Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Literary vs Commercial Fiction

Sarah LaPolla had a great post on this topic last Monday. You can read the whole thing HERE. I'm just going to touch on one thing that she said today in my post.

She gave these quick definitions of the difference between Literary and Commercial fiction:

Literary fiction: The focus is on character arc, themes (often existential), and the use of language. I like to compare literary fiction authors to runway designers. The general public isn't mean to wear the clothes models display on the runway. They exist to impress the other designers and show the fashion industry what they can do. Literary writing is a lot like that, but on a more accessible level. Many dismiss literary fiction as "too artsy" and "books without a plot," but this isn't true. At least not most of the time. The plot is there; it's just incidental. Literary fiction is meant to make the reader reflect, and the author will almost always prefer a clever turn of phrase over plot development.

Commercial fiction: For the purposes of this blog post, I've been using this interchangeably with genre fiction. Basically, all genre fiction is commercial, but not all commercial fiction is genre. There is also "upmarket" commercial fiction, which I'll get to later. Unlike literary fiction, genre fiction is written with a wide audience in mind (aka "commercial") and always focuses on plot. There is still character development in genre fiction, but it is not as necessary. Characters get idiosyncratic quirks, clever dialogue, and often learn something new about life or themselves by the end. The difference is that their traits are only skin deep. The reader stays with them in the present. Rarely do we see a character's past unless there is something pertinent to the plot back there. Genre fiction has a Point A and a Point B, and very little stands in the way of telling that story.
Having read this, I definitely fall into the Commercial fiction category. I never doubted that for a moment.
My main purpose has always been to tell a good story, not impress the literary world with my genius turn of phrase. It's just who I am. I like to keep things simple, straight forward, and easily accessible by everyone.

For me, the writing is about the characters and their journey. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with being literary, it's just not me.
And I'm good with that.

Where do you fall and why do you like writing that style?


  1. I completely fall into the same category. I get annoyed with literary fiction so I can't see myself writing it (other than maybe an experimental short story or two). Anyway, there are more readers out there than writers so I prefer to appeal and sell to the larger market. :)

  2. I think I'm more in the commercial, too. At least with what I've been working on thus far.

  3. I've always preferred to focus on 'how' I write rather than 'what' I write, so yeah ... definitely literary. But I don't do it because I want to IMPRESS people. It's just what comes more naturally.

    1. I'm glad you posted this. I sheduled this last week and this morning I thought I should add a note saying that i'm not dissing literary. For some people it comes naturally, and it's what they prefer to read. It just isn't me. However, my book club group are all literary. I'm like a fish out of water, but i'm trying to learn how to see things from a new perspective.

  4. Interesting post. I never thought about it before. I'm starting to think my problem may be that I am actually more literary trying to be commercial. Round peg in a square hole. May my true self win out. Isn't that where the 'good' writing comes from. The heart.

  5. I definitely fall in with commercial fiction.

  6. I can't help disagreeing with her assessment.

    First, it doesn't make any sense. How can "commercial" and "genre" be the same if commercial is aimed at a wide audience while genre is obviously aimed at a focused group of people who like a particular genre? Romance, for instance, is not written for people who like military sci fi.

    What audience a type of fiction is written for seems to me to be more a matter of content than style anyway. People usually read a variety of styles, but might only be interested in certain types of content. With that in mind, in my opinion literary fiction is so generic in its content that its audience is everyone. Not that everyone does read literary, but literary doesn't automatically rule anyone out the way genre does.

    Second, if all genre fiction is commercial and all commercial fiction always focuses on plot then why is there so much genre fiction that focuses on all the aspects of story? Me thinks someone has not actually read enough genre fiction to know anything about it.

    My thinking is that genre fiction focuses on Story (not just plot, which is only one of the legs on which Story stands) and literary fiction focuses on Style. Commercial is, in my opinion, a label that does not apply to any one type of literary content but can be found everywhere. There are commercial books in every genre, but not all genre books are commercial. There are also commercial literary books.

    Commercial refers to something that is produced primarily with money in mind. Something for which the producer (in this context, the author) didn't really care much about and so didn't focus on quality.

  7. I fall in the commercial fiction, but I write with gay characters that have gay sex so that puts me in a niche market. My story is primarily science-fiction but there is always that awkward elephant in the room if someone comes to my book expecting there to be a love story between a man and a woman. I don't ever expect to be a bestseller. There just aren't enough kinds of people that like my kind of writing. Of course I write other kinds of stories for straight folk. I try to feature as many minorities as possible from Hispanics to blacks and to avoid stereotypes. I'm kind of hoping that with a little luck, I may find a suitable audience. I've met a lot of great authors through networking but most of them (like 90%) seem to be very conservative/religious, and they all seem to write commercial YA. There are some days when I feel like a lone banana hanging out with bright red apples at the apple stand. There are other bananas, but they really have no place to hang out either. I see them on the orange stand and hanging out with the pears. We are odd things...bananas.

  8. It's interesting that you mention it, because I've been thinking about this exact thing a lot lately. Actually, I've been thinking about it since I finished reading The Fault in Our Stars. When I finished, I realized it was exactly the kind of book that will be taught in classrooms, and with that realization came another: mine will never be.

    Even if I go on to be wildly popular and famous (*snort*), I will never have books that can be taught in such a straightforward way. My books are about the story and the poor characters who get caught up in the crossfire of plot and scenery. I've decided that I don't mind. I'd rather have people enjoy my work. I hated all the books we were forced to read in high school and elementary school, so I'd rather not be despised because I wrote something that students were forced to learn.

    So yeah, fun fiction with some kernel of wisdom, that's how I'd prefer to be known.

  9. I'm not sure I agree with the way Sarah defined it. The whole point of writing is communication so literary fiction should make us want to read more. And I think good literary fiction is inspiring, has a great story and makes us want to read. Bad literary fiction is like bad fashion--ridiculous.

    Me, I have genre issues. I can't figure out what it is I write!

  10. Ah, but there are awesome stories among "literary" fiction. I'm thinking James Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. And how do I classify To Kill a Mockingbird? As a literature major, just thinking out loud. Excellent post, Charity, that GOT me thinking!
    Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror & Other Memoirs

  11. I don't really agree with Sara either. I don't enjoy commercial fiction with "skin deep" characters. I usually won't read it, and if I do it's getting a neg review.

  12. I don't really agree with Sara either. I don't enjoy commercial fiction with "skin deep" characters. I usually won't read it, and if I do it's getting a neg review.

  13. I love that this post generated some discussion!


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