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!


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



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



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



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



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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  • Marialena Carr

    What superb examples! Brava Annie! I love how you unraveled the various elements that distinguish literary and commercial. I thin you’ve articulated them very well. Might I add another potential criterion: time. Work that may have been commercial in one time period becomes literary in another. Shakespeare is the obvious example. There may also be an element of distance. Work that comes from another culture may be commercial in that culture but considered literary (or upmarket) in another. Various Swedish detective and crime novels come to mind. Of course, if my suggestion has any merit as an additional criterion, it’s because of your second point: things written obviously elsewhere (either in space or time) require a greater effort on behalf of the reader.

    I subscribe to all the disclaimers you made: I’m no expert, and it’s all a matter of opinion. 🙂

    In any case, I’ve jotted down a few of the titles I haven’t read and will bring them home with me next time I visit the library. Thanks for a delightful blogpost!

    • Thank you! You bring up a very interesting point. In fact, I have a post half-drafted that I abandoned because I’m afraid it’s too controversial. It’s called “Poe is Literary and Other Needless Fibs.” It’s exactly what you touched on; you’ve noticed that time is currently a criterion of “literary fiction” in generally accepted opinion. There’s no denying this, but I personally don’t think it *should* be. Shakespeare is a great example of that. Some of his work is literary. Most of it is not. I think the problem is that too many people assume *only* literary fiction is worth studying, and that’s simply not the case! Commercial fiction can have just as much value. So my perspective is that we should embrace the true value of good commercial fiction instead of calling it “literary” when it’s not. But hey, no one asked me. 😉

      Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful comment, Marialena. I hope you like a few of the new books you pick up!

      • Marialena Carr

        I think that time can add a component of difficulty for the reader. Homer, for example, is so not literary, but is not considered commercial now. As you say, the distinction might be better served if there were no judgement attached to it. In case it wasn’t obvious, like you, I read a lot of both and enjoy both. 🙂

        • Yes, I see your point. I’m thinking from the perspective of the author; that type of difficulty wasn’t intentional on their part. But it seems like you’re saying that it would still dissuade a casual, for-entertainment reader, which is certainly true. Not sure what the practical answer is here, but I still think acknowledging that more of these “classics” are actually commercial (at least in their time) would help destigmatize both labels. And I’m glad to hear you read and like both too! I wish more readers did. 🙂

          • Marialena Carr

            I agree on all counts. 🙂

    • Laura Valeri

      Well said about Time. Ezra Pound stated it succinctly when he said “Literature is news that stays news.”

  • Regina Richards

    Great post. I’ve read some of these and on those I agree with the category in which you placed them. Better still, now I have some new titles to add to my to-be-read list. Thanks.

    • Thanks Regina! Good to know I’m not totally out there. 🙂 I hope you enjoy the new reads!

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    Great post, as always, Annie – and it overlaps my post today in many ways. Some of the comments on my site talk about the need for both kinds of fiction for readers (“dessert” and “main course”). I agree! I think there’s room for BOTH, and I always love your posts that tackle the literary vs commercial debate. I think the interesting thing about upmarket is that a lot of people – even in the industry – have a hard time recognizing and defining it when they see it. Many times I see it being called literary, too.

    • Thanks Melissa! Yeah, I see a lot of conflation and confusion as well, which is the main reason I do these posts. Of course, the more in-between something is the harder it becomes to define, so I don’t really see the problem going away any time soon. =/

  • Julia Munroe Martin

    I think we’re on the same page on this one… (sorry couldn’t resist) My tastes run wide, and I’ll read almost anything in any category…but I’ve read a lot of literary fiction and classics. That said, in theory, I agree that the terms are somewhat subjective — although I think (like you do) that there are certain books that stand out as one category or another (like Twilight as commercial; anything Nabokov as literary). I guess my definition of literary is fairly narrow and for me the problem comes with many books inbetween commercial or upmarket and literary — that are harder to classify or people want to classify them as something they’re not. (After I wrote the above, something you wrote in comments REALLY struck a chord in me: “So my perspective is that we should embrace the true value of good commercial fiction instead of calling it “literary” when it’s not. But hey, no one asked me.” Which is exactly how I’ve been feeling lately. After all, a rose by any other name…) In any event, you have offered some wonderful new books that I haven’t read, and I look forward to checking them out, thank you!

