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Commercial vs. Literary Fiction
Contributor
Written by
Caitlyn Levin
October 2015
Contributor
Written by
Caitlyn Levin
October 2015

What is commercial fiction? The term gets thrown around a lot. Do you write “literary” fiction, or “commercial” fiction? As a writer, I hate this question. Labelling some kinds of fiction as commercial and others as literary implies that one is a higher calling than another. This question seems to be a favorite among writers, however. I’m only asked this question by other people who write, usually when we’re in class together. It usually strikes me as rude, because anyone who knows anything about the connotation of words (like writers do) would know that it’s a backwards sort of insult.

People usually ask this question when they consider themselves writers of literary fiction (to be said with a hoity-toity, la-dee-da type of tone).  But as readers, I find that people don’t generally care what category their books come from. A lot of writers have taken to the internet and voiced their opinions in this debate. The New Yorker had an article a few years back that argued that comparing the two genres is worse than comparing apples to organs—they’re just different, and they serve different purposes in our society. Jennifer Weiner is also pretty outspoken about so-called commercial fiction and getting it the recognition it deserves, but she’s also focused on the chick lit category and sometimes those arguments get mixed together.  

I prefer to think of anything that isn’t literary fiction as “genre” fiction. Science fiction, fantasy, young adult, new adult—it’s all a specific genre, a specific kind of fiction. Literary fiction is just another one of those genres. That doesn’t make it better or worse. Just different. I very much dislike the commercial label, because it seems to imply two things: That the writer is trying to sell books, and that selling books is a bad thing.

Of course writers want to sell books. That’s why they’re publishing books! They write books because they love writing and they feel compelled to do it. They sell books to earn some well-deserved money for their hard work, talent, and dedication to their craft. Since when is that a problem?

And since when is it a problem to like to read books that aren’t considered literary? I was first aware of this in college, when I was studying at Barnard. Barnard is known for having one of the most competitive undergraduate writing programs in the country, and I was lucky enough to be in it. I learned a lot about writing and how to suck less, but I also got my first whiff of this commercial fiction issue. I like to think of it as the “Dan Brown effect”. At the time, The Da Vinci Code was still being sold in every supermarket in America, and a film with Tom Hanks as the star was on the way. Someone in my class once made a disparaging remark about Dan Brown because his books were sold in airports. The same thing can be said about Meg Cabot (my aching heart!), or Jennifer Weiner.

I just don’t see the point of turning our noses up at books like this. There are great books in every category, and there are terrible ones, too. I’ll take Dan or Meg or Jennifer over The Twilight Saga any day. Thanks for setting women’s issues back about 75 years, Stephanie.

Dedicated readers and writers read and write in different genres, all the time. I’m working on a master’s degree in English literature (la-dee-da), so I’m reading Joyce and Woolf and Milton and all the rest, trust me. But I’m not reading them before bed, or when I just want to relax and lose myself in a story. I turn to Collins for that, or to Rowling, or to Cabot. And there’s nothing wrong with that. 

 

Cait Levin is a Project Editor at She Writes Press. You can read more of her blog (when she stops watching so much Call the Midwife and actually writes more of a blog) here.

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Comments
  • Karen K. Hugg

    This is a fascinating discussion. I just entered a contest and it of course wanted me to choose literary or thriller as my category. I think of my novel as a literary thriller. Oh well. I chose thriller because it is plot-based -- but has strong sentences and deep characterization and some poetic moments (I hope). 

    I got my MFA from Goddard College, a place I loved because they don't turn their nose down on genre writers. One of my closest friends from there writes fantasy. Other people wrote espionage thrillers, science fiction, etc. I loved that they included all stories as valid and taught everyone how to write well regardless. This is why Goddard is still warm in my heart.

    Great post, thanks!

  • Twila Colley

     Great article, thank you.  In looking over the comments however, there seems to be more attention paid to separating fiction genre from literary writing by what makes money and what gets awards.

    What it really boils down to however is content, and how that content is displayed. 

    Literary fiction is character driven. It's entertainment value is derived from deep (really deep) introspection into the character or characters and how they come to terms with themselves through the plot. Character is the focus.

    Genre fiction is plot driven. The plot drives the character or characters to examine their lives as well, but it is not the focus. What is important here is where the plot is going and how it moves. It is the motivator that keeps the story going.  

    There is a grey area of course where some will lean more strongly in one direction or the other and some will be soundly rooted in both. 

    I have chosen to write from the literary view, but I figure if I am outstanding as a writer, I will make a lot of money. Why is that my goal? I want share my work with as many people as I can, and I guess the more readers, the more money?

    Really though, it's all in the ride.

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Enjoyed reading this post, Cait, and the accompanying thread!   My husband and I home-school our daughter and she loves to read!  She soaks up all kinds of books, from "The Book Thief" and "Fahrenheit 451" to Rowling's "Harry Potter" series and Rick Riordan's mythology series.  She sees us plow through my husband's Great Ideas set and we've all read more relaxing fiction together.   Hooray for us as a society when good fiction that is based in the classics and a pleasure to read becomes popular!  There's a place for all of it in our lives! 

