What are the defining features of literary fictions as compared to popular ones? Is it the way how characters are developed? Or is it some peculiarity in the use of language? Please feel free to explain in detail as I am a novice.

This is a question popped up in my mind because of several reasons. Literary fiction is the more respected form. But many valuable literary works have actually been popular ones. For example the "Arabian Nights" or even the bible stories must be considered to be popular. But they are also respected as literary works. Is that solely because of historic reasons? Also is there some objective criteria that demarcates the genre and literary works? Like one is plot driven and the other is character driven. Or the form of language used in one versus the other. If so can they be expressed explicitly?

From the current context, there could be a book which might be characterized as satirical or detective fictions. But they might still be giving valuable insights into human nature or the society we live in. Will such works be remembered as great works of art?

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    Are you asking the question the right way around? What features does popular fiction have that make it popular, and are lacking in literary fiction?
    – user14111
    Sep 24, 2017 at 7:13
  • If I had to make one critique of the various answers this question has attracted, it's that the answers all talk about processes, but don't answer questions such as who or what is behind these processes, and how or why these processes occur. If you find yourself saying things such as "literary fiction is widely considered _____" or "books become classics when ____" but don't explain who or what is behind literary fiction being widely considered as _______, or why literary fiction is widely considered as _____, it's worth thinking about rewriting the answer.
    – user111
    Sep 27, 2017 at 19:13
  • I would also strongly encourage answers to make use of specific examples. It's really easy to talk in the abstract, but the abstract needs to be based on specific examples for it to be of any use.
    – user111
    Sep 27, 2017 at 19:15

6 Answers 6


This is a core question for literature enthusiasts and I am glad you asked it. Certainly there are no objective criteria to differentiate 'literary fiction' from 'popular fiction.' Since much of literature discussion is necessarily subjective I shall try to answer your answer based on my own experience as a constant and dedicated reader of novels -- both popular fiction and literature.

The 4 most important (admittedly subjective) criteria that I tend to use to differentiate literary and popular fiction are

  1. content, scope and themes;
  2. quality of writing;
  3. treatment: plot driven vs character driven, as you mentioned; and
  4. literary reputation.

Content, scope and themes

Popular fiction tends to have more interesting/ adventurous/ sensational/ entertaining subject matter and many popular works are genre fiction such as detective fiction, crime, romance, science fiction, horror, fantasy, Westerns etc. The whole novel typically 'sticks' to the theme: that means the content is well defined and predictable; and the scope is relatively narrow. Moreover authors maintain consistent style and are unlikely to mix elements of multiple genres.

On the other hand literary fiction has a wide range of content: its themes are drawn from the whole of human life. So its scope is extremely broad and the writers can draw on a variety of styles to suit their purposes. Literary novels typically focus on life experiences and the best of them are profoundly philosophical about human nature and the meaning of life. Since it is not required to conform to a 'genre' the audience expectations are less important for such works.

Treatment and quality of writing

The best-written popular fiction certainly has very high standards but I have found much of popular fiction to have a slightly lower quality of writing. This is because aspiring authors come from various backgrounds and actually improve as their career progresses. Since popular fiction is often more focused on plot than characterisation, a slightly lower quality of language does not affect the work by much. Whereas literary fiction is mainly character-driven, and authors tend to be very committed to attaining the highest standards of writing because readers read these books as much for the 'writing' as the 'story.' So literary fiction usually has uniformly high standards of writing, compared to popular fiction.

Literary reputation

The overall reputation of a work is built over many years. Literary fiction is often (as you said) popular fiction that has been elevated to literary status over years by the common agreement and approval of writers, literary critics and readers. So the best literary works are read by successive generations of readers and 'stand the test of time' to become highly respected literary classics. By contrast much of popular fiction is forgotten within a couple of generations. However the best popular fiction works can become 'genre classics' and get read by many generations of readers who are interested in and devoted to that genre. The finest genre works also illuminate our world-view and are often very close to great Literature!

Summary: What makes a work of fiction great is the approval of many readers and the literary community. Popular fiction is intended more to please the audience while literary fiction aims to reflect upon the 'human condition.' Please note that somebody can set out to write 'literary fiction' but end up writing a mediocre book that won't pass the test of literary standards. It is also very possible for a work of popular fiction to fulfil most of the criteria of literary fiction and eventually be celebrated as a great literary work!

