Contemporary fiction v Literary

Which one are you?

Well, first you have to define the genres. Literary is almost always character driven and relies on characters to tell the story rather than the plot doing all the work. Literary is another way of describing ‘high end writing’, the literati. The prose tends to be either archaic, overly beautiful or a mix between the two. Nevertheless, literary stories can be a joy to read. They can be exquisite, poetic, powerfully descriptive, alluring and seductive in their very fabric.

Contemporary novels are mostly plot driven and concentrate on modern day dilemmas. They are usually action-packed and fast paced and have a broad base appeal to almost everyone, coupled with compelling stories to tell. These include many genres like thriller, crime, mystery, science fiction, adventure, westerns and so on. Contemporary novels (or commercial to be more precise) are about how many sales it can generate.  Commercial fictions sells.

Literary fiction could be classed as a genre in its own right. Sometimes people refer to it as style over substance, but while they do have style, they also ask pertinent questions and explore the human condition. Many literary books are very thought provoking. They are beautifully written and very often stop to make us think.

Are you contemporary or literary?

As mentioned in previous posts, writing is as individual as fingerprints. Your style, your voice and how you write is what distinguishes you from other writers. For new writers, finding that style and the voice takes a while, so don’t panic that you feel bereft of any writing individuality. Your style and your voice will come when you have gained experience by writing lots of stories.  (More on that next week).

During this process – which could take years – you start to realise how your style works. You may find it’s fast paced and abrupt, which would fit into commercial fiction, or you may find your style is relaxed and poetic, which may indicate you have a literary tendency towards your writing.

Knowing how you write is very important in recognising the various styles in writing, because this will dictate where you send your finished novels or stories – literary agents or commercial fiction agents/publishers. It’s no good sending a fast-paced action thriller to a publishing house or agent that deals with solely with literary books or stories and vice versa.

A writer knows pretty much what style they want to write. Most of the time this is usually dictated by the work we read. Writers who enjoy reading thrillers tend to write thrillers, those who enjoy reading romance tend to write romantic style stories, those who love horror tend to write horror and so on.

Writers like to write what makes them feel comfortable.

I like to write dark, psychological tales or thrillers because my style has evolved that way and because that’s what I also love to read. I can’t write happy stories, or romance or chick-lit style novels. Why? Because that just isn’t my style and I don’t feel comfortable writing them. I know which genres I am comfortable with, and as a writer, you should know which styles you are comfortable with because any writing you try that is not within your comfort zone will end up convoluted and stilted and not worth reading.

Am I at a disadvantage if I’m literary?

Any well-crafted story which moves the reader, entertains them and makes them believe in the story has neither an advantage nor disadvantage. Commercial fiction has a huge following compared to literary fiction, simply because publishers are prepared to invest money in contemporary novels.

Literary novels suffer from the ‘elitist’ tag – that only clever academics might enjoy - and it may put some people off reading it or may make publishers think twice about promoting it, but that’s not to say commercial or contemporary fiction is better. (There is a lot of commercial fiction on the bookshelves which is woefully dire).

On the whole, literary works are published knowing that they won’t make a lot of money, and therefore they’re often in small print runs.

Compare this with commercial fiction, which is what most people read, which ‘sells’ and can make the publisher some money. If very successful, there may be several print runs and maybe a modicum of success.

But one thing is important, regardless of genre. Good fiction is good fiction. It’s as simple as that, and isn’t it surprising that most ‘literary’ novels tend to take the prizes for fiction? This is because, despite the snobbish view of literary work, publishers and critics still place merit upon it when it comes to doling out the prizes.

So, in essence, you’re not thoroughly disadvantaged if you choose literary style. If that is your style and voice as a writer, don’t change it, because more often than not it won’t work. Develop that voice, because as already stated, agents and publishers are looking for a great story, regardless of being literary or commercial in style. Who knows, you may become the next Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth or Ian McEwen.

And as Salman Rushdie once said, "Literature is where I go to explore the highest and lowest places in human society and in the human spirit, where I hope to find not absolute truth but the truth of the tale, of the imagination and of the heart."

Whatever your style, stick with it, develop it, make it individual.

Next time: Finding voice and style.


  1. Question:
    Would an example of literary be A Painted House by John Grisham?


  2. Interesting question. Grisham's strength is that he's mainstream , rather than completely literary, however this book was a breakaway from his usual courtroom drama. There are some lovely brushstrokes in the narrative. Although not a completely literary work, I would lean towards it being so. This is a great example of both contemporary fiction melding nicely with literary fiction.

  3. Can science fiction be written in a literary style. My goal has always been to write highly stressful near future settings, but write it in a detached poetic sort of way. A bit like a cosmic clock keeper.


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