  • Michelle Cox

    Great article, Cait!  I used to be a lit snob, but, three kids later, I've mellowed.  I definitely enjoy both!  

  • Irene Allison

    Interesting article. I used to study literature (French literature, which I just loved!). Nowadays, I'm reading mostly mainstream fiction and a lot of non-fiction. But I was always drawn to well-written, solid stories regardless of who wrote them. When I was living in Scotland, there was a very embarrassing, very public bust-up between Salman Rushdie and John Le Carré about "literary" versus "commercial" and their respective work. It was absolutely cringe-worthy to witness. Personally, I've enjoyed both authors, in very different ways. But how sad it is for authors to get drawn into this kind of turmoil. 

  • Charlene Diane Jones

    Thank you Michelle for this warm clarifying response. I'm appalled that people in an MFA faculty might be so narrow minded to believe all best sellers are trash. Hard to take that kind of disdain. And yes I see your point about students and having their way paved by their parents. I taught College and yup, those students were the most arrogant. 

    thanks again for taking time with this and I look forward to more exchanges. Congratulations on all your hard won success!

  • Michelle Richmond

    Oh, goodness, Charlene, I do not mean to denigrate anyone's efforts in any way! I think it's very difficult to make a living as a writer, and what I'm trying to say (if inelegantly) is that there is no shame in selling. I am agreeing with the writer that literary is not better than commercial, and vice versa, but also that, as you say, literary and commercial can easily be the same: To Kill a Mockingbird, Beloved, and The Goldfinch come to mind.

    I have, unfortunately, often heard writers in academia, both studenrs and faculty, say "bestseller" as if it is a dirty word. I was on an MFA panel last year with an MFA faculty member who said, with complete sincerity, "Only trash is on the bestseller lists"--which would put a great many critically acclaimed and Pulitzer Prizewinning novels in the category of "trash." And I have known a few students and academics whose disdain was easy, because their parents were paying for their apartment and tuition or because they had an academic job and benefits that provided a financial cushion. I realize this category makes up a relatively amall portion of writers, but they do exist.

  • Sydney Matheson Avey

    Hi Caitlyn, Your subject caught my eye. I haven't been on She Writes for quite awhile because all my energy goes to balancing the huge chip on my shoulder as I labor over my literary fiction novel--just kidding! Here is how I think of it. Literary Fiction wins prizes. Genre (Commercial, Upmarket, the labels change) fiction wins readers. This is a tough reality for those literary fiction authors who would rather garner readers than rack up prizes. The market for literary fiction is small, and its commercial prospects even smaller when compared to other genres.

    I think the real issue is the glut of work out that is not very good, but gets gobbled up anyway. There are so many excellent Mystery, Sci-Fi, etc. books that will stand the test of time, but the pressure to produce quantity, sell it cheap,take no risks, etc. is disheartening. I agree with you though. Commercial success is a worthy goal, no matter what kind of writing you do.

    I wish you much artistic and commercial success in your writing endeavors.

  • Charlene Diane Jones

    Well whether we believe there is a separation between Literary Fiction and Commercial Fiction or not, there is. The separation comes from what will remain in the Canon and what will be taught as the best in English Literature. That's the dividing line. 

    I'm not sure it's a reliable standard. Certainly many commercially successful works are indeed Literary. It is also true that many commercially successful works are not. 

    I find the comment "Writers who think there is shame in wanting to sell books are probably living on someone else's dime" very harsh. We don't need to separate ourselves as writers, as women, as human beings over this. 

    Personally I have never met either in the over 250 member writing community to which I belong, nor in the over six countries and six decades I have lived around writers, artists etc, any writer who proclaimed there is shame in wanting to sell books. It's a bad myth and we best jettison it now. Likewise, the comment "for a writer to claim that selling books isn't important" also strikes me as very harsh and not quite what the discussion is about. We're talking about the division between Literary and Commercial for all writers, aren't we?

    Again is there a writer writing who really believes selling books isn't important? Neither is that the point about Literary Fiction. It's simply not the case that literary fiction writers don't want to make money. Of course they do. As do commercial writers. 

    It is the case that many more writers who believe themselves to be literary writers are likely to remain underpaid than commercial writers, because by definition commercial viability means more people will pay for the books, therefore the agents, publishers, printers everyone including the writer makes more money. 

     

    Literary achievement standards shift through time. When a work is considered to have attained heights of excellence over centuries that work most likely is of superb quality. Think Shakespeare, Austen, Brontes both, Joyce and Yeats and many more. 

    Just as surely some works that attain to excellence in one historic period, lose that in comparison to future works. Aphra Behn's enormous contribution to the history of English literature remains, but the power of her works pales in comparison to say, Toni Morrison's or Maya Angelou. Behn's plays outsold those of John Dryden her major competitor but today Dryden's work contains a kind of power in the use of language that Behn's does not. 