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    I think you're right that these definitions are in many ways subjective, and it's good to see you stating that upfront. At the same time, subjective doesn't mean that every opinion is equally valid. You still should support subjective opinions with arguments. For example, you say "The best-written popular fiction certainly has very high standards but I have found much of popular fiction to have a slightly lower quality of writing." this would be improved if you could give some examples that demonstrate why popular fiction has a slightly lower quality of writing.
    – user111
    Sep 27, 2017 at 19:20
  • I did say why popular fiction may have slightly lower quality compated to literary fiction @Hamlet: "Since popular fiction is often more focused on plot than characterisation, a slightly lower quality of language does not affect the work by much. Whereas literary fiction is mainly character-driven, and authors tend to be very committed to attaining the highest standards of writing because readers read these books as much for the 'writing' as the 'story.'" -- I shall refrain from giving examples because what I consider mediocre writing may be very good in another reader's view and vice versa! Sep 27, 2017 at 19:31
  • Based on your advice I shall consider editing in a comparison of 2 outstanding examples one each of 'literary' and 'popular' fiction, to be compared based on all 4 of my criteria, to illustrate the differences; thanks @Hamlet. I am trying to decide which 2 novels I have read will best represent their respective groups. Sep 27, 2017 at 19:52
  • "Popular fiction is intended more to please the audience while literary fiction aims to reflect upon the 'human condition.'" - excellent summary.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 27, 2017 at 22:36
  • Thank you @Rand al'Thor. I read both types myself in a 65:35 proportion of genre(65%) to literary(35%), average 36 novels a year -- and some of the best reflections on the human condition I read actually came from certain 'genre' novels. Popular writers can be as perceptive as 'literary' writers but they are also very street-smart in my experience; and the best crime writers know all there is to know about how the human mind works: especially at the baser levels. Sep 27, 2017 at 22:59

At least according to science fiction grandmaster Samuel Delany, well-known for "literary" books in popular genres, the distinction is largely one of anticipated audience. Popular fiction is generally aimed at a larger, more mainstream audience, and may feature simpler plots and language. It also typically follows one or another set of standard genre conventions, which guarantee it a potential audience that enjoys that genre. For example, mystery novels, such as those written by Agatha Christie, usually concern a murder, or other serious crime, a range of plausible suspects, and a set of clues that potential allow the reader to anticipate the eventual unmasking of the criminal, which comes at the end of the book.

Literary fiction is often considered more prestigious, and is generally expected to draw a smaller, more highly educated audience, often of a higher socioeconomic class. Its use of language may be more complex and its plots more original. It may also be experimental in one sense or another. Salman Rushdie, Michael Chabon and Zadie Smith are three well-known and widely read current authors of literary fiction. Their work may have genre elements, but is not easily characterized or summarized by them. A successful literary work may draw a tiny fraction of the audience of a popular fiction work, yet have an individual influence that is greater and more lasting. Literary works can occasionally be extremely popular, but their popularity is often not easily predictable. It is worth noting that many popular genres are formed in imitation of a standard-setting literary predecessor (for example, epic fantasy in imitation of Tolkien).

As popular fiction works become older, their audience profile becomes more like that of literary fiction, in as much as older books, regardless of genre, tend to be read by a smaller, more educated audience. They also become experienced more like literary fiction, is as much as their genre characteristics become less familiar as their own time period disappears into the past. In terms of "canonization" (becoming widely and consistently considered as ranking among the great literary works across the ages), popular works are canonized as often as literary ones. Again according to Delany, canonization essentially reduces to the ability of a work to maintain a productive body of criticism, secondary literature and other cultural artifacts, which combine to keep it alive in the collective cultural imagination.

Source: Delany, Samuel, About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews, Wesleyan University Press, 2013

  • I'll have to take a look at Delany's writing. That said, this answer has several issues that deserve clarification. "Literary fiction is considered higher status" considered by who? "A successful literary work may draw a tiny fraction of the audience of a popular fiction work, yet have an individual influence that is greater and more lasting." why? You mention "canonization" a lot: I recommend providing a definition of the term?
    – user111
    Sep 27, 2017 at 19:03
  • I think this answer could be improved through the use of examples. One way to do that is when you mention the various qualities that distinguish literary and popular fiction, some examples of literary and popular fiction would help contextualize those qualities. Examples move this answer from the abstract to the specific, which is always a good thing for this type of writing.
    – user111
    Sep 27, 2017 at 19:05
  • Nice answer. (Wasn't it Delaney who said, in response to an assertion that 90% of Sci-Fi was crap, that "90% of any genre is crap." [paraphrase])
    – DukeZhou
    Sep 27, 2017 at 19:24
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    @DukeZhou That's Sturgeon's Law , but since Sturgeon was Delany's mentor and friend, I've no doubt Delany has quoted it more than once. Sep 27, 2017 at 19:48
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    Many standard elements of literary fiction were also sparked by a standard-setting literary predecessor — James Joyce was one of the first writers to use stream of consciousness, and many writers adapted the technique after him. I don't think this is a distinction between genre and literary fiction. Maybe a handful of writers used stream of consciousness before Joyce, but similarly a few authors wrote epic fantasy before Tolkien, and Arthur Conan Doyle wasn't the first writer of mystery stories.
    – Peter Shor
    Sep 29, 2017 at 1:30

