What Is Commercial Fiction?

And why you should stop assuming it’s trash.

Book collection1

  •  Myth: The quality of writing in commercial fiction is low.
  •  Myth: Commercial fiction is less intelligent than literary fiction.
  •  Myth: Commercial fiction isn’t “deep.”
  •  Myth: Commercial fiction is trashy.
  •  Myth: Commercial fiction is the same thing as “genre fiction.”
  •  Myth: Commercial fiction is always simple.

As you can see, commercial fiction has its share of prejudices. I am truly passionate about both commercial and literary fiction (and the blending of the two), but I’ve found that not all readers are. Everyone has different tastes and preferences, and that’s perfectly okay. However, many commercial lovers don’t even consider literary novels in their options, and many lit-fic lovers shut themselves off to commercial novels – when in reality, most readers could probably be enjoying some of both. Part of this, I believe, is due to the misconceptions and stereotypes associated with commercial fiction.

Unlike lit-fic, I don’t think commercial fiction is three separate things (not usually, anyway) – which might explain why people are generally less confused about what comprises it than what comprises the ever-elusive “literary” fiction. Plus, “commercial” is a pretty universally understood term that means “to make money,” so one way to look at it is that commercial fiction is specifically written to drive big sales by reaching lots of readers.

But still, commercial fiction can be discussed in the same three categories to highlight the differences between commercial and literary.

1) Style-

sentence structure, vocabulary, pacing, and a generally easier to read quality.

I’ve heard it said by an industry professional that the difference between literary and commercial fiction is the motivation of the author. Literary fiction is written for the love of the art form, whereas commercial fiction is written to make money. While at its root I have no problem with that definition, I do see a lot of potential there for insult and hurt feelings. For one thing, it implies that a writer can’t want both, which is silly. Ask any literary fiction author if they want to make money; if they say no, tell them their pants are on fire. And secondly, it implies that commercial fiction writers don’t care about the artistry of their craft. This, quite simply, is untrue.

Both types of fiction require talent, practice, and honing of the craft; they just have different goals.

Literary fiction does put the artistry first. If they have a gorgeous, complex metaphor that’s perfect for a passage, they keep it at the risk of isolating some readers because they believe the art form is the priority. But commercial fiction puts the reader first. If they have that same metaphor and know it will confuse some of their readers, they’re more likely to simplify it to reach the greatest number of people with their message. (Or, I suppose, you could just argue that they have such different readers that it’s unclear when artistry or readers win out, or if they are one in the same.)

Ultimately, the end-goal drives style. Commercial fiction tends to go by the type of writing rules laid out by Stephen King and Elmore Leonard: few adverbs, economy of words, and clear meaning… As opposed to literary fiction, that often experiments more (and thus risks losing a portion of its readers). Both can be executed well or poorly. “Good writing” is not only a matter of taste, but of style.

2) Genre-

established plot and character expectations, usually within a specific genre (romance, mystery, horror, etc.).

Here’s another important distinction: “genre fiction” is not the same thing as “commercial fiction,” although most genre fiction is commercial (see my lit-fic post for a quick discussion of “upmarket”). But a book can be commercial without fitting neatly under the category of fantasy, sci-fi, etc. When people say “mainstream,” they usually mean contemporary commercial fiction, meaning it’s written for the general public (commercial) and set within the last fifty years or so (contemporary) but doesn’t fit into one of the big genres.

So what makes a book commercial in genre? Plot and characters.

Specifically, something needs to really happen in the plot. Something big, definite, and external. As Melissa Crytzer Fry pointed out in the comments of the literary fiction post, internal plots are often dubbed as “no plot” or “weak plot,” and are generally less commercial and more literary. This doesn’t mean that commercial fiction can’t have internal plots, it just means that they’re usually mixed with external plots. Commercial readers prefer to be consistently entertained, so when I say “lots” needs to happen, I mean that the external (action) plot must not be far away throughout the duration of the book – not just at the climax. (And by “action” I don’t just mean explosions and gunfights. Divorce papers and dinner scenes can be action-driven as well.)

In the literary fiction post, we talked about intentionally unlikable characters. In commercial fiction, it’s generally accepted that the main character needs to be likable, vibrant, and memorable. This is where you often hear phrases like “larger than life,” etc. While literary readers might prefer a protagonist who is so flawed as to make the reader contemplate humanity, etc., commercial readers are more likely to love a protagonist they can root for. This doesn’t mean an oversimplified, one-dimensional character; it just means a (preferably deep, complex) character worth liking (in contrast with a character still worth reading but not worth liking). Again, this is a matter of taste – with plenty of space for gray areas.

3) Qualifier-

poses a larger question and answers it through plot and/or character.

Here’s the biggest misconception. Literary digs deeper, but commercial can too. Commercial fiction can just as strongly tell a message, make a point, change the world. I repeat: commercial fiction can be very, very deep. It can pose big questions and answer them, changing readers forever.

But it does so through plot and character, whereas lit-fic does so through other devices. What this means for the reader is that the message is easier to find and understand – often because the main character or narrator tells you as she herself learns it. Usually that lesson is inherent in the plot itself, which is the vehicle to force that character to change.

