What is genre fiction? And why it won't earn you a Pulitzer
You've typed "The End" on your masterpiece and are already mentally composing your acceptance speech for a Pulitzer. You describe the end result of your blood, sweat, and tears to a friend who then asks, with just the merest whiff of disdain, "Oh, so you've written genre fiction?" (Your dream of meeting Louise Erdrich (winner of the 2021 Pulitzer for fiction) at the awards dinner quickly fades.)
You quickly change the subject and then run home to Google it.
Statistically speaking, your friend is probably right. There are significantly more books sold under the umbrella "genre fiction" than "literary fiction," with the unspoken assumption being that the latter is a gem in the gray rock field that is the former. Literary fiction is the kind of stuff you are assigned to read in high school English class and genre fiction is the kind of stuff you read on airplanes and beaches.
But who decides?
There are a number of markers used to identify literary fiction: character-driven instead of plot driven; deep inner meaning instead of entertainment; focus on language instead of storytelling; uniquely structured instead of formulaic; examination of the human experience instead of . . . not. But at the end of the day, a book's characterization as genre or literary is a decision made by whoever is marketing the book. And if you published your own book, or plan to, that's you.
Literary fiction is one small umbrella category, but genre includes a huge spectrum of work. Below is a description of genres and some of the best-selling authors in each.
The most profitable genre, by an astounding margin, is romance, which generates nearly twice as much in sales as the next closest genre. Those bodice-rippers you can find at the grocery store? Those authors are meeting a nearly insatiable need for content. Writers like Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steel, Jackie Collins, and Nora Roberts are all in the top 20 best-selling authors . . . of all time.
In second place is the crime and mystery genre. This covers a wide range of titles, from thrillers to cozies to detective novels. One of only two authors to have outsold Barbara Cartland is Agatha Christie (while they both cede the number one all time best seller slot to . . . Shakespeare. Thanks, high school English classes everywhere.) Also in this genre you'll find those other grocery store staples Robert Ludlum, John Grisham, and James Patterson.
Science fiction and fantasy (SFF) comes into a solid third place and there's no way you don't know who the current champion is in this genre: JK Rowling and the Harry Potter series. Other enduring and bestselling authors here include JRR Tolkein and CS Lewis. (Apparently everyone might be watching Game of Thrones but they aren't reading the series.) You might be thinking, hey, those are all fantasy writers. Where are the sci-fi winners? Among the best selling sci-fi authors are Frank Herbert, with Dune, and Andy Weir, with The Martian.
From this point on, the numbers drop precipitously. Horror/thriller is in fourth place, with heavyweights like Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Dan Brown, and Anne Rice. And rounding out the remaining genre categories are westerns (Louis L'Amour), historical fiction (Ken Follett and James Michener), and YA (technically this is probably JK Rowling again).
Which genre or author does your book remind you of? If you're still thinking you might have a literary gem in your hands, keep reading to see a quick sampling of the more famous Pulitzer and Booker award winners. These prizes are award strictly to "literary fiction."
Booker Prize: George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo), Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall), Yann Martel (Life of Pi), and Ian McEwan (Amsterdam).
Pulitzer: Richard Powers (The Overstory), Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad), Donna Tartt (The Goldfish), and Junot Diaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao).
Of course there are plenty of other awards you can win for your book! You think all those best-selling genre authors never won awards? They've won them by the truckload.
At the end of the day, it's your book. You can label it however you want. Of course you won't describe a steamy romance as a western, or historical fiction as a mystery—that would be self-defeating. If you self-publish, this is entirely up to you. And if you seek traditional publication, you will still have to "market" your work to pique someone's interest.
And yes, your book can fall into multiple genres. You can have a romantic YA historical fantasy crime novel, if you can cram all that into one book in a coherent fashion. In fact, this cross-genre approach is increasing popular, so go for it.
Whatever you do, don't ever let someone else make you ashamed of what you've written. You may not win a Pulitzer, but the list of people who have written a book at all? That's actually a pretty short list, too.
When you think you're ready for an editor and/or proofreader for your genre novel (congratulations!), I'd be honored to read your work. My #1 goal as a freelance editor and proofreader is to make your words flow so seamlessly your readers won't be able to put your book down!