    • Twilight and Nabokov made me laugh. Yes, I think we can all agree on those two at least. 😉 Thanks for the comment, Julia! I hope you like the new books.

  • Peggy

    Great post and excellent discussion! As usual, you are sharp, literary, and thoughtful, with one foot planted firmly on the ground. I would love to hear you discuss Claudine’s House by Collette and opine whether it’s literary or commercial. It’s one of my favorite books and seems literary to me, but is that partly because of the time and place? It’s not part of her series of “Claudine books”, which were probably commercial, since her ex-husband pushed her to write them for money. It seems so very romantic and yet earthy at the same time. Can a book full of cats be literary?:)

    • Thank you! I have that one in my to-read stack, but I don’t know much about it. Someday I’ll get around to it and tell you what I think. 🙂

  • Cynthia Robertson

    Great post, Annie, I always enjoy these that you do on
    industry labels, since I often struggle with what to call a novel, (especially
    now that so many are blends of genres, or even sub-genres of genres). I see
    several in your suggestions that I’d like to visit again or read for the first time.

  • jclementwall

    I love every time you address this. One day, I’ll get it. 😉

  • A. B. Davis

    Great concluding point about pitting the two genres against each other, Annie. I too love commercial and literary fiction and it is counterproductive to both reading and writing to disparage one or the other as inferior. They are two different things, not opposites on a spectrum of value. Also, I LOVED the structure of this blog, with the examples of the different elements between the two genres. I am very intrigued to read the ones I haven’t and compare them with this blog in mind. Thank you for the provocative topic and excellent delivery.

    • Thank you for such a sweet comment! I can’t wait to hear what you think of the new reads.

  • I agree with your categories. #2 made me laugh! Maybe I don’t like lit fic because I’m too lazy to do the work! lol Not really true though. I love things like symbolism, metaphor, surrealism and bizarro, but not pretension, elitism, name-dropping, or self-indulgence. Just because someone names something “art” shouldn’t mean it’s necessarily worth more than something which isn’t labelled as art. I wish #4 were true. I’ve run across a bunch of genre ms’s recently where the mc isn’t likeable. Maybe it’s a new trend? (Though I’m critting and advising them to change it…but they aren’t listening.). Have an awesome weekend, Annie! 🙂

    • Hehe. I can understand why books/authors that go overboard with #2 could be off-putting. I think the best authors do it with value, though, not with pretension. I agree whole-heartedly that something being called “art” doesn’t automatically make it more valuable. And yes, that’s interesting about the trend toward less likable protagonists. I think that might be the growing popularity of upmarket fiction and blurred genres, but who knows? I’ve definitely seen the trend as well. Thanks for the comment, Lexa!

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  • Katy

    Good post! I now firmly believe my book is in the ‘upmarket’ category–commercial themes, characters, and plot with some touches of literary and written mainly with the intention of creating art. (If that makes any sense.) Thanks 🙂

    • Thanks, Katy! It makes perfect sense to me. 🙂 Good luck with it!

      • Katy

        Thanks! I’m only about 18,000 words (aiming for 55 or 60 thousand), but it’s coming along nicely, I would say. (And made much easier by your plotting worksheet!) 🙂

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  • I shared this on my WordPress blog (and also Twitter.) Very well said.

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  • Jes

    Hi Annie
    I liked this post so much. Would like to clarify a doubt: I would like to name my new site with the name “Literary Personality”. But I doubt which is better “Literature Personality” or “Literary Personality”? What’s the difference between them?

    • Hi Jes. What you’re asking is opinion; there’s not a right or wrong here. They’re both grammatically correct and mean slightly different things depending on how you interpret them. To me the first one sounds less awkward. Good luck!

      • Jes

        You mean, “Literature Personality” is better?

        I also want to know your opinion about this one:
        What’s the difference between “Heavenly Book” and “Heaven Book”? Please tell me the perfect meanings of those words. I prefer “Heavenly Book”. Does my selection is fine?

        • To me, “Literary Personality” and “Heavenly Book” sound better. That’s just opinion.

          • Jes

            Thank you Annie.

            I understood that those words would be right grammatically. But I don’t like to take the titles: “Literature (something)”, and “Heaven (some word)”. When I was writing previous comment, I felt like, “God, Annie should reply with the selection what I have chosen!”.

