Literary vs. Mainstream Fiction

I have a problem distinguishing between literary and mainstream fiction. And sometimes genre fiction seems to overlap into those categories. I spent some time poking around the Internet trying to find distinctions or definitions of the two and it only confused me more. The general consensus seems to be that literary fiction is more about style of writing that about plot, while mainstream is plot driven. I found that many believe that a crossover exists between mainstream and literary (and even genre). One suggested that literary was for the “elite” reader. Janet Paszkowski on tells a writing professor described non-literary fiction as “artless.”

Some of the interesting articles I read:

I claim I don’t enjoy most literary novels, but I have found several books that are classed as literary that I liked. I’ve reviewed some here on my blog; check the literary category. Some of them may be classified as “Women’s Fiction” rather than literary. Is that another crossover?

What sent me to the Internet to define literary vs. mainstream is a book I read recently (The Devil You Know by Elisabeth de Mariaffi) with a blurb on the front cover saying, “A gripping literary thriller….” To me this is an oxymoron. Thriller to me is definitely genre. The book was good and very plot driven, with good characterization. I would probably call it genre/thriller. Possibly mainstream since the writing didn’t exactly follow the rules for the genre. The one thing I see that probably classifies it as literary is the lack of quotation marks. This style of writing drives me crazy. Literary or not, I don’t see the purpose of eliminating quotes except to make a book more difficult to read.

The next book in my pile (All that Followed by Gabriel Urza) turned out to be literary in my mind. It is a twisted tale set in the Basque Country of northern Spain with three main characters POV: an American expat teacher, a young man almost accidentally involved in revolutionary activity, and the wife of an upcoming politician. Great reading! (He didn’t eliminate the quotation marks.)

I still don’t know the answer on how to define literary vs. mainstream. I think the definitions change with time and with the person defining.