Literary fiction vs. Maintstream fiction

Q: I see these two terms bandied about on almost every literary blog and Q&A: Literary fiction vs. Maintstream fiction. What are the differences between the two?–Rook V.

A: If I made a list of differences between literary and mainstream fiction, it’d look nearly identical to Janet Paszkowski’s “Defining Artless Fiction: 24 Basic Differences Between Literary & Mainstream/Genre Writing,” posted over at She gives a neat and straightforward breakdown. Plus, she makes my life easy as I can just link to it instead of writing out the list myself. I can even link to it under any heading I want:

The Literary vs. Mainstrearm Battle Royal
I Spelled Paszkowski Correct. Yeah Me!
Brian is So Good Looking, Just a Quick Glance at Him Makes Me Forget the Question

God I love the Internet.

Brian A. Klems is the online managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

Have a question for me? Feel free to post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at with “Q&Q” in the subject line. Come back each Tuesday as I try to give you more insight into the writing life.

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0 thoughts on “Literary fiction vs. Maintstream fiction

  1. WC Vasquez

    The REAL differences between Mainstream and Literary Fiction:

    1. These books are sold at Costco next to the cat calendars and 20-pound wheels of cheddar cheese.

    2. The man sitting next to you on the plane wearing a "Kiss Me, I Bathed" T-shirt? The one moving his lips? He’s reading Mainstream fiction.

    3. When you go to a book signing by a Mainstream fiction author, you have to stand in line for an hour if you want an autograph.
    If you’re lucky, she might even make eye contact with you before she text-messages her poodle’s astrologist.


    1. These books are often found–dog-eared and highlighted–under the canopy beds of star-crossed lovers who die in each other’s arms after drinking hemlock tea.

    2. Even if you’re stranded on a deserted island–alone–you’ll never use your only copy of Literary fiction as t.p., kindling, or a companion named Wilson.

    3. If you go to a reading by a Literary fiction author, he’ll be so grateful you showed up, he’ll buy you a large latte, two pecan bars, and a bookstore tote bag. He’ll write a three-page dedication to you and then follow you home reciting his favorite passages until you alert a policeman sitting in his squad car–the policeman will be reading Mainstream fiction.

    Hey, Brian–how’s the leprosy????

  2. J.R.R.

    I disagree with Janet’s assessment of genre fiction. Here are some of the "differences" that caught my eye.

    – casts the world and humanity in predictable terms of good and evil

    – satisfies the reader’s expectations of easily anticipated story paths and resolutions

    – depicts stereotypical and satisfying characters that display predictable actions/decisions

    – typically concludes with a happy ending

    The author was right in her assertion that we read genre fiction to be entertained. But this seems to contradict the aforementioned statements. Why would any reader invest precious time and money into prose with these characteristics? Nothing is more boring than fiction full of predictable characters, plots, and cliché endings. The only notable difference between the two categories of fiction is the use of fantastical backdrops in genre fiction, but these settings often enhance the writing, giving the readers an opportunity to open their minds to new possibilities. Believable characters struggle against seemingly impossible odds, and we are there. We struggle with them. They succeed or fail before our eyes. Through these characters we gain insight into ourselves and human nature. Good genre fiction is anything but predictable. If executed properly, it’s just as complex and enlightening as literary fiction.  

  3. Rook

    Thanks for the speedy and very informative response, Brian!

    The link titles, though … oh my. Someone’s getting carried away! But, I will admit, you looked quite spiffy as a pirate.

    Much appreciated, Rook

  4. Janet Paszkowski

    Thanks Brian,

    Imagine my surprise today when I received a Google alert linking me to your wonderful critique of my article, "Defining Artless Fiction: 24 Basic Differences Between Literary & Mainstream/Genre Writing,"

    Having won 9th place in Writer’s Digests 73rd Annual Writer’s Competition (non rhyming poetry category) as well as an honorable mention in Writer’s Digests 4th Annual Short Short Story Competition, I’m always delighted to get a “shout out” from Writer’s Digest.

    I’ve reprinted a shorter version of the original "Literary vs. Mainstream/Genre Fiction" article on my blog Diary of a Flash Fiction Editor, where I occasionally muse about my love of flash fiction and various adventures as a freelance writer and fiction editor (currently working as story development editor at Flash Me Magazine ) So if you are ever in need of a handy checklist featuring what I consider to be the core criteria for creating compelling flash fiction, you can check out my article "Mining the Flash Fiction Slush Pile".

    I too, love the internet 🙂
    Janet Paszkowski