    Sometimes there is a cross over and commercially viable work becomes recognized as a Literary achievement. Likewise sometimes a Literary work crosses over into commercial success. To believe there is no separation is to close one's eyes. To maintain a posture of separation between writers who want to make money and some other kind of writer who presumably doesn't want to make money sounds fallacious. 

    I admire your ability to make money with your writing; please don't cast aspersions at me because mine don't.

  • Michelle Richmond

    I should add that I don't mean that selling is the only thing that is important to a writer! But I think that the idea that book sales are irrelevant plays into the notion that what writers do isn't worthy of compensation. Writing requires time, effort, and sacrifices; those investments should not be taken lightly simply because writing is an artistic endeavor.

  • Michelle Richmond

    Interesting piece! I'm with you--I rarely turn to Middlemarch before bed (I mean, never).

    I don't really believe there has to be a separation between literary and commercial fiction. Much of what we think of as commercial fiction can't be classified as literary--but some of it certainly can. I write novels that are published with a major New York publisher, as well as story collections that are published with university presses, are read by no one but my mother, and win minor, obscure literary awards. While the package may be different, I'm the same writer in every book. My novels take a great deal more time and intellectual labor than my "literary" story collections.

    My second novel, which has long philosophical passages on memory and photography, somehow ended up selling half a million copies. By doing so, the novel became, in essence, commercial (though half a million is a teeny drop in the bucket of the sales of major commercial novels). The next two novels after that didn't sell nearly as many copies. How I would LOVE it if those two novels had been commercially successful!

    Writers who think there is shame in wanting to sell books are probably living on someone else's dime. If I work three to four years on a book, I would rather be paid well for that work than be paid poorly for it; for a writer to claim that selling books isn't important is equivalent to a salaried employee saying that the salary itself is irrelevant (it's only the work that matters). Um, no.

    I love writing, and I hope to always do it. That said, writing is also my job. One must make a living. I write what I write, bringing the same level of attention to sentences and characters in every book. Due in large part to luck and timing, a couple of my books have sold well; most haven't. Those that have proved to be commercially viable are no less literary than the others. I feel far more grateful for the books that have been sold well, because they allow my family to have a comfortable life. They also enable me write most of the time and teach a little instead of teaching most of the time and writing a little. I want to write. I also want to write in a comfortable room with a view, and rooms with a view don't come cheap. I always try to write the best book I can write, but I feel far happier when that book turns out to be commercial.

  • Kristen Caven

    Apples and organs, ha ha! (But who's Stephanie?) Great rant.

  • Charlene Diane Jones

    Yes, I'm with T.O Weller on this and thank you Caitlyn Levin for this article. The canon, or cannon (what fires through our culture and sometimes misses) provides excellent examples of writing at its top form. Joyce! Yes! What a great ramble through a man's mind is Ulysses but never before has a writer figured the inner workings of a woman's mind such as Molly Bloom's soliloquy near the book's end. Having said that, it is a task to read. Just as reading De Quincy's amazing reflections enlightens but makes tough slogging. 

    Yes, Caitlyn we read for many purposes, much more than what Horace first proclaimed, that all writing is to entertain or educate. We now read to relax, to stimulate, to learn (be educated), to provide conversational points, to argue, to discuss, to stretch our language capabilities, to relax our language capabilities, to understand physical items (as in instruction manuals which personally I never read to my own entangled end). 

    Likewise our motivations for writing spread across a broad range: to clarify our thoughts, to untangle physical items (and make them work) to understand more deeply or differently, to argue, to learn, to process, to relax, to be counted. That last is especially true when we want to publish. Our motivations for publishing do not match exactly our motives for writing. 

    The abundance of writing available and the diversity in which that abundance is presented allows us to make choices.

    Having choice complicates and frees. As a reader, turning to the right book at the right time however will also bring a deep sense of satisfaction.  

    As a writer I do my best, as I believe all authors do. Vit Wagner former literary critic for the Toronto Star famously declared all Michael Oondaatje's works will fade into obscurity before fifty years have passed.  That is true for any work. We simply do not know. What rings with success today may fall into obscurity like the works of Gore Vidal, before the author's life end. 

    And too, works that languish in the dust of obscurity today may be watered with readers in generations to come. With cyberspace we have even longer epochs from which to rise, or fall. 

    So I write. I write from my heart and my soul. I write from my head and my body. But I must write. I try to publish to get my books before the eyes of others but in the end, the currents of time will have their way with my works and the works of everyone. That is both sorrowful and a great comfort. 

  • T.O. Weller

    Thank you!! As an English grad and English high school teacher, I've allowed myself to be swayed way too much by the commercial v. literary labels and the attitudes that came with them.

    But, just this week, it dawned on me ... I really love Mysteries and Thrillers, with a little Occult and/or Spiritualism thrown in for more fun. And the minute that I let myself see it (and started to realize how all of the books I had fun reading in the last year were in those genres), the ideas started to fly for my own writing. I'm actually excited to give it a try!

    Again, thanks! Your post was well timed. :-)