In this thread I see a lot of references to phrases such as "human experience" and "the human condition". I think it's worth stepping back and asking whose experiences we are talking about. I believe, and hopefully I can show this in my answer, that the question of "whose experience" is the key to understanding the concepts of literary fiction and popular fiction.

Let's get something straight: all books contain meditations on the human condition. Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, derided as the ultimate example of the failings of popular literature, contains lines that can only be interpreted as mediations on the human condition, such as:

Men go to far greater lengths to avoid what they fear than to obtain what they desire.

Meditations can be explicit statements about the human conditions. They can also be asides, snippets, scenes, that while might not necessarily be phrased as "humans are like x" still illustrate an aspect of the human condition. For example, the rape scene in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo--another example of a book derided for containing the failures of popular literature--is allegedly a reflection of the author's personal experience witnessing a rape. His depictions of graphic sexual violence certainly says something about one aspect of the human experience. (If you only like academic articles, here's an academic book on the subject).

In fact, I would go as far as to say that if you're telling a story, then you automatically have created a reflection or a mediation or whatever fancy word you want to call it about the human condition. A story means someone is sharing their experience. "I was hungry, then I ate" is short and simple, but it tells you a lot about the human experience--the relationship between hunger and eating for one thing.

The mistake here is to conflict a human's experience with all human experience. "I was hungry, then I ate" is one human experience, but there is also "I was hungry and I couldn't eat". Harry Potter contains lots of supposed universal messages about the power of love, but it also represents the experience of a white author who was culturally insensitive enough to write an incredibly insulting depiction of native american beliefs and practices. So perhaps the reflection in Harry Potter reflect a certain type of experience rather than a universal experience.

There's a well known concept in the literary world of "windows and mirrors". It essentially means that in classrooms, children should have access to books that are "windows", i.e. they help them see the perspectives of others, and books that are mirrors, i.e. that help the reader better understand themselves.

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

I think when it comes to "popular" v. "literary", what's at issue isn't the existence of this human experience, but the question of what experience is being described and how it is being described. "Popular" obviously implies that is being read by a lot of people. Literary, on the other hand, carries the assumption of being the province of the elite few. Reading popular fiction is seen as mindless entertainment, while reading literary fiction is seen as something you can do to improve and educate yourself.

In practice, if we look at what books are considered "literary", its almost always books that are assigned by educators or placed in syllabi by academics. So of course it is not surprising that, until recently, the vast majority of "literary" works were written by white authors. It is of course also not surprising that books become "literary" for pedagogical rather than artistic reasons. The Great Gatsby, for example, is an excellent book if you're trying to teach high schoolers about symbolism, but in many respects, such as character development, the book falls flat. And it wouldn't be surprising if academia favored books with more complex, professional writing, because that's a skill academia is trying to teach.

Personally, I haven't found the popular v. literary dividing line to be helpful or useful. I've found that while there are books and authors I prefer, in terms of being able to learn from what I read and get value out of what I read, pretty much any story will do. James Joyce once said that all novels are autobiographical. When we read, we are absorbing someone's experiences--that experience may be similar or different from our own. If I think hard enough, I find that I am always able to learn something from someone else's experience (or if I'm reading my own fiction, my own experiences). Literary just means that academia has found the book useful, popular fiction just means that popular culture has found the book useful. Not to disparage either group, but I think it's important to decide what you like and find useful, rather than relying solely on the judgement of other people.

