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Fiction is not black and white

All my life, I have struggled to understand the difference between literary and commercial fiction. With each new writing-minded person I encounter, they each have his or her own general opinion on what defines literary fiction from commercial fiction.

The consensus seems to agree that literary fiction is character driven and relies on the characters to tell the story where as commercial is plot driven and the characters go along for the ride. Literary prose tends to be more “flowery” (as I detest to describe) where the commercial voice is more clearly cut and forthright.

That general view I can follow and tend to agree with. Also with the notion that commercial sells in this day in age. However, after that definition, that is where I go grey.


Disclaimer – I do not agree at all with what I am about to express:

Literary fiction, while it is driven by character development and artistic prose, it tends to focus on being thought provoking and deep. This type of fiction evokes a sense of style over a flashy, eye-catching plot. Literary fiction has no genre as it is, in most cases, classified in its own genre.

Commercial fiction, as it is plot driven, tends to focus on more contemporary modern day situations. This type of fiction keeps the readers on the edge of their seats that is full of explosions, sex, terror, or mystery. Commercial fiction can be further broken down into the genres of horror, mystery / suspense, sci-fi / fantasy, romance, thriller, and etc.


I find that to be a horribly one sided and a sullen outlook on the true natured differentiation between literary and commercial. The fact that so many people agree that literary fiction cannot have a driving plot or genre, quite frankly, blows my mind. Is Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein not horror and Jane Austen’s Pride

Makes me want to scream!  (c) xenia

Makes me want to scream! (c) xenia

and Prejudice not romance? Agatha Christie is the queen of mystery and since she is in a genre, is she only considered commercial?  Her novel, And Then There Were None, was pretty heavy with plot and character growth.

How can we pigeonhole these great works into one type of fiction? I have witnessed arguments that climaxed on the verge of violence over whether Austen is literary or commercial all because she is considered “romance”. How can these three great authors, whose books are full of character development, plot, and “flowery” prose, not be considered literary just because they have a genre.  How can these mentioned works not be considered commercial because they all have engaging plots and captured the current events at the time of publication.

Do you see what kind of conundrum I am in?

So when I am asked what kind of fiction my current novel is (commercial or literary), I respond that it is a mixture of both. Oh boy, you should see the detesting looks that I receive with that answer!

I am hoping to shake up the world here.


Comment below on your thoughts

13 thoughts on “Fiction is not black and white

  1. I’ve always been confused by the “distinction” between the two as well since there are books that fall into both definitions of literary and commercial. I’ve never really grasped more than a vague concept of what literary fiction “is supposed to be”. Good luck shaking things up! I hope you manage it. Make people panic.

    • Marcy – I think you solved it! UPMARKET FICTION!!! That’s the grey area in-between the hard core literary and commercial. I am so happy to see that the grey area is recognized and has a name. Now I know how to market myself better. Thank you so much!

  2. I understand the conundrum and can’t provide any kind of answer but I do think it’s something all writers should think about when they survey their body of work. I tend more to the literary in tone, but not everything I write is literary. Do you remember Ken from our first writers group? He had me the minute he said he wrote “literary horror.” I liked that he clearly defined what he wrote. I write all kinds of stuff and it’s all over the board, so a very interesting topic for me.

    Marcy, I like the term Upmarket Fiction! 🙂

    • Ah yea, I remember that phrasing now by Ken – “literary horror”. However, I think I am leaning more with Marcy on the Upmarket fiction, because my prose is not on the level of Shelly, Lovecraft, or Poe (I’d like to think it is close, though!).

  3. This sounds dismissive of ‘non-literary’ but I think the term ‘literary fiction’ shows origins that this is going to be ‘well written’ – by word derivation and association: literate, literature, rather than the term ‘fiction’ (imagined) as opposed to writing which is factual.

    I am definitely a devotee of ‘good writing’ and am also aware i am a bit of a snob on this. This means i can get suckered by marketing which claims that something in genre is also literary fiction,. I HAVE engaged with books described as literary fiction crime, literary fiction thriller etc and found that they were wrongly described. Of course there are writers writing in genre who are also ‘literary fiction’ writers. I do think that the ‘character driven’ is important, as is what I often describe to myself as ‘poetic sensibilities’ What i mean by that is not flowery, but two things – a precision of language, some sort of feel for the fact that language itself is powerful, and words should not be devalued. The second thing ‘poetic sensibilities’ offers is looking at the world in a new way – the economy of the poetic form means words have to be used deeply, suggesting more than one meaning – so poetic sensibilities means also description that makes the reader properly awake to being/seeing.

    A lot of (in my opinion) very poor writing indeed is being claimed as ‘literary’. writing which is formulaic, characters which have little psychological authenticity.

    I suppose I don’t like ‘Upmarket Fiction’ as a term either, because it then implies the rest as downmarket, and this seems to engage with the politics of class.

    I think that genre versus literary is actually less pejorative.

    No conclusions really, from me on this – except that we clearly all have very personal ideas about what the term literary means.

    Though interestingly, my Chambers (1994 edition) does not have the term literary fiction!

    But it does have one phrase for ‘literature’ that I find rather apt : ‘humane learning’ – I do expect that ‘literary fiction’ should have something enlightening within it about the human condition – and i think that comes from being properly taken into empathetic relationship with character – so again, back to authenticity and psychological depth.

    And you are quite right that Austen was writing romance – but is also absolutely literary!

    • I think what my issue is with this whole definition is the fact that in all of my research, ‘literary fiction’ cannot be in a genre. To which I want to scream, ‘Why not!’. I agree with you – I love the term literary. When I see ‘literary’, I know it will be well written (or at least it is supposed be).

      So, again, my irritation with all of this is that while some authors call their works ‘literary fiction crime’ or ‘literary fiction thriller’, they infact cannot exist by that term because by all definition ‘literary fiction’ technically cannot be in a genre.

      I think the only way I will ever be truly appeased is if all the literature gurus that make up these rules update the definition to remove that “no genre” classification for literary fiction.

      P.S. You totally put a damper on ‘Upmarket Fiction’ and now I can’t stop thinking about ‘downmarket’! 🙂

      • Yes it’s helpful to know that the lit fic is of a certain kind eg Austen is lit-fic romance I suppose that unfortunately there is a certain snobbishness which gets tacked onto genre whereas genre should only define the ‘what it’s about’. I must also admit to my own prejudices in this, as I would never read a book described as romance though of course I do avidly read those litficers dealing in romantic relationships like Austen!

  4. Look, it’s all semantics driven by capitalistic ideology VS, academic ideology. If you want to sell, call it what ever gets the money. If you want professors to love it, call it literary.

    • Granted, those are the extreme sides, where commercial “gets the money” and literary is purely academic. The semantics factor is a large driver in these views, and it is hard to break the trend. However, there is a rich middle ground between the two fiction realms that remains purely untouched in this modern age of writing and it really has not been dissected.

  5. Pingback: What’s for Dinner? Literary Horror, Cannibals, and Vampires | Amanda Headlee

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