Monday, April 6, 2009

Literary or Commercial Fiction?

Last week I stumbled on a blog post about a creative writing seminar near my home that made me sit up and take notice because it addresses a question I've wrestled with quite a bit lately.

What is the difference between literary and commercial fiction?

I'm starting to think there are as many answers to this as there are people questioning it. I used to think it was the difference between good writing and entertaining writing. Sad, I know. But to me, literary writing was the kind of book you read for the beauty of the language. Someone who reads always on the run, cares more about adventure or mystery or plot or action and doesn't really care about how the words on the page sound, wouldn't necessarily like literary. And a reader who truly loves the way the words are put together - the artistry, the sound, the lyricism - would find much commercial fiction grating and unbearable in it's clumsiness.

When I queried, I labeled my writing as commercial for two reasons: One, I wasn't presumptuous enough to say my writing was beautiful, especially since my book was a bit sparsely written and fast moving. I don't think I have too many of those lines where a reader would stop and reread it just to take in the structure and lyricism of the words, or absorb some great truth or think, as I often do in reading, Man, I wish I had written that! It's brilliant! Two, I hoped by labeling it as commercial I was implying it was more widely readable and thus sellable.

Oh how wrong I was!

When I started getting feedback from agents they have said, without exception, that my book is literary fiction. Which boggled my mind. And made me start looking at what makes writing one or the other.

This post, highlighting the points of writer Jack Deaver, gave me the best definition to clarify this. This is what it said:

He stressed that there was a valid and important distinction between the two, not in style or subject or length but rather in terms of the author’s purpose; literary fiction, he explains, seeks to rearrange perceptions, challenge and question intellectually, and helps readers to flesh out their world views, while commercial fiction seeks to entertain, amuse, thrill, or distract. (He did clarify that the two goals are not mutually exclusive, of course.)

Oi! A lightbulb moment!!

And in the best possible way, because when I write, it is always with the hope that as a writers (or actually in whatever I do) I can make a difference in the world in some way - to challenge readers, make them think and question what is important and what they believe. I want to write that kind of book that makes friends email friends and say, "You have to read this book so we can talk about it!"

(I just got an email yesterday from a friend that said exactly that, and I was so excited to have someone to talk about the book with, since I recently finished it as well. I think the best part of the book is talking about what it means after reading!)

The interesting part is that, in all my research, I have never before come across this kind of distinction. So what about you? What do you think of as the difference between literary and commercial? And which one do you lean towards in reading by your own definition?


  1. I see literary fiction as something that makes you think while commercial is more to entertain. I love reading both.

  2. I always pitched mine as literary even though I felt really uppity doing that. Now I'm getting over it. The definition you posted kind of goes along with what I'm thinking, sort of what's going on inside vs outside. Y'know?

  3. i kinda of think the audience is a factor - commerical is to the masses where literary is more focused on a controversial topic/subject.

  4. I honestly have no idea how to label any fiction, except among age groups. I think your writing is great, no matter what the label.

  5. This was a really interesting blog post, Heidi.

    It answers a couple questions for me too. I always thought I was commercial as well, but that's not what I get from the agents. I wonder what editors will say?

    Really good post. =)

  6. Patti - I think that's exactly what the writer meant. It makes you think. It changes perceptions.

    But I don't know. Don't most books make you think at some level - weigh issues and contemplate life? Maybe I only read literary books!

    Shelli - your comment is interesting, in that I think that's what I thought when I wrote that commercial is more sellable. It is more widely read and bought and literary has a smaller audience. Maybe that is because less people want to have ideas challenged than just want to be entertained? Maybe the two ideas are not exclusive.

    Kerri - aww! Thanks! That makes me a little teary!

    Jen - I think our whole group is in this boat. I think by this definition we are all literary writers to some degree. You, though, and Kerri and Brit all write genre writing (if you want to consider MG and YA and crime genre), and so are less affected by the label. You already have one. :) But I do think of yours as literary. Maybe because I still think of literary as just really good writing.