What’s the Difference Between Popular Fiction and Literary Fiction?

A distinction subtle yet unmistakable

Ray Harvey
Lit Up


(My photo)

The difference between popular fiction and literary fiction is subtle but unmistakable.

The criteria is graded — think of it as running along a continuum of degrees— so that a book or movie or television show can have elements of both literary fiction and also elements of commercial fiction at the same time. Yet there is a definite distinction.

It’s not the case that plotting is the determining characteristic, though a number of good writers — screenplay writers in particular — will argue this.

In fact, some of the best plots in all the world’s literature are found in literary fiction — I’m thinking specifically of Les Miserables, Ninety-Three, and especially The Possessed, wherein you’ll see the most masterful synthesis of plot and theme that world literature has yet to offer. But the question — what is the difference between literary fiction and popular fiction? — is not insoluble, as it’s often made out to be.

The criteria for literary fiction is this: depth of style, depth of character, which refers to the depth of insight (on the author’s part) of her or his character’s motives, and an explicit emphasis on theme.

The synthesizing of plot and theme goes a very long way in distinguishing literary fiction — theme being defined as the fundamental meaning to which the events of a story add up.

“To write a mighty book,” said Herman Melville, “you must choose a mighty theme.”

Herman Melville is correct: there can be no doubt that a mighty theme is one of the primary criteria for literary fiction.

Yet there’s something besides depth of theme — projected by a convincing plot — which even by itself, without any theme, can transform a book or story into literary fiction. Herman Melville also happens to be among the greatest exemplars of this.

Moby Dick, a literary novel if ever there was one, certainly meets the criteria of a mighty theme. But even more than this Moby Dick possesses a stylistic depth of oceanic proportions, and this is why for over a century now many readers all across the world regard Moby Dick as the most poetic novel ever written.

Here are a handful of passages, chosen at random, from my copy of Moby Dick:

As the blubber envelopes the whale precisely as the rind does an orange, so is it stripped off from the body precisely as an orange is sometimes stripped by spiralizing it.

To chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.

A thin joist of a spine never yet upheld a full and noble soul.

Unaccountable masses of shades and shadows.

While bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all evil will, or ill will, or malice, of any sort whatsoever — as much as to say, oh! My dear fellow human beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill humor or envy! Come: let us squeeze hands all around; nay, let us squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

The circus-running sun has raced within his fiery ring.

In any discussion of writing style, it’s crucial to note that style doesn’t just refer to wordsmithing — although that is included — but to a much broader, deeper principle: namely, a hyper-focus on the writing itself, which includes such things as density of expression, concentrated speech, grammar — i.e. syntax, punctuation, clausing, and more — clarity, felicitous phrasing, originality of imagery, depth of description, and many, many other things as well, including cross-combinations of any and all these things.

Sophistication of style is more than well-turned phrases: it is a method of thinking, a method of execution, a method of individual expression.

Sophistication of style comes from sophistication of thought.

Style is technique, and technique is personality, wrote Oscar Wilde.

Style is for this reason the most complex component of any artwork: because style is personality, and personality at its root is human consciousness — arguably the most complicated thing in the known universe.

Read the following by way of an example:

He wandered on through the raw mud streets and out past the houses of hide in the rows and across the gravel strand to the beach.

Loose strands of ambercolored kelp lay in a rubbery wrack at the tideline. He squatted in the sand and watched the sun on the hammered face of the water. Out there island clouds emplaned upon a salmoncolored othersea. Seafowl in silhouette. Downshore the dull surf boomed. There was a horse standing there staring out upon the darkening waters, and a young colt that cavorted and trotted off and came back.

He sat watching while the sun dipped hissing in the swells. The horse stood darkly against the sky. The surf boomed in the dark and the sea’s black hide heaved in the cobbled starlight and the long pale combers loped out of the night and broke along the beach.

He rose and turned toward the lights of town. The tidepools bright as smelterpots among the dark rocks where the phosphorescent seacrabs clambered back. Passing through the salt grass he looked back. The horse had not moved. A ship’s light winked in the swells. The colt stood against the horse with its head down and the horse was watching, out there past men’s knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea. (Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy, 1982).

This sort of sustained depth-of-style goes far beyond wordsmithing, and many readers, myself among them, find something profoundly life-affirming and moving — something utterly satisfying in this sort of stylistic emphasis — so much so that if deftly handled this one element alone can transform a book or story or poem into a thing of great beauty, a literary masterpiece, even if the work in question fails in other respects.

For all its stylistic depth and thematic brilliance, Moby Dick — which I love and which deeply influenced Blood Meridian (Moby Dick was Cormac McCarthy’s all-time favorite novel) — remains a ponderously told story, a sluggishly paced, thinly plotted story. Yet even in spite of this Moby Dick will always remain an eternal work of literary fiction.

Why so?

Because, I will argue, the unimaginable power found in the depth of Herman Melville’s writing style — this more than anything else, including its mighty theme, elevates Moby Dick high into the realms of the purely literary.

This, though, raises a deeper question, the answer to which is not straightforward:

If not all literary fiction possesses the sustained stylistic depth that Moby Dick and Blood Meridian both possess — as certainly not all literary fiction does — can the work in question still fully qualify as literary fiction?

I’ve already partially answered this in my remarks at the beginning wherein I quote Herman Melville’s insightful observation: “To produce a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme.”

But there’s another aspect to this same basic component, and the question becomes particularly pertinent when the book or story or poem is read in translation.

The Brother’s Karamozov is a fine example.

