Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Fiction Showdown: Commercial vs. Literary

So, what is the difference between Commercial Fiction and Literary Fiction, anyway? And which is better? Feel free to chime in with additional distinctions and your own opinion on the latter question.

Commercial Fiction is what sells in the majority of the fiction market. It’s “popular”—your basic escapism reading. Commercial books are driven by plot and characters, with the purpose of entertainment. They tend to be fast-moving stories in which the reader can relate to the main character and imagine being in their situation. Commercial Fiction often touches the reader’s heart and leaves them with a sense of satisfaction at the end, even happiness.

Literary Fiction is driven by the writing itself, with the purpose of provoking thought. The craft of writing, and beauty of the words are the star. There tend to be more flowery descriptions and elevated language use. Lovers of Literary Fiction appreciate the focus on gritty, hard truths about life. This type of writing delves into the reader, forcing them to question the world around them. The realism of Literary Fiction leaves readers with a sense of depth and exploration.

Which is better? There’s no answer to that. You can snub one or the other, and stick your nose up all you want, but it boils down to personal preference. I urge everyone to try both with an open mind. Because, truly, I think we all need a little of both in our lives. I read and write mostly Commercial stuff, but I’ve been through several Literary book phases, and those stories have stuck with me. I feel intelligent and contemplative when I finish something Literary and realize I “got it”! But I feel sexy, humored, and joyful at a happy ending in a piece of Commercial Fiction.

Friends, I beg you not to shred books online for being one or the other. They are different for a reason. You may think Literary Fiction is a dead bore, or Commercial Fiction is mindless smut, but the world needs both. Life is about diversity and choice, is it not? We have to read and write what’s on our hearts. Don’t feel bad about your preference and please don’t put others down for theirs.

Read. Enjoy. Group hug!  J  ~Wendy  


  1. Yep, Evie, there are so many sub-categories! White Oleander felt like commercial literary to me. I still remember the way she described the smell of the dirty pillow. Random...

  2. I used to feel the only kind was literary and I always worried because I knew I didn't have it in me to write that way. When I let go of the idea I had to be the next author to be studied at schools around the world, I started to have a lot of fun.

    That being said, I still love literary novels when I want to read a single book rather than invest in a commercial series.

    So as you say, Wendy, you might prefer one or the other, but at least appreciate both for what they are and the worlds they offer their readers.

  3. Miss Cole, yes! There's almost, like, a guilt factor about not gunning for writing something Literary, but I eventually got over that, too.
    I absolutely go through phases about what I feel like reading. I don't have that "majestic" way with words, so I can't write Literary Fiction, but I can definitely appreciate it.

  4. I've been wondering about whether or not I can write with "literary" words for my YA commercial fiction. Is it wrong? I know when I'm reading commercial fiction and I come across a literary word or sentence I pause. I DON'T want my reader to pause, but I also want to use my extensive vocabulary. It's something to think about...

  5. Emily, I like when I come across stories that are a mix, especially in YA, because books are a huge way that teens can extend their vocabularies. I guess I'd just run it by your beta readers and see if they point out any words that don't seem to fit. Every now and then my critique partners will point out a word as sounding "too young" or "too old" for my charcter, but if it's natural and in-character, then I say go for it! :)

  6. It all has to do with that I'm in the mood for. I love books that are more commercial, but where I still want to highlight something on every page. I guess I'm a girl who wants both :D

  7. Funny, I was just talking about this to someone the other day. Like you've said, neither way is the "right" or "best" way (although the lit fic pack strikes me as often arrogantly asserting that the only fiction worth reading is literary).

    This was a huge argument that I had with myself when I first started writing, whether I wanted to be a literary author or a more commercial author. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, and when I found myself in a deadlock between them, I returned to the reason I was writing in the first place.

    Now this might be arrogant of me, but I often read literary fiction and come away from it feeling like someone just tried to cram their intelligence and schooling down my throat. It might be beautiful, but to the average reader it is inaccessible.

    I write to be heard, and as a YA author (at the moment) I don't want to risk alienating readers because I'm trying to write the way that I think that the critics and professors will approve of. My main audience, teens, is more important than they are.

    There are things to be said about wildly successful novels like Twilight. Everyone who claims that they've had an ounce of education seems to want to rip it to shreds. I've totally been in that camp before. But the truth of the matter is that she reached millions of people with her story and is currently making a whole lot of money on a franchise that the "educated" crowd sneers upon.

    LONG STORY SHORT--and this is a very long story-- I think that as long as it's accessible, it doesn't matter which it is. I like books, as Jolene said, where I can highlight something on every page. I want to see things in a different way. That's why I read. I write because I hope that what I have to share might be interesting to someone else, or illuminate something that they've never understood or seen before.

    This is practically an article. My apologies.

  8. Ah, Jolene, the best of both worlds. :) went there. I wasn't going to go there, but I applaud you. Well said, every bit of it!

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  10. Awesome post, Wendy. I agree not to snub one or the other and that the world needs both, but I lean toward the commercial camp. What Dain said was very well said and I completely agree!

    That said, kind of like Evie said I think there is commercial out there that has a slight literary feel because of some beautiful, beautiful language, but it's not overdone. For me, and this is just me, most literary still feels overdone. It bogs me down and I get bored easily.

  11. Also, I think there is literary out there that I don't think is as beautiful as some of the more commercial stuff I've read. It's ALL in HOW it's done.

  12. Ugh, yeah Kelley.
    Literary Fiction cannot be forced. I don't think you can go into it thinking, "I'm going to write a Literary book." You just have to write how you write, and what comes out is what it is. If you try to use all the "big" words you know, and drag out the exposition, it's not going to be an enjoyable read. Same goes for the other way around.

  13. Do both at once. Y'know, like Roger Corman. ^_^

    Lupines and Lunatics

  14. I write commercial paranormal love stories for young adults. And I'm proud of it. :-)

  15. I've never actually thought about this. I don't really know if my books are literally or commercial. I'd like to think mine are a mix but I doubt it. Although I think at least two of my books would end up being literally and I think one of the series is commercial for sure. No...make that two. Two series are commercial probably.

    But I think I love both kinds of books. The ones that make you think and the ones that make you feel better or whatever. Great post too! I'll certainly have to ponder this more. :)

  16. Thanks, guys! And, Peony, don't worry too much about how to categorize your stuff. I like to say, write what's on your heart and let the publishing people figure out how to "define" it and market it. :)