Difference between commercial and literary fiction?



“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.

Literary Fiction

  • 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…”

Commercial Fiction

  • 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?

  • Mala Naidoo

    Categories can pigeon-hole novels and stymie readers choices if a book is not accurately categorised. A balance between literary as in art and 'commercial' for entertainment value is perhaps essential to draw in a range of reader generations. Timelessness is not wholly dependent on literary value, significant, but not necessarily the overarching contribution to longevity.

  • Segilola Salami

    Hi, Quite an interesting but clearly defined article. Going by it, I think I write literary fiction. This brings me to my question, why is it important? Before reading this article the type of fiction I write never even crossed my mind. Who benefits from having works defined? Many thanks, Segilola Author and host of podcast The Segilola Salami Show http://www.segilolasalami.co.uk/blog/

  • Edward Page

    I would think that all fiction starts out a commercial exercise. A tale to tell, and hopefully make money. It only becomes, for want of a better word, art when it stays in print for many years after publication so becomes an inspirational scholastic educator. I.e War and Peace has all the thrills and spills of a James Bond paperback with its then period now portraying the elegance of times past so becomes literary fiction

  • Jane McCulloch

    I think my writing has elements of both 'literary' and 'commercial'. It probably falls more into the commercial world - but not completely. In any case, I rather hate categories!

  • PublishingPush

    Hi Jane. Thanks for your comment. There are always elements from both categories. This article is mainly aimed at those looking for literary agents and are being asked to categorise.

  • Lee Constantine, Head of Author Success

    I find this an interesting dissection of these two terms. The lines will always be blurred and subjective I image. I just want to use James Bond as an example. Brilliant plots and commercially profitable -- so much action and car chasing. But this is not the selling point. The selling point is James Bond himself, the character. Who cares about the plot. Everyone who watches or reads James Bond is enthralled and inspired by his character, whatever plot he finds himself in. There is no clear distinction between literary and commercial fiction.

  • PublishingPush

    Hi Lee. That is a very interesting way of examining this question. Might have to make an update to the article and explore this idea further.

  • Miller Caldwell

    As long as the book cover refrains from making the distinction, the reader will make up his or her mind. That is if they feel it is required to make the distinction. However it will become clear before many chapters have been read. Miller Caldwell

  • Patty

    You do not comment on theme or moral premise. The really memorable stories usually have some sort of life lesson.. That would make them seem more literary. But memorable stories usually sell the best which would make them seem more commercial. What do you think?

  • PublishingPush

    Hi Patty. You are absolutely right and this is why we wrote the article. It is such a fun topic to explore. Everyone has a different view and points can be well argued from both sides.

  • Gill James

    I don't think popular fiction is necessarily "plot driven". Plot is important yet, but doesn't all story come form the gaps and tensions between characters? Maybe the nature of the gap is different in literary fiction?

  • Miller Caldwell

    The two categories are not sufficiently distinctive. Sorry in rush for a meeting.

  • PublishingPush

    Hi Miller. Thank you for your comment. The article is designed to explore this subject because it is difficult to classify a book as one of the other. We wanted to share the opinions from around the internet and allow people to draw their own conclusions.