In many ways, The Brothers Karamazov is a compelling murder mystery story, and yet by any standard imaginable, this novel falls squarely within the category of literary fiction. In addition to this, the translation of The Brothers Karamozov that I’ve read (to pieces) is at times almost embarrassing in its translated style. Somehow, though, despite this, the novel’s intensity is not diminished.

The reason for this is that all (except one) of the book’s major characters are developed with such a deep and sustained psychological insight — totally believable and totally unmatched: Fyodor, Dimitri, Smerdekov, Father Zossima, and most of all Ivan — “My towering Ivan,” Dostoevsky once described him as, in a letter Dostoevsky wrote to his beloved brother.

Alyosha, the youngest of the three brothers Karamozov and the book’s protagonist, is the one exception — and it’s precisely because in relation to the other characters Alyosha doesn’t possess comparable psychological depth that as a fictional creation he falls flat. Alyosha remains, from start to end, unpersuasive and two-dimensional — or, as I once heard him characterized (and I do agree): “Alyosha never makes it off the page.”

In collaboration with the psychological insight of these other characters, there is as well a profound, engrossing, and utterly thought-provoking philosophy (i.e. the novel’s theme), which Dostoevsky, like none other, projected by means of a masterful plot. This theme-plot synthesis explodes in any number of different passages like the intellectual dynamite it is — blasting the brain into the highest eminences of thought.

Theme, let us always remember, is illustrated through plot (as distinguished from pure exposition), which in turn is enacted by the characters who populate the story, and it’s absolutely mind-boggling the depths to which Dostoevsky goes in showing us precisely what motivates his characters. In this regard, Dostoevsky has no real equal, except for Shakespeare.

Pure commercial-fiction writers, by contrast, rarely go beyond presenting the immediate reason for a character’s actions — e.g. a man is killed because it gave the killer a sense of satisfaction and fed his lust for power.

But literary fiction, if it’s well-done, will provide the reader with the motivation behind the lust for power and explain why the man lusted so, and perhaps even discuss the nature of power and power-lust itself.

This, I say again, is all part of the presentation of theme, and so in this sense, what I’m discussing here is a corollary and component of the first criteria listed above: a mighty book requires a mighty theme. This, in turn, requires a skillful synthesizing of plot and theme, which is among the hardest tasks any writer can undertake.

What I’m emphasizing here, however, in this final section, is a different angle of the theme: specifically, I’m focusing not primarily on plot but on character psychology — the psychologies of the people who populate the story and dramatize the theme. In actuality, these things are so tightly interwoven that they cannot be isolated from any story as a whole, but only intellectually, as a way of analyzing what’s at work in the novel or story or play.

This is also the primary reason that plot is not the determining characteristic of commercial fiction versus literary fiction.

Good literary fiction dramatizes — i.e. it plots — in a far superior way than even good commercial fiction precisely because literary fiction adds greater depth to its plot by means of character psychology and, more specifically, a deeper explication of the characters’ motives.

In this sense, it’s accurate to say that literary fiction drives more profoundly down into the psychologies and motives of the characters than commercial fiction ever does.

This driving depth, I reiterate, can come through character psychology, artistic style, theme-plot synthesis, or any and all of them combined, and it’s precisely this driving depth that’s the distinguishing characteristic of literary fiction.

The extent to which commercial fiction does drive deeper down — stylistically, thematically, in plumbing the character’s motives, or all three — is the exact extent to which it’s no longer commercial fiction. This exists, I repeat, along a continuum of degrees.

You will never, for instance, find a more thorough or more insightful study of the criminal mind than Raskalnikov, in Crime and Punishment. Even Macbeth is second. Yet Crime and Punishment, like The Brothers Karamazov, is in many ways a detective-crime-novel. But above all it’s literary fiction.

This sort of sustained stylistic depth, psychological character depth, and treatment of theme doesn’t exist in pure commercial fiction, which is also known as genre fiction.

The moment the commercial-genre writer begins to treat a subject on this level and with this kind of seriousness of approach is the moment the commerical-genre writer crosses over into the literary.

The process, I’ll say one last time for emphasis, does most definitely exist along a spectrum, so that many, many books and short stories and movies and television shows and even poems contain elements of both — just as many literary novels, like The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, Les Miserables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and countless others, also show elements of commercial fiction.

Dune is an example of a novel that crosses over from science-fiction into literary fiction. Season 1 and Season 2 of the remarkable HBO series True Detective also crosses over — way over.

The movie Pulp Fiction, totally devoid of theme, has a certain stylistic depth, which gives it elements of the literary.

Twin Peaks, conceived and directed by David Lynch, veers wildly back and forth between the literary and the commercial — often, at its best, unbelievably literary, unbelievably poignant, stylistically stupefying, psychologically suspenseful, insightful and real, while at other times completely inane and unpersuasive in its soap-operatic melodrama.

Jane Austin’s romance literature, like the literature of all three Bronte sisters, often crosses over from romance fiction into literary fiction, primarily for sophistication of style and character development, but as often crosses back over into romance genre fiction.

None of which is to say that there’s anything inherently wrong with commercial-genre fiction — a fact I mention because invariably when I discuss this subject, whether in person or in writing, I offend, without in any way intending to, certain writers.

All this is only to say that there is a definite distinction between literary fiction and commercial fiction, and the distinction operates along a spectrum — a continuum of degrees — whereon at one extreme we find depth of style, depth of character, and an explicit emphasis on theme projected by a convincing plot.



Ray Harvey
Lit Up
Editor for

Creative director of all things delightful.