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08/21/2013 10:36 am ET

Literary And Mainstream Novels: What's The Difference?

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From Writer's Relief staff:

The guidelines for literary and mainstream fiction often differ from those of popular fiction such as romance novels, fantasy novels, crimes novels, etc. Although the guidelines for submitting literary and mainstream novels are similar, the content of the work is very different, and it’s important to distinguish between the two.

If your novel doesn’t fall into the genre fiction categories, don’t automatically assume it’s literary fiction. Literary fiction tends to focus on complex issues and the beauty of the writing itself, and your novel may rely more on action, which is the tendency of mainstream fiction. So how do you know if your novel is literary or mainstream, and how best to move forward if your book doesn’t perfectly match the definition of either category? Let us explain.

Defining Mainstream and Literary

Mainstream: Sometimes referred to as literary light and general fiction, mainstream fiction blends genre fiction with techniques often unique to literary fiction. The language of the novel will at times delve into prose of a more literary vein (full of insight) while the rest of the writing will be more driven by the story. The premise of the story has to instantly hook the reader, but the narrative arc will be equal parts plot-driven and character-driven. Perspective is important, but the story takes precedence.

As with any good story, conflict will arise, but it will be presented in a way that’s more apparent and less nuanced than it would be in strict literary fiction. This distinction makes most mainstream fiction easier to read and accessible to a wider range of readers. Keep in mind that mainstream novels for new writers generally fall between 70,000 and 100,000 words.

Literary: Think of literary fiction as a manifesto of sorts—it’s driven by the ideas, themes, and concerns of the novelist, often producing a narrative that is at times controversial.

The style of prose is emphasized in literary fiction, whereas a writer of mainstream fiction will often forego stylistic writing in order to get to the meat of the story. The plot isn’t the main focus in literary fiction; rather, the history, social issues, and character developments that are a part of the story take precedence. Literary fiction for new writers may match that of mainstream fiction, while the word count for seasoned novelists can fall anywhere between 40,000 and 120,000 words.

Categorizing And Marketing Your Book

If you’re unsure if your novel is literary or mainstream, it’s likely mainstream due to the difficult nature and niche market of writing literary fiction. If literary fiction is indeed what you’re writing, it’ll help you tremendously to have publication credits and a degree, as well as being well-read in modern literary fiction. If you’re lacking a strong background, it’ll be best to market yourself as a mainstream fiction writer for the time being.

Whether your novel seems to fit in with the mainstream or literary fiction category best, there are markets for both. Some readers prefer to speed quickly through an exciting plot, and other readers would rather linger over perfectly worded sentences and deep thoughts. Once you’ve determined where your book fits into the market, this article will show you how to use that knowledge and more marketing strategies to write a strong query letter: The Query Letter—From a Marketing Standpoint.

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