If you have any interest in books or writing, you may have noticed a divide between what’s known as “literary fiction” and books that are considered “commercial fiction”.
You likely have a vague idea of the distinction between these two categories. (Hint: To Kill a Mockingbird is literary, Harry Potter is commercial.) However, especially when you start getting into contemporary fiction, the line can sometimes seem blurry.
Understanding what sets literary fiction apart from commercial fiction is crucial if you want to succeed as a writer. It’s an important piece of the puzzle for defining your goals and eventually publishing your work. Here’s what you need to know.
What Is Literary Fiction?
First, let me say that the exact definition of “literary” fiction isn’t all that easy to pin down (despite what some people may say). It changes depending on who you’re asking as well as their objective opinion on specific works and their merits – or lack thereof.
My personal favorite definition is one I heard from a professor in my MFA program:
Literary fiction is character driven. Commercial fiction is plot driven.
That’s not to say that nothing happens in a literary novel or that characters never display growth or complexity in commercial books. However, I think that most readers can usually tell what’s really driving the story forward.
That said, there are a few other factors that often contribute to perceptions of a novel or story’s status as “literary”.
Historically, genre fiction (think romance novels, fantasy epics, science fiction, and even some fictionalized historical books) has been considered commercial, not literary.
One of the main reasons for this is because these types of books tend to rely more heavily on tropes. They also tend to be quite plot heavy, and focus highly on entertainment value rather than artistry.
That said, there are always exceptions to the rules. For instance, some consider J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings books classics, even though they’re also a staple in the fantasy genre.
Generally speaking, in order land your work in both the genre fiction and literary fiction categories, you have to do something that goes above and beyond the standards of the form. There must be some new, inventive quality to your novel or story that turns heads from a craft standpoint.
Most of the time, the literary/commercial divide is also associated with the quality of the writing. Use of figurative language, well-developed characters, and socially conscious themes tend to show up more in literary fiction.
Commercial fiction, on the other hand, tends to focus more on entertainment value. Therefore, it’s often a little simpler when it comes to language. The plot strives to create excitement for readers rather than expound upon a philosophical, moral, or social issue.
Some people will say literary fiction is “better” than commercial fiction. While that is sometimes true in the sense that the writing tends to be more elevated, in my opinion the distinction is more that the two types of stories serve different purposes. One is trying to convey a message or idea, while the other seeks to give readers a pleasurable experience.
To put it another way, literary fiction is more artistic while commercial fiction is consumable media much like TV.
Another important difference between literary and commercial fiction is how they’re marketed. Many people will say that commercial fiction is “written to make money” – that’s where the term “commercial” comes from, in fact.
The most popular commercial fiction is certainly treated this way. Think of authors like Danielle Steel or John Grisham, who’ve written dozens of novels. Or popular Young Adult writers who’ve written expansive series and sold the film rights to their books, expanding them into whole franchises.
Books that seem like they have the potential for similar success may have an easier time attracting the attention of agents and editors. They may also receive more marketing assistance. Because they’re a less risky investment than, say, an experimental literary novel, publishers are usually more willing to put work (and money) into promoting them.
Literary novels, on the other hand, tend to appeal to smaller, niche audiences. They do well in academia and among other groups concerned with the specific themes explored within the work.
However, since there’s often less precedent for how well a new literary novel will perform sales-wise, it can be harder to get your publisher to put forth a lot of effort when it comes to marketing your book. Often, you’ll have to hire your own PR team or promote your work on your own.
Why Does the Literary vs. Commercial Fiction Distinction Matter?
The difference between literary and commercial fiction is important to various groups for their own reasons. However, there is one prevailing area in which the distinction always matters, and that’s publishing.
Whether your work is “literary” or “commercial” will influence who will publish your book, how’s it’s promoted, who it’s marked to, and even where it’s shelved in bookstores.
Choosing which type of fiction you want to write is a very personal decision. However, it’s important to understand that it’s also a business decision. When working on a book or story, keep your long-term goals in mind and consider how its genre will influence your future publishing and career opportunities.
Who Decides Whether a Novel or Story is “Literary”?
Without a doubt, you have a lot of power when it comes to determining whether your work is literary or commercial. However, you’re not the only one who has a say.
There are several influential parties who will impact how your work is classified and and received, including:
- Publishers. As I’ve mentioned a few times throughout this post, publishers play a key role in classifying books. Your publisher’s opinion of your work will strongly influence how it’s presented to the public.
- Academia. Acknowledgement by the academic community will go a long way towards securing your work’s spot in the category of literary fiction. Professors of English and other writers in higher education often unofficially categorize works as “literary”.
- Critics. Similarly, literary critics can shape how readers view your novel. Their opinions of the quality and value of your writing will impact if it’s well received by the literary community.
- Readers. Although they might not seem as official as the other influential parties listed here, readers still have a lot of power. They can impact the perception of your work’s quality and marketability.
Which category your work falls into is dependent on all of these groups as well as approach to your writing. The push and pull of all these opinions is why there are so many books that seem to walk the line between commercial and literary as well.
The distinction between literary and commercial fiction seems vital to some, and arbitrary to others. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Each type of fiction has value. It just presents very differently, and appeals to different readers.
Trying to parse out what makes a book “literary” is no small task. There are many influential opinions that shape the perception of a piece of writing. However, you can generally figure out which category a book belongs to by considering its genre, the quality of the writing, and how it’s marketed.
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