “

This seems to me a very useful discussion of how long a manuscript should be.

The Book Tok Phenomenon

The February 1 issue of the Daily Telegraph carried an article by Anita Singh under the title “‘Book Tok’ inspires young readers to get reading.”

Muck Rack says that Anita Singh is “Daily Telegraph arts and entertainment editor. TV critic. Bradfordian. “

Ms Singh writes, “The rise of Book Tok is driving teenagers and young adults into bookshops in numbers not seen since the Harry Potter years, according to the head of Waterstones. Sales are booming after being recommended by influencers on Tik Tok, the social media app – but some classics are also becoming unlikely viral sensations. ‘These last three or four weeks in the United States, James Joyce’s Ulysses had been a significant seller because on Tik Tok, the kids are getting excited about it,’ said James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones and chief executive of the US chain Barnes & Noble.

“The #BookTok has tag has had 37.4 billion views and popular influencers tend to be young women, mostly recommending books by female authors. Mr Daunt said they were helping to make bookshops popular with young people, reminding him of the decade 1997-2007 which saw publication of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. ‘It’s back to that kind of energy in our stores. Our challenge now is that we absolutely have to keep those customers, as we did with the Harry Potter generation. It stepped booksellers up and it stepped book sales up,’ Mr Daunt told a bookselling conference in Italy.

“Waterstones runs its own Tik Tok account as a marketing tool, and Mr Daunt explained: ‘It’s about fun and enjoyment and enthusiasm and the people doing it brilliantly are of the same generation – it’s our young booksellers, and we let them get on with it.’ He joked: ‘We have generally found that the people with blue hair do better than the people with sensible haircuts.’

“Barnes & Noble has dedicated a section of its website to books recommended on Tick Tok. Even W H Smith groups some of its books under the tag ‘Tik Tok made me buy it.’

The New York Times reported on the phenomenon with the headline ‘How Crying on Tik Tok sells books, noting that tear-jerking novels were particularly popular.

“One of the most popular British ‘Book Tok’ stars is 22-year-old Abby Parker, who has amassed 428,000 followers. She told Amazon last year: ‘I’ve always dreamed of sharing my love for books with the world and Tik Tok has finally been my gateway into doing just that. Getting completely involved with the book community this past year has been truly one of the greatest things I’ve done in my life.'”

I think we should congratulate Abby and her colleagues for spreading her book enthusiasm to young people.

Modern Despair with Dostoevsky

There is an article in the Daily Telegraph on 30 January this year by Craig Simpson with the title: “Prophet of Despair Dostoevsky hits a nerve with readers in ‘irrational, egoistic’ times”.

Craig Simpson reports on arts and entertainment for the Telegraph.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

“Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote of ‘the pleasure of despair’, and book sales reveal British readers are buying into his brand of agreeable anguish. The Russian existentialist oeuvre is the fastest growing market for Penguin Classics, ahead of more genteel favourites like Austen and Dickens, with sales of his novels doubling in five years.

“Sales of Crime and Punishment and Notes from the Underground have quadrupled, propelling Dostoevsky from close to 40th on the list of bestselling classics authors to number 4. While the clamour for the 19th-century author’s ‘gloom and nihilism’ is ‘mysterious’ to publishers, experts suggest that pessimistic modern readers have found a ‘prophet’ in him.

“Kevin Birmingham, author of literary biography The Sinner and the Saint, said: ‘The appeal is that Dostoevsky’s view of human nature seems more apparent now: we’re irrational, egotistic and self-destructive. We spite ourselves, we crave freedom even if it leads to our detriment, and our perverse impulses are at the heart of civilisation. Readers of Dostoevsky’s novels would not be surprised by global affairs over the last several years. These are all Dostoevskian. There is an abiding fear that there are no foundations. no ultimate sense of truth or justice, and this is something we’re grappling with these days. No doubt there’s another era of optimism and confidence on the horizon, and Dostoevsky won’t fit so well with that.’

“He is currently fitting very well with the mood of readers, according to the Penguin Classics team, and an increasing audience for angst which has seen sales for the author’s works increasing 177 percent since 2016. His life experiences, Russian Orthodox beliefs, and insights on irrational human behaviour fed into works from Poor Folk to The Brothers Karamazov before his death in 1881. The renewed appeal of his intense novels led to a 60 percent sales growth for Penguin Classics in 2021 alone.”

If Dostoevsky is up, dystopian novels should also be booming!