3 Differences Between Genre And Literary Fiction

Literary fiction is popularly thought to be un-publishable; it’s too dull, too dry, too convoluted. This isn’t the truth, though. There are many published. successful authors who write literary fiction. Barbara Kingsolver, for example, has written The Poisonwood Bibleand The Lacunaamongst others, both of which are classed as literature.

These are seriously well-known and loved novels, too! The Poisonwood Bible was part of the Oprah Book Club for Christs sake!

So – where did this myth come from? I honestly don’t know, and that’s a question for another day. What I do know is how to tell whether your novel is literary or genre fiction!


The 3 Main Differences

  1. The Subject Matter: Literary fiction tends to deal with macro ideas and happenings. I.e. literary fiction deals with themes and ideals, not, generally speaking, the day to day milleu of life. If you write a literary novel about the Jacobite Rebellion it will most likely be a sweeping social commentary which covers the whole affair. If you write a genre novel on the same subject its more likely to be an action-packed, romance laced retelling of the most pressured events.
  2. The Pace; Genre fiction is quicker, more agile, and more compact, generally speaking. This doesn’t mean the number of pages, by the way, the inimitable and haunting The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (I know, I know, if I ever stop ranting about this book assume I’m dead) is a slim literary volume, but its pace is steady and calm. No, genre fiction tends to take place over a shorter period of time (in story), and will generally move between major plot points with more alacrity. Literary fiction, however, more commonly takes place over generational timescales and may play loosey-goosey with the very concept of a hard and fast plot point.
  3. The Character Plot Balance; the real, telltale sign however is the balance between plot and character. Genre fiction is most likely to lean towards being plot driven. In fact, in some minimalist genre fictions we may learn very little about the largest parts of the character cast. Consider Garth Nix’s Sabrielfor example. We spend a fair amount of time with Sabriel, but we don’t learn as much about her as we might have assumed. We know about her father, her schooling, and her magic, but we very rarely see into her mind. In Julian Barnes’ haunting novel The Sense Of An Endinghowever, the “plot” seems to be nothing more than an endless unravelling of the innermost fears and failures of the protagonist. Literary fiction is driven by the exploration of philosophies, ideas, and characters, whereas genre fiction is driven by the events of the plot.


Simple, no?

Now you just need to write the damn thing!


Hannah Baker; A Masterclass in Unreliable Narration

Thirteen Reasons Why has gained a lot of interest, seen much scrutiny, and been pulled apart by some of the very best.

I don’t claim to fit that category, and so I’ll slip carefully past that issue and focus on what I want to say. I’ve talked more broadly about the series and book in the past and touched briefly on Hannah’s character. What I want to talk about here has much more to do with Jay Asher’s skill and the unusual way in which he employs the good old fashioned “unreliable narrator”.


What is/what makes an Unreliable Narrator?

Most obviously this is a narrator who cannot be trusted fully for one reason or another. It might be because they are relating events that happened long ago, like in The Good Solider, or because they are relating someone else’s story, like in Wuthering Heights, or because for one reason or another what they are saying can no longer be verified.

An unreliable narrator may be driven by self-preservation, desire for revenge, love, hate, or denial.


Clay and Hannah

Thirteen Reasons Why is actually driven by not one, but two unreliable narrators; Clay and Hannah. Clay is an unreliable narrator because he see’s everything through a blinkered lens; he filters every reaction, every statement through the quest to understand what he personally did to be on the list. For this reason he fits the mould, but is not the main focus here; Clay is unreliable because he is preoccupied, and because he doesn’t understand or know every detail of the story we are experiencing through him.


Hannah is a much more unusual and interesting form of the convention; she has set herself up to be an unreliable narrator in order to sow the same doubt, paranoia, and hurt as she felt herself amongst those she holds to be guilty. Before we go forward I should disclaim that this is only my view of her as a character; other people have their own interpretations and I have no doubt that they are all valid. However, I cannot help but see some premeditation in the damage and chaos that Hannah causes to those who hurt her.


Unreliable Narration and Masterful Manipulation

I hold that Hannah Baker is a) the ultimate unreliable narrator, b) a realistic anti-hero, and c) the engineer of her own status as such

Consider two extracts from the novel;

“And this time, I was going to be in control of how people saw me.” (Pp 19.) 

