“[Literary and commercial fiction are] serve different purposes in our society.” (Levin, par. 2)
When I first discovered writing at the age of fourteen, I didn’t read like a writer. That is, I read but I didn’t read with an eye toward becoming a writer at all, much less a writer of psychological fiction. Like many people, I read for escape and entertainment. I was a dreamy adolescent who gravitated toward happily-ever-after types of stories. It was the 1980’s so I read a lot of popular bestselling romance of that time, my favorites being Danielle Steel, Judith Michael, and Jackie Collins. They were fun books to read (and quite steamy for a sheltered teen like me) but they weren’t exactly books to shape the imagination of a future literary fiction author. Later on my university studies introduced me to books in the literary canon, including classic psychological fiction writers like Edith Wharton and Henry James. I had earlier discovered Anais Nin’s Under a Glass Bell and Other Stories as well as some of her other works and her nonfiction book on writing The Novel of the Future, which took my writing in a whole new direction and the rest, to use a cliché, is history.
Caitlyn Levin, in her article on commercial vs. literary fiction points to this classic debate in the writing world. Levin doesn’t discuss much the differences between the two types of fiction so I offer up my own. Commercial fiction moves at a faster pace in both its story and prose than literary fiction, sometimes at a much faster pace (if you’re dealing with something highly experimental, such as, say, James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake where each sentence makes you stop and consider what the author was trying to say). Most commercial fiction favors plot over character, though it doesn’t necessarily neglect character, just as literary fiction favors character over plot though it doesn’t necessarily overlook plot. In this way, characters are often times molded to fit the plot for commercial fiction while plot is molded to fit character in literary fiction. For the latter, this can sometimes lead to what is called the “plotless” novel or, less flatteringly, “navel gazing” fiction because, in an effort to make the story as close to real life as possible, the story ends up being less about a character’s concrete goals and more about a character’s reactions to what is going on around them. Finally, the writing style and voice of both types of fiction is different. Original style and voice matter less for commercial fiction, especially in genres that have patterns and conventions (such as the whodoneit mystery story) that readers expect to find when they read books in that genre. In contrast, writing style and voice matter more in literary fiction so there is room for experimentation, sometimes to the extreme. I wrote not long ago about my own anxiety over voice in my own fiction.
Levin brings up some good points about an aspect of the debate over commercial and literary fiction we don’t always think about which is connotations. She states that “[l]abelling some kinds of fiction as commercial and others as literary implies that one is a higher calling than another” (Levin, par. 1). While this implies a little bias on Levin’s part (that is, an underlying assumption that one type of fiction is better than the other), this point is well taken, as many people do connote literary fiction with quality while seeing commercial fiction as closer to hack work. It also shifts the value of fiction from one of artistic merit to one of monetary gains. I agree with Levin that “the commercial label… seems to imply two things: That the writer is trying to sell books, and that selling books is a bad thing” (Levin, par. 3). All writers need and want to sell their fiction – whether they write literary or commercial fiction. There is no shame in this. Writing is a profession just like any other. And yet, many people seem to see products of artistic creation (like books, paintings, and music) as somehow being shameful if created for money. We don’t question that companies like Apple and Nike create their products for the sole purpose of making money. But when writers create a book (which is a product) for commercial consumption, it somehow becomes something less than an artistic piece of work.
I like Levin’s quote which I opened up this blog post with – that literary and commercial fiction are different and serve different purposes. This is why many readers can enjoy books like mine where they perhaps need to stop and consider the prose a little more and think about what the underlying psychological reality is of the characters and also read Danielle Steel and enjoy both types of fiction.
Levin, Caitlyn. “Commercial vs. Literary Fiction.” SheWrites. She Writes, 2017. 25 January 2018. Web. 14 February 2018.