            Fortunately, you also feel better with the words: “Literary Personality” and “Heavenly Book”.

            * Heavenly is a great word, but many people feel this is new to hear even though they often hear about the word “Heaven”.

            * One of grammarian told me that you need not worry about the grammar for titles, because they are like names. But I decided to name my titles grammatically correct and meaningful. And clarified by asking you.

            Now, I have no worries about the names.

            I do like to write fiction, but I doubt that will readers read my stories if I am from a non-English speaking countries.

            An Author

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  • Jay Lemming

    Hi Annie, I just found your blog post. I appreciate the articulate distinctions you make between commercial, literary and upmarket fiction. I would have liked to see descriptions connected to each of the novels you use as examples though–descriptions in other words that talk about character and plot in context of the way you classified them as belonging to the categories you mentioned. What makes Pale Fire literary fiction? What makes Back Roads upmarket fiction? etc.

    • I agree, Jay; that would’ve been really cool. Unfortunately blogs can only get so long before people stop reading, so I don’t know that there’s space in this one for that. But I love the idea, and I’ll keep it in mind for a follow-up with examples sometime!

  • Phil Hoffman

    Thank you for this post, Annie. Even though is may seem rather dated to some, to me it’s the first time I’ve read it and my first discovery of your blog. As a new adventurer into the world of writing it is helpful.
    Quite literally II was reading a James Scott Bell book on writing (Just Write) and stopped to Google “what is the difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction” and your blog was the first on the google-list. And helpful. So thanks from a newbie and a new follower to your blog.

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  • Part of the current difficulty (at the end of 2016) is that Amazon has no ‘commercial’ or ‘upmarket’ or even ‘big book’ categories. You get genre, non-fiction – and literary. There are subdivisions, but ‘literary’ has had to become a rough equivalent for ‘better-than-average writing,’ as well as being a keyword for all that used to be called literary.

    It’s hard to label your own work, and it’s hard to find what you want. Everything under the sun to choose from – even hard-core old-fashioned literary fiction is available in ebook and paper – but the sheer volume, and the many miscategorizations, make it harder to find the book you want to read, and will feel satisfied after having read.

    Embarras des richesses.

    And a lot of writers published who had no success with agents and publishers. It will be interesting to see what survives.

    • That’s all so true. The boom in self-publishing and self-categorizing has presented an interesting shift in how genres function. And like you said, the sheer volume of options makes it harder, not easier, to find what we actually want. I’ll be curious to see where it takes us.

      • Me, too.

        I set my novel in 2005 because I wanted to use the tropes of big publishing that were still intact, mostly, back then. Agents, big publishers, bestsellerdom, TV appearances. Most people still remember that, and the top whatever percent of writers still live it (and are very unhappy about its tightening and disappearance).

        I would never set Pride’s Children in today’s publishing climate, because it wouldn’t work.

        It’s been an amazing decade+ of change. I hope I like where it goes, but it won’t be up to me – it will be up to readers.

        • Oh that’s interesting! Yes, I remember those days too. They’re fewer and farther between.

          • Using a time period and its tropes saves a lot of explaining – and, since by that time the books were fairly firmly finished in my head, it has been easy to go back and create details (such as the functioning of an answering machine) that are correct, and thus don’t jar the reader out of the ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’

            Someone said that, if you’re going to lie, tell the truth about everything else, and the lie will slide right in.

          • Oh for sure; I get that and think it’s a great idea. Laurell K. Hamilton has said something similar. If you’re asking readers to believe made up stuff, the not-made-up stuff better be accurate. 🙂

  • A helpful article, thank you!

    PS – I love that you reference Nabokov’s Pale Fire–didn’t know anyone else familiar with that (a bit weird) novel.

    • I’m so glad! Yes, I loved Pale Fire. 🙂 In fact, I think it may be time for a re-read! I found it before I ever knew about Lolita or any of Nabokov’s more-known books.

  • Laura Valeri

    Nicely done. I also have my theory about what constitutes literary fiction, which I posted on my blog. A bone I have to pick, which you will find in my blog, is in the distinction with writing styles. I like how you said that literary writing “takes risks” which is spot on, but a lot of literary writers write clean, pared down prose, too. Anyway, good post here.