“Step-by-step. That’s how we’ll get through this. One foot in front of the other.” (Pp 54)


Hannah wants to align herself with each person as they listen, be on their side so that, when she spills their secret betrayals when she exposes them to others and makes them pass it along, they feel the same upset. So that they understand not only her truth and their part, but so that they run the gauntlet too.

Jay Asher masterfully created an unreliable narrator who manipulates the reader as well as the protagonist. Clay’s presence on the tapes and his obvious confusion as to why illustrate this perfectly; we want to believe Hannah so badly that we doubt him. Her testimony paints him as more unreliable than he actually his, or more deliberately unreliable I should say. And then she tells us, and him, that he honestly doesn’t belong on her list, not in the same way.  She manipulates Clay and the reader in one deft stroke, with one simple addition and omission, and of course, this means that it’s Asher who does this.

This is why I wrote this article; it’s not about the prose or even the story. It’s about the technique. This is sleight of hand done with aplomb; this is magician level deception in writing, and this is something we all need to learn from.

To use one narrator to mislead another, and by extension, the reader is not unheard of and it’s certainly not unique (consider The Historian, for example), but it’s unusual enough that it bears consideration. How can we learn from this, and what, as writers, can we do to incorporate the same cleverness into our own works?


Why it had to be so

Ask yourself this and be honest in answering; if Clay had hurt Hannah if he had been responsible, would you have put the book down? Perhaps not. Would you have cared so much about how he dealt with it? Probably not.

And if Asher had written this from Hannah’s perspective, from the meeting with Jessica to her suicide, would it have been as compelling and satisfying (albeit horrifying)? No. Definitely not.


Because we tangle ourselves as much in Clay as in Hannah; we want and need him to be either innocent or guilty depending on our own gut feeling (just the same way that some of us will instantly suspect either Justin or Bryce). It adds a layer of tension and a different element of potential loss to the narrative. This kind of layering is unusual and complex, but when it’s done well you get this effect; this I have to know but I don’t want to know, this don’t ruin them for me but destroy them completely if you do kind of effect. Clay had to be a saint or a devil, and Hannah had to be intangible because they cannot share the stage all at once.

Unreliable narration is the cornerstone of many a fictive genre: mystery, crime, and romance to name a few. In fact, to a degree most narrators are unreliable, but it’s this deliberate undermining of their credibility that draws a line between the narrator who is unreliable because the author doesn’t quite know what’s happening as they write, and the narrator who is unreliable because the author constructed them to be so. 

If anyone asks you what makes a good unreliable narrator, direct them to this book.


Image Source; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1hoi2KsB5U




Thirteen Reasons Why; unreliable narration, constant progression, and mental illness in fiction.

You can’t discuss 13 Reasons Why, the book, or the hit show, without nodding to the discourse that surrounds it – this much is a given.

Everyone from the guardian to Tumblr users has said something about it, and it generally goes something like this;

  • It’s a revenge fantasy
  • It legitimatises suicide
  • It lays the blame at the feet of others unfairly
  • It glamorises the reality of it.

And all but one of these points are bar one, bullshit in my opinion. 13 Reasons Why is a revenge fantasy, but that has much to do with the type of character Hannah Baker is; she’s a dramatic, hurt, intelligent, sensitive, and very ill young woman, but (this is key) I don’t think she was mentally ill, not in the clinical, irreversible sense.

Anyone who has watched the suicide scene would be hard pushed to say it glamorises suicide, and if they do they’re talking shit. It’s unpleasant to watch, it hurts, it’s definitely trauma porn; it hooks you by being too awful to bear, and if 13 Reasons Why has a real Achilles heel it’s that it exploits the romantic-tragedy view that modern society already holds regarding depression and suicide.

13 Reasons Why is not pleasant, it’s not fun, and it’s ugly; that’s the way it should be. The theme, for those in the know, might as well be “there but for the Grace of God go I”. 

There but for the grace of God would have gone I (if that makes sense). When the support mechanisms aren’t in place when people are lonely and desperate when trauma is heaped on cruelty suicide can often be the result, and as a person, I’m sick of seeing people who lose their fight with bad situation classed as selfish, weak, or attention-seeking. There but for the grace of God… that’s what anyone who has been depressed thinks when they see this, what anyone who has loved someone who is severely depressed thinks when they see that scene.

