Literary vs. Commercial Fiction – Better or Different?

Bookstore Shelf Pic

Photo Credit: Books on the shelf of an Amazon bookstore with all the covers facing front, location unknown, uploaded 21 March 2016 by Brian Chow: bchow/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

“[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.

Works Cited

Levin, Caitlyn. “Commercial vs. Literary Fiction.” SheWrites. She Writes, 2017. 25 January 2018. Web. 14 February 2018.

8 thoughts on “Literary vs. Commercial Fiction – Better or Different?

  1. Interesting post. I think about this a lot with my own writing. I always wanted to write escapism as that helped me when I was a teenager.

    After university and finding more literary novels I often feel like my writing is inadequate and that literary is better. I feel like there is a middle ground somewhere.

    It’s taken me a while but I feel like I can just write and enjoy it. Hopefully others enjoy it too.


    1. Hi Ashley,
      Thank you for responding. I completely agree – there is definitely a middle ground :-). I actually disapprove of “navel gazing” literary fiction because I really believe all fiction has to have a story that engages readers and that readers can feel they have a reason for reading the story so they don’t end up with the “what was the point of that?” feeling. It’s unfortunate that some literary fiction doesn’t follow this basic idea.


      Liked by 1 person

  2. Such an interesting post. I like your quote: “characters are often times molded to fit the plot for commercial fiction while plot is molded to fit character in literary fiction” and your subsequent commentary. By the way, you are the only other person I know besides my daughter (whom I call my Star Child) who has lucid dreams. Do you also experience out-of-body events?


    1. Hi Pamela,
      Thank you for your lovely comments. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that commercial fiction characters are two-dimensional, just that I find the plot sort of dictates how they will behave :-).

      As for the dreams, I haven’t yet had out-of-body events in dreams but I can see that happening in the future at some point ;-).


      Liked by 1 person

  3. You’ve raised excellent points, and I’m especially glad you brought up “navel gazing” literary fiction. That kind of fiction DRIVES ME CRAZY, but I’m trying to be more accepting of it since our book club seems to gravitate towards that kind of writing. (Recently, at a book club meeting, I was struggling to find something positive to say about a book, and I came up with, “The punctuation was original and nicely done.”)

    Anyway, you’ve given me something to really chew on when I’m writing, and thank you for that.


    1. Hi Silver Screenings,
      Thank you for your comment. I absolutely agree with you. I am also turned off by “navel gazing” fiction that is just kind of there for itself. E. M. Forster wrote a classic writing book “Aspects of the Novel” and he talks about the importance of story. He gives this scenario about asking 3 different people what they look for in a novel and all three (one is a millionaire playing golf, one is a bus driver, and the third is an average Joe whom he identifies as “myself”) answer “oh, my, yes, a story, that’s what I like, a story.” In other words, readers first and foremost are looking for a STORY when they pick up a book. All the rest – like beautiful language, suspense, psychological insight, whatever – must revolve around a story where something happens. That’s my firm belief :-).


      Liked by 1 person

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