The Differences Between Commercial and Literary Fiction

I have blogged about this before, once to postulate a theory about literary fiction and once to clarify and defend commercial fiction. These are two of the most popular posts on my site in comments, shares, and searches. Obviously, this is a topic that readers (and writers) would like to discuss. So I thought I would tackle it one more time in a streamlined post with examples.

I hate to start things off with a disclaimer, but it’s necessary. First of all, I’m not an expert. I’m an avid reader, a full-time writer, and a genre-obsessed person, but in the end most definitions are subjective, and you will absolutely find people who disagree with what I believe.

Also well worth noting: These are generalities. Generalities by definition exclude exceptions. So are there cases where these things don’t hold true? Of course! (I might even argue that most good books break at least one or two of these statements.) In fact, to highlight the blurred lines between the two categories, I’m also going to be citing hybrid examples, known as “upmarket fiction.” There are commercial books that borrow literary techniques, literary books that stay within commercial plots, commercial books written in literary styles, and even literary books disguised as commercial books. It’s all possible.

The examples I’ve chosen are books I personally enjoyed, so they lean towards horror and gothic, although I tried to mix it up some. (And again, even my labeling of these example books’ genres is debatable.) Okay. Onward!

1.

The aim of commercial fiction is entertainment.

The aim of literary fiction is art.

commercial example: Obsidian Butterfly, Laurell K. Hamilton

literary example: Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively

upmarket example: The Passage, Justin Cronin

 

2.

In commercial fiction, the protagonist does the work.

In literary fiction, the reader does the work.

commercial example: Dead Witch Walking, Kim Harrison

literary example: Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

upmarket example: Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury

  

3.

In commercial fiction, the writing style is clean and pared-down.

In literary fiction, the writing style takes more risks.

commercial example: The Shining, Stephen King

literary example: Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

upmarket example: Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice

  

4.

The main character of commercial fiction aims to be likable to the reader.

The main character of literary fiction aims to reveal the human condition.

commercial example: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, R.A. Dick

literary example: The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon

upmarket example: Back Roads, Tawni O’Dell

  

5.

Commercial fiction follows genre precepts.

Literary fiction toys with genre precepts.

commercial example: Loves Music, Loves to Dance, Mary Higgins Clark

literary example: Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov

upmarket example: Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

~*~

In the end, is the distinction between literary and commercial fiction a useful one, or a harmful one? Arguments can certainly be made for both.

My point of view is that the terms are useful. Industry professionals from editors to bookstores use them as marketing tools, for example, to reach the right readers. And thus the distinction is useful for readers themselves. It can help prevent disappointment for readers who have a strong preference toward one or the other (taste is taste; nothing wrong with that). And even readers like myself, who truly enjoy both, sometimes feel “in the mood” for one type of read over another. Labels like “literary” and “commercial” make it easier for us to track down what we want. All of these things make the distinction useful.

But some would argue that the distinctions become less useful once they become hurtful to the authors and/or books themselves. What about books with crossover appeal (“upmarket”)? They run the risk of either being dubbed literary and thus “boring” to commercial readers, or being dubbed commercial and thus “cheap” to literary readers. Doesn’t that make the distinction harmful?

I would argue that it doesn’t. In fact, I would argue that what’s actually harmful is the prejudice against each category, rather than the categories themselves. There are many myths associated with both, which I have tried to explain (and bust) in my first two posts. It is this very culture of pitting literary and commercial against each other that is harmful—not the categories themselves.

Regardless of your perspective, and your tastes, my hope is that you find some new great reads in my examples, and I would invite you all to read one or two that are a little out of your comfort zone. True, it might not be for you. But you never know; you might just find your next favorite book hiding in a category you usually avoid.

Happy reading!

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