So let’s say an author wants to say something about how time is anecdotal and ever-present rather than linear. A lit-fic author might go about that by telling the story unchronologically through varied narrators to force the reader to ponder what effect that has on the information within. A commercial fiction author might go about it by setting a story in a world that allows the main character to time travel and experience those effects first-hand. Both can say the exact same thing – and have equally deep meaning – but literary fiction makes the reader dig while commercial fiction makes the protagonist dig. Which you prefer (when done equally well) is a matter of taste, not quality.

The Takeaway

I think we’ve all witnessed lit-fic and commercial fiction fans throwing tomatoes at each other over the years, but the truth is that no one is ever going to win the big fight. And the reason for that is simple: both types of literature have their own value for different tastes and different readers at different points in their lives. Why does one have to win? Why do they even have to be pitted against each other? At the end of the day, they both belong in the same realm: literature.

So what do you think? Do you like commercial fiction? Disdain it? What are your favorites of all time, and when does a commercial novel make you throw in the towel?

Like this post? Check out all posts in the What is Genre? series!

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  • A great topic to tackle, Annie, and I like how you’ve done it. I enjoy both “commercial” and “literary” fiction, although as I believe you know, I’m not keen on such labels. I love mainstream genre novels in which the author tells an amazing story, and will tolerate some clunky dialogue and other writing elements. And I love a good literary work in which I can celebrate beautiful turns of phrase, and will tolerate a weaker “story.”

    What amuses me is snobbery by those lovers of literary works who will turn against any such work once people actually start reading it. On the train to my winter MFA residency I overheard some students ragging on one of our instructors because a number of her well-written, literary novels have sold pretty well. “She writes ‘commercial’ fiction,” one said, and the others scoffed with him. You should be so lucky, I thought to myself, to write as well as her and to sell as well!

    • Thank you so much! I love both too. I think labels are only helpful insofar as they guide readers to what they’re looking for. Once they become stigmas, that usefulness is often outweighed by snobbery, as you put it.

      I am always amazed when that happens — the “elite” turning on one of their own after success in the field. It happens not just in books but in music and movies, too. It seems pretty clear to me that that snobbery actually comes from jealousy and/or a feeling of betrayal, because as you said, any writer should be so lucky as to write and sell well. Thanks for your comment, Patrick.

  • I’ve never understood why people feel so strongly about this divide, and I think you do a good job showing how the division is more about taste than quality. The only thing I ask of any book I read is that it be well written, which is a wide, personal definition that varies depending on what the book is (its genre, when it was published, etc.). If more people would acknowledge the role their own personal tastes play in their feelings toward a different genre or category or whatever, I think we’d have a much more civil discourse. Basically, in case it isn’t already obvious, the only thing I disdain is disdain itself.

    • That’s an excellent point about quality varying for each book, especially for when it was published. I do that too, for sure: I give a “wordy” allowance to older books, since tight and short wasn’t in vogue then. And genre, too, influences my reading before going into a new book. So yes, absolutely.

      I also wholeheartedly agree about disdain. I get so frustrated when I hear a reader slamming all literary or all commercial fiction. The first question that I want to ask is, “And have you read any of it in the last ten years?” I feel like the answer would almost always be no. General preference I can deal with; blatant (and often unfounded) dissing I can’t. So instead of, “Literary fiction is so pompous,” why can’t people just say “I prefer commercial fiction,” etc.? Great points as always, Lura!

  • Bravo! I now have a much better understanding of the issues. And I realize I don’t have a preference, except that it has to be a good book.

    Well, duh! But, really, if a book doesn’t grab me I don’t care whether it’s in my preferred genre/category/comfort zone or not.

    This can even be true book-to-book during, say, a trilogy. I recently started a trilogy about King Arthur. Absolutely loved the first book, so I bought book 2 and 3. Book 2 left me cold in places (I was even skipping whole chapters – shudder), which has made me reluctant to plow into book 3. Especially since book 3 is 400 pages long. So, for me, even with a single author it comes down to “it has to be a great read.” I’ve read some lit fiction that was more engrossing than one that told a big story. And vice versa.

    • Agreed, and another great point. In fact, I often find that trilogies and series let me down at some point. I suspect that the author gets a little too comfortable with their success, but who knows? In the end, as readers, it’s all about whether or not a specific book works for us. Thanks, Milli.

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    Ohh… Another fabulous post (thanks for the shout-out as well). I particularly like the way you’ve analyzed the two types of fiction (though, I have to agree with Patrick and others — you, included – that labeling is inherently counterproductive)… I LOVE this very quotable note you make: literary fiction makes the reader dig while commercial fiction makes the protagonist dig. Though I guess it’s true that the protag digs for meaning in lit fiction as well.. I personally lean toward more literary works because I love reading language/metaphors and seeing how they are woven into story, but I also equally love upmarket because of it’s wonderful combination of the two. Thanks, again, for an informative post.

