In one of my creative writing classes I took in college, just a couple years ago, there was a book we were required to read called From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and teacher at Florida State University. My teacher had been a student of Butler's and he introduced this book to us. From Where You Dream is a collection of actual classroom lectures Butler gave to his students, which you don't get from writing books most of the time. Most writing books are either about inspiration or technique/craft, but Butler's book is about his own philosophy.
Anyway, there's a part in the book where Butler talks about yearning and how your character's yearning for something is a key element in fiction. In discussing this, Butler ends up giving a pretty good definition for the difference between genre and literary fiction. I'm going to quote a passage to show this.
From page 41:
[The lack of yearning] is interesting, because writers who aspire to a different kind of fiction--entertainment fiction, let's call it, genre fiction--have never forgotten this necessity of the character's yearning. Maybe that's why they're selling books and we're not--because you cannot find a book on the bestseller list without a central character who clearly wants something, is driving for something, has a clear objective: I want to solve the crime. I want to kill the monster. I want to go to bed with that woman or that man. I want to win the war. You name the genre. Every story has a character full of desire.
The difference between the desires expressed in entertainment fiction and literary fiction is only a difference of level. Instead of: I want a man, a woman, wealth, power, or to solve a mystery or to drive a stake through a vampire's heart, a literary desire is on the order of: I yearn for self, I yearn for an identity, I yearn for a place in the universe, I yearn to connect to the other. But that there must be yearning the genre writers never forget. We do.
Robert Olen Butler also has something to say about writer's block. There was a discussion here a while back about if writer's block is even real. Several people claimed that writer's block is not real, that it is just an excuse for not writing. I disagreed with that the only people who thought writer's block isn't real are those who haven't experienced it. The rather casual dismissal of writer's block got under my skin since I have experienced it, so I thought I'd throw out this little barb to all those who said it didn't exist. The following passage is from the above-mentioned book by Robert Olen Butler.
From page 30:
A word about writer's block here. I think writer's block probably suggests that you have an artist's instinct. Bad writers never get blocked. Writers who write from their heads and are comfortable doing that--they always have some garbage to put down. I talked last week about the flow of metathinking, metaspeaking your mind. That stuff's always there and it's easy to put it on the page. I think most writers who get blocked do so because some important part of them knows that they've got to get to the unconscious. But they're not getting there; they're thinking too much, so there's nothing there. Except it's not quite nothing--you sit there thinking, fussing, and worrying: "Gee, I'm not writing," "I've got to write now and I'm not writing," Oh my God, I'm not writing," "If I want to be a writer I've got to write and I'm not writing." I think writer's block of that sort is the most common kind among writers who have any talent.
Writer's block is very similar to insomnia. What happens in insomnia? You lie down, intending to go into your dreamspace, literally; into the depths of your unconscious, where you totally lose touch with the outer world. That's what sleep is. But you can't do it. Why? Because you can't turn your mind off. You lie there thinking about things. And if there are images, it's only because you're carefully controlling them. You sometimes have a kind of daydream going on, but you're in charge of it. You're making it happen, and you get upset about this and you think about that and you argue about this, and all the time there's this "Gee, I still am not sleeping, am I?"...What happens when you finally fall asleep? Suddenly an image comes out of nowhere: a rainy street, a street lamp, a dog barking. Whoa, where did that come from? Nowhere. And at the moment that image comes, if you ask, "Well, where did that come from?"--it's gone; nothing will follow and you've got thirty-five more minutes of being awake.
Anyway, From Where You Dream is a good book and I encourage you to check it out. It's much different than other writing books out there.