Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Literary vs. Commercial

By Casey Tolfree

How do you differentiate between literary and commercial fiction and what authors do you consider literary?


  1. As i recognize it, literary fiction is invested in character while commercial fiction is more interested in plot, typically at the expense of character. I read a lot of literary fiction, but I am also a big fan of Harry Potter, which is of course a YA fantasy series, but is generally thought of as commercial.

    Most literature written explicitly in a genre (Sci Fi, Romance, Mystery) is treated as commercial because the idea is that these books are not written as art but rather as a product akin to flip flops or windshield wipers. People like Dan Brown are reviled for being practitioners of this kind of writing...his books lack depth of character, don't challenge the reader intellectually or emotionally, but in dealing with a "controversial" subject try and amass greater thematic weight than they really have.

    Now, the thing about these categories is that they are artificial...but most commercial fiction writers write books to sell and not to tell a complex, emotional, or challenging story. However, there are excellent genre writers out there who do invest in character and theme; Steven King (Horror), Philip K. Dick (Sci-Fi) and J.K. Rowling (Fantasy) are among the best. Likewise, there are literary authors who write with a strong genre bent, like Jonathan Lethem (Detective/Sci-Fi) and Aimee Bender (Fantasy/Fairytale).

    You might also think of the difference between the two in terms of fashion. High fashion is meant to make a statement, be complex and intricate, and have a certain dynamic impact. They show the individual aesthetic of the designer who creates them. The counterpart to that is the commercial fashion, which is meant to appeal to a broad audience, but at the expense of that individual attitude and sharp presentation. I guess it is subjective, but these are my thoughts.

  2. When I think of commercial fiction, I think of just straight out telling a story. It sometimes reads to me like "and then this happened, then this happened and then this happened...the end." It doesn't always seem like the various plot points have any additional significance, not a lot of symbolism or metaphor seems to be used. Just tell the story flat-out. I feel like it's more plot driven.Which is okay when you're in the mood just to hear a story.

    Literary fiction (in my poetry-focused mind)tends to use metaphor/symbolism, there seems to be an over-arching theme, seems more character driven, tends to say something about humanity. Some literary novels I like are Lisa Glatt's *A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That* and Rebecca Barry's *Later, at the Bar* (which is a novel in stories).

    For me to get into commercial fiction, I just have to be hooked on the story and dying to know what is going to happen next. With literary fiction, I have to be able to connect with the character. I have to care about how the story affects the character and about the character's changes.

  3. To me, "literary fiction" and "commercial fiction" are uniquely 20th/21st century American concepts. (Of course, so is the MFA in Creative Writing.) Back in the day, no such distiction was made. Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Phillip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Norman Mailer (and the list goes on and on) were considered both "serious writers" and commercially successful ones. The problem with labelling fiction "literary" or "commercial" is that everyone has a different concept of what those terms mean. If they are simply subjective, they are meaningless. A snarky friend of mine once said that if an author's books don't sell he or she will claim to write literary fiction. Maybe that's why so many writers of "literary fiction" have to teach to support themselves. The best example I can think of of the absurdity of the "literary" vs "commerical" distinction is Cormac McCarthy. No one would say that his work is not literary, and yet he also goes on Oprah and sits at the top of the NYT Bestseller List for months at a time (just like Dan Brown) and sees his books made into big-budget studio films. Shame on you Cormac. You are supposed to be writing literary fiction, so what's with the multi-million- dollar book deals and studio movie premieres? Why aren't you teaching English comp? Okay. Okay. Everybody should just write what they like and let our great-grandchildren decide what becomes "literature." Certainly our friends in Europe are not so obsessed with the distinction between high and low culture. Maybe we are still suffering from a literary inferiority complex in this country.

  4. I think I had commented on another of your posts about this topic, and I would agree in many ways with the comments above mine.

    I'd also argue that "literary fiction" is more concerned with language. Literary fiction writers strive to write sentences that are beautiful, in and of themselves. I think they are also more concerned with poetics than "commercial fiction"- that is, there are more images at work, and more subtext. I had commented earlier that literary fiction asks more questions.

    I don't see these as rules, but the shorthand I have in my head and see sort of thrown around by writers.

    Also, I tend to think of them in TV genres. Literary fiction is a show like "Mad Men" or "The Sopranos." Commercial fiction are shows like "Sex in the City" or "Friends."

    "Mad Men" is really, insanely popular (right now), and there are lots of themes underneath the actual action, as well as images/symbols, and deliberate use of light and dark to reveal character. There is definitely plot and you can watch it without paying attention to those things, but they are there. (It's like Cormac McCarthy, kinda, to borrow from isabella's comment.)

    "Sex and the City" is more like commercial fiction, because there aren't a lot of themes working under the surface. There aren't literary symbols thrown in. Shoes are shoes and aren't intended to be seen as more than shoes. There are great characters and interesting plots and lovely setting, but there are cliches and happy endings.

    I recently read that Dan Brown and David Foster Wallace once shared a workshop. I mean, talk about the difference between "literary fiction" and "commercial fiction" meeting in one room! And who knows how they reacted to each other, but I think it is a good example of the fact that "good writing" has many definitions. Or that different kinds of literature fills different kinds of needs. I think there is a distinction between the two, and I definitely have a preference, but I want to be sure to make the point that I think separating the two shouldn't equal a judgment on which is "better."

  5. Literary fiction is a term that is used to distinguish serious fiction that claims to have literary merit from the many types of genre fiction and popular fiction. In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character, whereas mainstream commercial fiction focuses more on plot.