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    I don't think you actually answer the question. You say that literary fiction is defined as those books taught in academia. This seems to me an insufficient answer, since publishers are publishing new books all the time, which they classify (at least implicitly, by their advertising campaigns) as literary fiction, popular fiction, mystery, fantasy, horror, and so forth. And it takes quite some time for academia to notice them.
    – Peter Shor
    Nov 13, 2017 at 13:18
  • "Literary Fiction" is a genre, like any other, with distinct emphasis (style, emotional impact, emphasis on the human condition.)

It's worth noting that before the modern literary movement of the late 19th century, all literature was "genre" (epics, sagas, romances, histories, etc.) Hamlet is a revenge story, just like Euripides' Hecuba, and both are ancestors of Quentin Tarantino's work in cinema. The greatness of Shakespeare elevates his work to the highest echelons of literature, but in their time, they were "popular" plays aimed at the widest possible audience.

It's somewhat rare these days for genre fiction to be elevated to the level of great art, but it's worth pointing out that of all the "genres", speculative fiction is the most literary because it developed as a means of social critique (Swift, etc.) The best speculative fiction can be intensely literary, for instance, Orwell. Every book Philip K. Dick wrote was about the human condition in a technological society, with an emphasis on the nature of identity in relation to perception (the subjectivity of experience), with empathy as the consistent, central theme. To my mind, this makes him more of a philosopher working in a narrative form. Hunger Games has a a deeply mythological basis, suitable for educational purposes, and it's primary function is uncompromising social critique appropriate for middle-school and up.

Michael Chabon was once quoted to the effect that, while he really wanted to be a genre writer, he felt he had to write about adult themes like disappointment to be taken seriously.

  • The general intent of genre writers is to "tell a great story" or present exciting ideas, but genre is often elevated to "literary" status.

On Character Driven vs. Plot Driven

It's true that better work tends to be character, as opposed to plot, driven, but this doesn't mean great work can't have a strong plot!

But literary work can also be allegorical. This is the case of No Country for Old Men and The Road and Blood Meridian, which are, not unsurprisingly, also "genre" novels (crime, sci-fi and the Western). Cormac McCarthy can be said to transcend genre, which may be taken to include the "literary genre".

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    Very pertinent answer -- I don't go by 'literary' and 'popular' myself but read what interests me and then form my own opinion about its literary merit. Some of the finest treatments of the 'human condition' I read have come from genre novels! Sep 27, 2017 at 20:47
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    Yes indeed: many generations of readers in many different countries validate the literary quality of true classics, although I am always happy to choose a book on instinct, @DukeZhou. I read an average of 36 novels a year of which 12-14 tend to be 'literary novels' and some 22 books are genre fiction. You are right to say these are mainly marketing labels: there really is only good writing and mediocre writing, methinks. Your point that literary allegory can be genre fiction is also well taken -- Blood Meridian is the definitive 'amoral western' and probably most historically accurate, IMHO. Sep 27, 2017 at 21:23
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    There are a number of mystery writers whose works often contain social critique (e.g. Ruth Rendell), and only relatively few contemporary speculative fiction writers focus on social critique. I don't think this is a very good argument for speculative fiction being the most literary of the genres.
    – Peter Shor
    Sep 28, 2017 at 2:00
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    The origins of speculative fiction certainly were in part in literary fiction, but it's drifted a way from its origins. Some people attribute the origin of the romance genre to Jane Austen, which was also literary fiction. But again, it's drifted a long way from its origins.
    – Peter Shor
    Oct 3, 2017 at 23:51
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    I found the literary praise for McCarthy kind of baffling. They often seemed to focus on elements that were in fact old hat for genre fiction, as though he were innovating them. They were fine novels, but I feel plenty of other genre novels have more literary merit but simply hadn't been given whatever whitewashing McCarthy achieved to let them "pass" in literary circles. Oct 5, 2017 at 14:38

I tried to edit my answer to respond to some comments, but for some reason the edits didn't go through, so here's my response.

I think what I'm trying to say is that:

  1. Books, or stories in general, represent perspectives. Perspectives can mean a view on an issue, or a perspective can mean how that perspective is communicated. To give a hypothetical example, if two authors write the same book, but only one author knows how to spell, the perspective being communicated in those two books is very different.
  2. There is always stuff to talk about when you're talking about a perspective. Academics wrote an entire book on The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, even though that's the poster child for "popular fiction". Even if you aren't an academic or don't like academic thinking/writing, there is always things to talk about. If you think a book is bad, then you can talk about why you think it's bad!
  3. The question is really what perspectives are useful for you to have more of. Academia (the primary source of what books count as "literary", at least in the USA: if a book is added to enough syllabuses in colleges or is taught in enough public schools, etc.) has certain criteria for what perspectives they find useful.

