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How Do You Know If Your Novel Is Literary Or Mainstream Fiction? How Long Is A General Fiction Book?

If you’re writing literary or mainstream fiction (also called general fiction), the word-count requirements and style guidelines are often not as strict as they are for genre novels. In a previous Newsflash, we offered an article to help you determine if your genre fiction novel meets editors and literary agents’ guidelines for publication. Now, we’re tackling non-genre books. How do you know if your novel is literary or mainstream?

What is Literary Fiction? How Do You Know If Your Book Qualifies As Literary?

Literary fiction is fiction of ideas. While the story must be good, emphasis on action is not often as important as emphasis on the ideas, themes, and concerns of the book. Literary fiction tackles “big” issues that are often controversial, difficult, and complex.

Aside from subject matter, literary fiction tends to be written with emphasis on prose style. While genre fiction is “transparent” (readers can see through the text to escape into the story itself), literary writers want the reader to notice how beautiful the writing is. Sometimes the writing prevents the reader from escaping into the story, but that’s not a bad thing in this genre.

Many writers wrongly assume that if their book is not genre fiction (like mystery, romance, or thriller), then it must be literary. But that’s not the case. Literary fiction is very specialized and difficult to do well. Literary readers (especially readers of experimental and “high literary” forms) are very demanding and are sometimes regarded as a niche market.

What Is General Fiction? How Do You Know If Your Book Qualifies As Mainstream?

Mainstream fiction, which goes by many other names (like general fiction and literary light), is driven by a mix of genre fiction and literary fiction techniques. In mainstream fiction, the writer must have a strong “hook” or premise. The story must be readable (it must have a traditional plot arc and be relatively plot- and character-driven). Controversy is welcome, but it is not presented in as nuanced a way as in literary fiction. Insight and emotionality are important, but they are often of equal importance as the story.

Mainstream fiction tends to blend transparent language with occasional bouts of prose that feel more literary in tone. Writers of general fiction can have a variety of voices and write in a variety of styles, but all are accessible and not too difficult to read. Insight and perspective are important but should not overshadow story.

How To Market Your Book (Determining Whether To Market As Mainstream Or Literary)

Most novels that don’t fall into the literary category or the genre fiction category are mainstream fiction. If you do not know if your book is literary or mainstream fiction, it is probably mainstream (given that literary fiction is so specialized).

Trained literary writers know literary fiction when they see it (and some tend to look at mainstream fiction as one of the commercial genres, as opposed to art). So if you’re not sure that your book is literary, you may want to err on the side of caution by calling your book “mainstream.”

If you are writing literary fiction, it will likely help your cause to have a formal education or to read widely in modern literary fiction. Having a degree or lots of publication credits in literary journals and magazines goes a long way when an editor is deciding whether to market you as mainstream or literary.

Note: For more information on why having a strong bio matters, read Building Publication Credits. Writer’s Relief has been helping writers build up their bios by preparing professional submissions since 1994, and we can help you build your writing credentials.

If you don’t have a strong background, you may want to position yourself as a writer of accessible, mainstream fiction (and if you’re trying to produce a best seller, that’s a great place to be).

How Long Is A Literary Novel? How Long Is A Mainstream Novel?

A literary novel can be between 40,000 and 120,000 words long. If you’re a new writer, literary agents and editors will likely want to see a novel between 70,000 and 100,000 words. A mainstream novel is usually best-suited when it hits the 70K-100K mark as well.

If you’ve written a literary or a mainstream novel and would like help submitting your work to literary agents, please check out our various packages. Writer’s Relief takes the headache out of the submission process and increases your odds of acceptance! For questions, e-mail info@wrelief.com.

Questions for WritersQUESTION: What do you think? Does it matter whether you call a book literary or mainstream? When you’re deciding whether or not to read a certain book, does the genre (literary/mainstream) matter to you?

11 Responses to How Do You Know If Your Novel Is Literary Or Mainstream Fiction? How Long Is A General Fiction Book?

  1. I am still confused about the whole genre thing. Mainstream, literary, romance (with sub genre) thriller, suspense? With so many choices, it leaves one wondering which way to turn.
    I am a new writer, uneducated, but with an incredible knack for writing. I am trying to decide which to categorize my novel. Is there anywhere I can submit it for the purpose of distinguishing the difference?

  2. Although you do a good job explaining some crucial differences here, I think its important for writers to remember that “genre” is all about marketing; about how books are shelved in bookstores and advertised such that they appeal to target audiences. Genre is PACKAGING. It really has nothing to do with the creative process, which is your private universe. The only rules in your universe are self-imposed. I would say, write with no genre or audience in mind–just go where your mind takes you. Put your marketing hat on later, when it comes time to package and sell your manuscript. Readers can tell anyway when you are deliberately trying to appeal to a genre audience, which usually means you are writing in clichés. Happy writing!

  3. C N N RAO, we’re so glad our article clarified literary and mainstream fiction for you. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Dear Donna, terrific article. I totally agree,a good book is a good book. My debut novel Winds of Wildfire is 54K. It’s doing just fine. most important to me as a fiction writer is to be a good storyteller. I draw from my own life experience. this alone makes it unique. what anyone wants to call my books is of no concern to me. my readers are my critics.
    Winds of Wildfire sizzles with the tensions of sexual intrigue and the sensual feel of complex relationships set in the last vestige of the old west in Taos, New Mexico. The story delves deep into a woman’s heart and soul where she struggles with conflicting emotions after a failed love affair. Still, there was so much pain and angst to keep the fires of her mysterious new attraction continuing at white heat in the wellspring of her forbidden passions. Then one night she discovers the fulfillment of her wildest desires in the arms of her Spanish poet.
    “It was inside this flood of feelings that the existential core of life: lust, passion, humanity, and God clashed in an explosion of a thing called love. It was, at once, more then she could endure in the deep caverns of her very being.
    So she lay in his arms in an uneasy slumber, sated with forbidden pleasure, still feeling a surreal flow throughout her body, permitting the hold of her heart to overcome the resistance of her mind for the moment. She dreamt.”
    Amazon Review
    Ronald Chávez writes with the pace and feel of a Michael Crichton thriller and the frankness of Walt Whitman. The imagery of Chávez’s New Mexico is breathtakingly distinctive. The voyage is swift and exhilarating.

  5. Donna, Generally, new writers have better luck under 100K. But there are no firm rules about these things. A good book is a good book. Long books have been known to find good publishers too.

  6. I enjoy mainstream fiction that is longer than 100k words. I keep hearing that longer books are harder to get published, but I can’t be the only reader who wants a longer story and more time to get to know the characters. Should I aim for 100k or fewer words, or if I think the story merits it make it closer 120k plus? I would appreciate feedback.

  7. I personally don’t care what publishers call something. There’s big crossover between literary and mainstream sometimes.

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