“Difference between commercial and literary fiction?” A great question posed by @rosemarydun on Twitter. It is something many authors will need to think about when it comes time to categorise their writing. We thought we would investigate further!
At first we thought this would be a nice and simple question to tackle: do some research and present our findings. This really is a challenging area to assess. Not only that, but the definition attributed has many ramifications. These results are a mixture of placement and how the work is perceived by others. We should also add that we are huge fans of both commercial and literary fiction. Like every rule, there will be exceptions.
To begin, we came across a wonderful post on this topic by Annie Neugebauer. We are fans of her definition and believe it provides a clear starting point and guiding principle.
“The aim of commercial fiction is entertainment. The aim of literary fiction is art.”
Annie goes on to say:
“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.”
So, have you put literary art first or your reader first? It sounds a very brazen question to ask a writer who has laboured over their work. That said, it does help answer the question. The answers reached will always be slightly blurred by varying opinions, but it should get you closer.
However, we still don’t feel the answer is clear! The point of this post was to give authors a clear guideline. Below we have summarised our findings in a list. These are the key points we have synthesised from the list of articles mentioned above, as well as many more.
- Character Driven
- Puts the art form first
- The plot is more within the mind and hearts of the characters
- The thoughts, desires and motivations of the character are front and centre
- Underlying social and cultural threads will impact the story
- The plot is less obvious. You have to dig for it. Really excavate the meaning. The author is making you work hard for it
- Robert Stewart, editor of New Letters Quarterly, literary fiction “uses language in fresh ways, and uses form in fresh ways. It does not rely on convention…”
- Plot driven
- A clearly defined world within which the characters exist
- Main character emerges triumphant or defeated
- The main character has a certain level of mastery in that defined world
- Action sequences such as car chases and adrenaline fuelled shootouts
- What unfolds is really happening on the surface
- A clear and very distinct plot
- Primarily read for entertainment
We hope that has helped to shed some light on the distinction. Please do tweet us with your thoughts and views @PublishingPush. We will update this post and continue to refine our definition.
If you have any questions, please contact us.
Nathan Bransford has a great piece on this topic ‘What Makes Literary Fiction Literary?‘