Do you think that someone who just finished Joyce's Ulysses has gained something more that someone who completed Da vinci code?

Well, I would argue that an alien from outer space, who has had no contact with humans, would probably learn more from a book that has resonated with a lot of people and that represents the "popular" culture than a book that represents "elite" culture. An alien reading Da Vinci Code might not learn very many historical facts, but they would learn something about the value of historical facts to a large portion of the public.

Another example: Great Gatsby is a great book if you want to teach high schoolers about symbolism, which is a goal of academia. If you're looking for characters with depth, then Gatsby is probably not the book for you, unless you're interested in reading something narrated by a detached, boring man with no personality, who is describing a different man with no personality other than the fact that that he is rich and obsessed with a rich woman. But again, let me emphasize, the fact that the characters are boring does not prevent you from learning things from the fact that they are boring. The fact that people ignore the boringness of the characters because they are rich certainly says something.

What you get out of a book depends on you and what you are looking for, not the book.

  • Your edit was rejected because it was impossible for reviewers to be sure that the editor was the same person as the original poster. Since you seem to have created two accounts, you can merge them using these instructions - after that, you'll be able to edit your own posts without the need for community review.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Oct 6, 2017 at 22:48

It won't let me comment, so I wrote this here.

I would say as a crude start, one could say, Literature has both a sophisticated seriousness of content and a pleasing style. Popular fiction is simply fun or pleasing to read for a large group.

If one looks at, for instance, Jonathan Franzen, he is somewhere on the borderline, tending towards the popular. The work is well-crafted, absolutely readable, treats issues in the newspapers. However, one feels no really profound meditation over the human condition is present. Nor that the writer is capable of such. If we compare that to great literature, for instance, Yukio Mishima, we find lyrical language, of exceeding luxuriance, giving expression to an unparalleled searching.

The objectivity consists in something like a general agreement, not in taste, but in a good sense recognition of the presence or absence of artistic, read: human, gravitas.

Expressed neatly, pleasure, versus more than pleasure.


The question really presupposes the possibility of higher levels of consciousness concerning the evaluation of a work. In other words, what impresses the average teenager as deep, will not impress a great mind. A claque of cognoscenti forms about the great works, upholding them, as it were. The matter isn't of taste, but rather of existence, or lack of, sound judgment. Whether sound judgment is only of today, of this age, or always and perpetual, is not necessarily in need of an answer for the objectivity. We can know what the judgment was in each age, without considering it as true.

Answers to objections:

1. ""The question really presupposes the possibility of higher levels of consciousness concerning the evaluation of a work" OK, how do you tell the difference between a "higher levels of consciousness" and lesser levels of consciousness?""

General agreement, modified by gigantic power. For instance, MLK is held, largely, to be a man of superior moral gravitas. This is what I mean by, not true, i.e., in some always and ever quantifiable sense, but “objective”, in that we can say, it was held to be so by the human community, largely.

In a legal setting we use the criterion of reasonableness. Anyone outside this bound suffers from “diminished capacity”. In other words, the criterion is objective because the normative is visible, though not true.

  1. "one feels no really profound meditation over the human condition is present" (1) this may be your personal definition, but the question isn't asking for personal definitions.

How would it be possible that a definition were not "personal"? The question is, in that case, aberrant or irrational. It supposes that the "objective" is not set down by some person.

"(2) Why is this the defining characteristic, as opposed to the infinite other ways someone could use to classify books into categories." Simply because, in experience, this is the way it has been established. That is what is meant by, not true, i.e., not always and ever, but empirical. As it has been to humans. "To humans" means, it is humans that ground the definition of the objective and the subjective. There is no higher agency that descends to humans and hands them such a logos, or way of asserting in words.

"How can you tell when literature contains "profound meditation over the human condition"?" One must ask a really serious human being. I.e., not a teenager impressed by the latest graphic novel. This presupposes that humans consider some other humans more serious, and some less serious. And that, largely, such judgments hold sway, they become powerful, they are real. Again, not true, but what has happened.

The original post said:

"Also is there some objective criteria that demarcates the genre and literary works? Like one is plot driven and the other is character driven."

If this is the rule about what is "objective", have I made a mistake in giving criteria that are so different? Where is the demarcation line? Doesn't one judge, and say, this is "character driven", just as one judges and says, here, just here, we see profound searching? I should like to learn of this, if someone understands it.


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