As a person I want to tell you all that when you read articles saying that this shunts blame from the victim to others, that its glamorising, is this; watch it. This is a narrative about a young girl who loses her struggle not because she is weak, and not because of small cruelties, but because all of the small unkindness’s were compacted by the fact that she witnessed and then experienced herself, the reality of rape. Sometimes people are to blame for suicide, and very often it’s not only the person who holds the blade.


As a writer, this isn’t what I’m here to talk about (I could have fooled you, right?). I’m here to talk about the two things that were undeniably spot on in this story; the structure, and the use of an unreliable narrator.


Constant Progression

Narrative progression is key, in fact, it makes the story, but you’d be surprised how many would be writers don’t realise this. Even academic writers (sometimes especially) have a tendency to forget how key pacing is; some stories can daunder, but most must be swift and relentless to keep the reader. Jay Asher, author of 13 Reasons Why got this so right that it brings a tear of happiness to my eye just thinking about it. They key is in constant progression throughout all elements of the plot. By this, I mean that when Hannah’s story slows, Clay’s picks up the slack, and vice versa; the past and present move so well together in this book (and in the series) that they push and pull almost imperceptibly. There is no harshness to the sudden leaps forward, and the transitions to the past are more often than not seamless, but they move the story forward.

I could rant for hours on how poor use of flashbacks ruins perfectly acceptable fiction beyond repair, but instead, I’ll say this; this is how you do it. If the reader must move back in time, the contents of the flashback should move the story forward. The only acceptable flashbacks are those which add to the story. Sadly for lovers of Austin the trend today is for lean, efficient writing that cuts to the bone of matters even when it sounds flowery ( a la Kevin Powers) so if you are writing to be published you may want to at least grasp the basics of this style before wandering away from it. Here’s how it works;

  • Gap in knowledge
  • Flashback fills the gap
  • Clay reacts
  • Gap in knowledge

And so on. Even when you move backward in time, you must progress in the narrative if you want to create a story that keeps the readers’ full interest. From an editorial standpoint you should be asking only one question to get this effect; “does this scene fill a gap?”

If it doesn’t, if the scene repeats knowledge, if you lose nothing by losing the scene, cut it out entirely.


The Unreliable Narrator

I can tell you that Hannah Baker is a subtle, but quintessential unreliable narrator, and this is only exacerbated by the fact that she is deceased during the entirety of the narrative, but first I want to rewind.

“Do you think it [13 Reasons] shows mental illness well?” 

A friend asked me this after we discussed the show; she had watched the show, I had read the book and we switched.

No, I don’t think it does, but not due to a fault in the writers’ execution. This may be controversial, but I’ll repeat it; I don’t think Hannah Baker, as a character, was mentally ill, and I don’t think Clay Jensen’s mental deterioration was caused by his implied pre-existing illness.

They were children, even at 17 and 18, who were dealing with things they never should have had to, and this affected their mental health. But I don’t believe that this book represents mental illness well, because what it represents is the justified distress and trauma that shitty people doing shitty things can cause to young people who are still finding their way

What this book does represent well is the myriad of ways in which mental health can be affected by things like loneliness, guilt, fear, shame, and bullying. Even a “sane” person will become paranoid in certain circumstances if they are exceptional.

Hannah Baker’s circumstances were exceptional, and so they destabilised her. Through the narrative, we see glimpses of her unreliability; the claim that Zach threw away her letter when he, in fact, had it in his wallet all along, for one. Asher deserves a medal, in my opinion, because Hannah is the perfect unreliable narrator for a few reasons. She was young, she was pretty, she’s dead, and, by all accounts, she was badly treated. We want to believe everything she says, even when some of her closest friends note her tendency to be over-dramatic; Tony Padilla, guardian of the tapes, so to speak, notes that if she was to be believed he was the only boy at their school who had not groped her or stared at her breasts.

Poor Tony, I could write a whole article on how he represents the ever safe “Gay Best Friend” whose female friends use him as a safety blanket… but I won’t. Let’s skip that with the statement that I believe he’s the real hero of this story.