    • Thanks Melissa! Just to play devil’s advocate, I do think labeling has its place — namely, for writers, agents, and people in the industry. For readers, I think the stigma often outweighs the benefits, because we tend to put up walls and then we miss out on new things we might actually love.

      Sure, literary fiction can make the protagonist dig too. Of course! In really heavy lit fic, though, it seems to me that the protagonist is less likely to find their answer; the reader is left to find it. That’s especially true with the popular trend of having the main character be “wandering” or “aimless.”

      I, too, love the whole language/metaphor aspect of literary works. But then again, sometimes I just want an easy read to relax — Thank goodness there’s room for both!

      • Melissa

        Yes, I agree about the importance of labeling when it comes to marketing. Booksellers/publishers, etc. need to find some way to categorize books so that they can sell them.

        You make another great point about the reader finding the answer in lit fic (maybe that’s another reason I like it so much. I love to stretch my brain and walk away from a book saying, “Oh. I get it. Wait … MAYBE it meant this … or MAYBE it meant that…)

        • Me too! I think maybe that’s why English teachers are so obsessed with interpretation, and why most teachers lean toward literary instead of commercial: it usually leaves more room for personal interpretation.

  • As always a smart post, Annie. I read all kinds of novels and it bugs me so much when people criticize entire genres. 

  • Richardsfive

    My personal take (I may be wrong, I sometimes am) is that literary fiction is focused on telling a story beautifully and commercial fiction is focused on beautifully telling a story.

    • Man, that’s hard for me to wrap my head around for some reason. But I’m sure you’re not wrong; you’re never wrong! =)

  • Thought provoking post!  I’m not big on labels either, but would probably fall more into the “literary” category — both in reading preferences and in writing style.  I think the preference harkens back to my visual art roots.   That said, indeed, snobbery abounds in the context of all art forms.  I’ve seen it in the visual realm, too.  Someone actually sells a painting, they’re a sell-out.  Duchamp dubs a toilet “sculpture” and that’s considered edgy and provocative, “real” art.  Ugh.  I read what moves me, what challenges me.  I try to write about what moves me and challenges me, too.  Whatever it winds up dubbed.  Thanks for raising the question!  

    • So true. Snobbery abounds in everything, I suppose. I like to hear about readers (and artists) who buck labels and go with whatever it is they truly love. Thanks for the comment, Terri!

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  • Patrice

    Literary is basically written by pretentious sophomoric snobs– who are mentally and emotionally still in graduate school. and have yet to experience the real world—which I might add, it FUN. If it’s so verbose and cryptic it can’t reach an ordinary literate person, it’s lit fiction. There’s something stillborn about it. Good fiction, to me, has to immerse me and sweep me away. If I have to stop to take in the ornate phraseology—and footnotes, forget it. Like I said graduate school poseurs.

  • Janet B.

    Thanks so much for your useful thoughts. Really like your distinction about how the message is conveyed–through style/structure or through plot and character. Now I understand why an agent just wrote that my novel is commercial–though I didn’t mean it to be. Is Jane Eyre commercial? I think so.

    • Thank you! I’m so glad it helped clear things up. Yes, I believe Jane Eyre is mostly commercial, although you’ll hear people call it literary simple because it’s a classic. That’s a very common misconception!

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  • Katy

    I like what you said about the style in commercial fiction. I myself write what would generally be considered commercial fiction. Heck, *I* consider it commercial fiction! I’m not a big fan of literary fiction and I’ve always prefered commercial, and I like to think commercial fiction writers (myself included) don’t write just to make money. (No offense to fans of lit-fic, I’ve just had a few unlucky run-ins with it.) Yes, I want to one day make money publishing a book–not because that’s the sole purpose for me writing, but because who doesn’t want to make money doing what they love? (And I really, really love writing.)To anyone who says they don’t, I would absolutely love to meet you, shake your hand, slap you, tell you you’re full of BS, and then congratulate you for being such a good liar, you can actually lie to yourself.

    And also, literary can be mixed in with commercial. In my (commercial fiction) book, every now and then I just start feeling very…philosophical and throw in a few deep messages that I then make into picture quotes for inspiration when I’m having trouble writing.

    Thanks for this helpful post, Annie! 🙂

    • Thanks, Katy! I totally agree; everyone wants to make money doing what they love — literary fiction authors too. I think the difference is in priority; literary fiction is less popular, so the authors are, in a way, choosing their artistic style over wider sales, whereas commercial fiction authors are (generally) writing in a style meant to appeal to the widest audience possible, which helps with big sales.

      Yes, they can be mixed! That’s called “upmarket” fiction. I have a post about that, too, if you’re interested: http://annieneugebauer.com/2014/01/27/the-differences-between-commercial-and-literary-fiction/ It sounds like you might have a touch of that in your work, which is my favorite!

      • Katy

        Checking it out now! 🙂

  • 786Justin

    Hello and thank you for taking the time to write this series. How would you classify the book Life of Pi ? Does it fit neatly into one of these categories ? (to me it appears to have elements of both but perhaps I am missing the elephant in the room which clearly places it into one camp or the other)