    I think that definition is somewhat helpful, but for me what it really boils down to is that I think of literary fiction as art, whereas I think of non-literary fiction as mere entertainment.

  6. i think the two phrases are unfair, in many respects. to publishers it means: commerical-makes money literary-doesn't. movies are marketed the same way.

    it is interesting, however, when you go into a book store that most fiction is just in the FICTION section unless it is a specific genre like mystery or sci-fi. why can't we, as writers, just say we write FICTION!

  7. i don't understand how you can't tell the difference between commercial fluff and literary fiction. no one would ever read a flannery o'connor story and think its a commercial piece. just as people would never read a James Patterson book and call it literature. there is an obvious difference between the two. that difference is context and theme.

  8. I think there are many books that tow the line between literary and commercial and I think it is unfair to use extreme examples to define them. Context and theme are not defining factors according to my professors actually but language.

    Look at Ian McEwan or Anita Shreve, I think they are examples of authors whose works could be considered both.

    It's extremely subjective. Not all commercial literature is fluff and not all literary fiction is good and I think you are losing a lot if you think that way.

  9. i'm not saying one is any better than the other. when you think about it, what does better mean anyway, right? but there are clear distinctions between the two if you are willing to accept them. it sounds like you either don't want there to be a difference or are unwilling to acknowledge the differences. look at it this way, you would never say that pop music is poetry.

  10. to take it one step further, look at the different ways commercial writers and literary writers approach the same subject. let's take "love" for example. there are clear distinctions between Graham Greene's "The End Of The Affair" and a Danielle Steel or Nora Roberts book. if you don't understand or won't acknowledge what that difference is, then maybe you aren't really looking for an opinion, just a confirmation that what you think is right.

  11. Again Danielle Steel is so dramatic an example. Let's look at love in non-romance works. I'm open to opinions but I'm allowed to argue when the examples are so extreme.

    Ian McEwan approach to love for example.... or Nicholas Sparks or I could go on with names but I don't really have the time.

  12. Commercial - Problems the writer surmounts are exclusively technical/mechanical. Language style is mostly functional. Tends to reinforce dominant social/cultural discourses of sexuality, economic justice, political power, etc. Readers expect one literal meaning in the text and do not look for more. The writer expects such a utilitarian reading.

    Literary - Along with technical and mechanical problems, the writer also confronts problems involving meaning/significance (could be psychological, economic, political, textual, ontological, etc.). Language style may be innovative, complex, or experimental. It may be functional as well, but that is considered and read as the writer's choice, not the default. Literary fiction tends to confront or challenge dominant social/cultural discourses (if not directly, then often as a function of the text's "originality"). The reader expects a complex reading, resulting in ambivalent or multiple interpretations that function on different levels, including but not limited to the literal.

    Different books probably combine these, so I'd look at the above definitions as critical modes rather than set A-or-B categories.

  13. Very interesting essay that deals with this topic and the expectations we bring to it:

  14. Such an interesting but odd conversation. As a nonfiction writer, I find it even more confusing. For example, do the genre distinctions even reach into nonfiction at all? I think they sort of could. But they don't as much, do they?

    Regarding fiction, I think it's to be expected that genre distinctions are subjective, and that the labels come from various sources for various reasons.

    Take music genre distinctions for example: Look up the most recent Myspace-Punk Band your annoying roommate is blasting. They'll classify themselves as something like "Indy/Hardcore/Punk/experimental/rock" which is sort of a joke, of course. But the problem is calling yourself indy doesn't mean anything, because indy first meant not-on-a-major-label, but then became a particular sort of sound, and then a pop genre in itself. Now it's both a popular lifestyle, and it's also still connected to it's roots, depending on where you look and what show you go to. So now, you can be signed with Columbia records playing radio rock and call yourself indy, and justifiably. Then, there are independent record labels putting out music that's as popular or moreso than the major labels. Look at Saddlecreek records, with Bright Eyes, Cursive, and everybody else. I would say saddlecreek is the quintessential example of this genre distinction problem. And independent label, with groups whose sound tends to fit the indy-sound mold (or non-mold), but with more exposure and listeners than many single-hit group signed to Sony records last year (does sony records exist?).

    So, in fiction, we have editors calling things literary or commercial based on whether they will sell or not. We have authors calling things literary or commercial based on issues of plot and writing etc. We have readers calling things literary or commercial based on whether they are engaging or not, based on that readers opinion of what is more engaging, plot or literary elements.

    None is incorrect, it's just not simple.

  15. I am going to join this discussion, which has already been infused with enough admirable depth of thought, with a little shout-out:


    Aha. Anyone seen the film "(Untitled)" yet? I think it takes these issues into consideration with a healthy dose of humor.

    We should all simply try to respect each other's efforts.

    Another question that I take into consideration quite often is, how do I define the boundaries (if any) between my explorations of language and visuals? Artists like Barbara Guest believed that creativity exists more or less without boundaries . . . isn't that the point of creation, to an extent? To push boundaries, offer new ideas, and engage others? Categories, while they have practical applications, can also be stifling and confusing.

  16. About Cormac McCarthy, though: it's only with The Road and No Country For Old Men that he's found commercial success. And those are both significantly easier to read (though I still consider them literary) than his older works like Blood Meridian, Child of God, Suttree. I read somewhere that prior to 1992 he had never sold more than 5,000 copies of a book. And he had been writing for thirty years!! He seems like he has a lot of artistic integrity, so this may just be his natural evolution/experimentation as a writer. But I can't help but wonder (though I still love his newer stuff and consider it "literary") if he sacrificed a little bit of the literary to gain a little bit of the commercial.


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