And yet, Tony also states that the tapes, the reasons, were “her truth”, and this is the kernel of genius in Ashers character building; Hannah is unapologetic about every dramatic thought, every “why me” moment, and though many are 100% legitimate (the circulation of her picture, Courtney’s betrayal, Bryce’s rapes, yes plural), some are petty, but she explains why they are important to her. These reasons are her truth, but they gloss over the vindictive nature of what she has done, or she does. Because as far as unreliable narrators go, Hannah Baker is a perfect specimen.


Mental health, deterioration, and the Scapegoat

What has she done?

She’s scapegoated, of course, she’s given up a sacrificial lamb, but the magic is this; it’s not anyone on the list. Each person on that list did wrong her in some way, mull it over and I’m sure you’ll agree, even if it was in some minor way. The lesson, overtly, is that small action matter so much more than you think, especially to someone who is already struggling.

The scapegoat isn’t her counselor, either. After all, he’s on the list; he was overwhelmed, yes, but he picked up on the seriousness of her situation. It’s not even Clay, who’s only slight (SPOILER) was to walk away when she asked him.


The scapegoat is Tony. Poor, beleaguered Tony who arrived at the scene, who was tasked with keeping her secrets and executing her Machiavellian plan. When critics tell you that this narrative unfairly blames others for suicide and frames it as a reasonable choice you can tell them that they’re almost right; all the people on the list failed Hannah, but Hannah failed Tony by letting him take the blame and burden on himself because she knew he would.

She did not knock on his door, but left the tapes and walked away, she left him to care for her parents, her plan, and to grieve her because she knew that he would do it all to the detriment of his mental health. That’s why Clay was on the list, too; she knew the story would hurt and unhinge the boy who loved her so much that he would have to act. You can see the deterioration in both boys, in different ways; Tony grinds down slowly, breaking only when Hannah’s mother presents him with her mind-map (SPOILER; this is a scrap of paper where she lays out all the people she feels have wronged her before recording the tapes. Those circled have a tape, those crossed out are off the metaphorical hook, and Tony is in the margins with a question mark by his name).


This brings Tony down because he has finally run into something that he has no explanation for; she planned for everything, but not this. The question of how she could have even considered him for the list breaks him down, and he talks to his boyfriend eventually. For Clay, the constant pressure of wondering how he hurt Hannah, and the knowledge that other people know when he does not, pushes him close to a mental break down.


Hannah Baker is the hero of her own story, but if you look at it from Tony’s side of the tracks, or even Clay’s, she can become a borderline villain. From their view her actions, by this I mean the tapes, not the suicide, seem selfish, vindictive, and unreasonable. She wants the people who drove her to suicide to feel the weight of their actions, but she doesn’t care that the entirety of the burden falls almost wholly on the one friend who never failed her. This is why she’s compelling. She’s real, she’s flawed and complex and not always nice; Asher’s characterisation is flawless and heartbreaking because every character in this story could have been different.

The only true Villain, note the capital, is Bryce, and even he shows no signs of Evil Cackling; he’s an entitled, aggressive, privileged white athlete in a culture which idolises such people. Some might say that he never fully understood his crimes, but I beg to differ; he just didn’t think they mattered. 

“Do you think it shows mental illness well?”

No, but I think it shows the minutia of mental health, how it can be torn down and messed up so easily in our teenage years. I think it displays stunningly real, horrifyingly believable, characterisation, and I think it’s the finest example of timeline jumping I’ve seen.

Yet I don’t like this story. I didn’t enjoy 13 Reasons Why, neither the book nor the series, and I think that’s a good thing. It may just be my own personal demons, but I don’t think anyone should enjoy this kind of story because it’s there to hold a mirror to us all, and I do mean all. It’s not just about the bullies and the thoughtless, it’s aimed at the Hannah’s of the world too because depression is, through no fault of the sufferer, a self-centered state of being, and that can be the hardest thing of all to face. Contact and inclusion is often the start of the solution, and this is what 13 Reasons illustrates beyond any doubt; Hannah’s decline is not an inevitable plummet to a preordained end, but a series of shortfalls as each handhold, each connection is severed for one reason or another.

This narrative is well structured, well-written, engaging, and thought-provoking, but if it were a plant it would be a cactus.

Image Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/13_Reasons_Why