Lately I’ve been hmm’ing and umm’ing over a couple key terms in the publishing world: Literary and Commercial. What are the differences? After some research, I think I’ve got a handle on what these terms mean, and thought I’d lay them out for anyone else who might be scratching their head.
A novel that’s identified as “commercial” is one that pushes steadily forward with the plot. It emphasizes the events. A sorcerer summons a dragon (event 1) that destroys a town (event 2) which fuels the vengeance of Mr. Fighty Hero Swords Yeah (second cousin to our action protag from an earlier post), so on and so forth. The overarching goal of the protagonist is clear (“Swords, yeah! Dragons, no!”), and the ending usually involves a straightforward resolution of that goal (“The dragon is dead, hooray!”) This does not necessarily mean the protag succeeds, just that we know pretty well what went down. (“The dragon is unexpectedly revived! SEQUEL!!”)
Speaking of Mr. Fighty Hero Swords Yeah, characters in commercial novels are a little more streamlined than those in literary works. They can still contain deep layers of personality and a fleshed out past, but these layers are easily understood and not likely to be muddy or unreliable. We spend enough time in the protag’s head to know who he is, what he wants, and how it makes him feel, but no more than necessary.
Because of their focus on plot, genre books (fantasy, mystery, romance, etc) tend to be commercial, and the purpose of these plots tend to be about the escape, thrill, or entertainment. A fantasy takes the reader to an enchanting other world: escape. An action adventure ignites the adrenaline of its readers: thrill. A goofy comedy gives the reader a sense of fun: entertainment.
All good things in fiction! Now, onto…
Characterization takes the lead here. All fiction requires characterization, of course, but literary takes it further. The internal experience of the character matters most—her contemplations, her emotions, her psychological conflicts. A literary novel is an introspective one. The characters may also be muddier, more ambiguous, than commercial ones.
An artful rending of language, a style, makes up a large part of literary works. Where the approachable writing of a commercial novel may deliver sustenance, literary prose delivers flavor. When you bite into a literary sentence, it squishes and squirts between your teeth. Reading demands more concentration, as a literary book might weight itself with obtuse academia or dense verbiage.
As opposed to the thrill and escapism of most genre books, a literary novel often expresses abstract, intellectual concepts. They encourage speculation and analysis, perhaps in regards to a sociopolitical issue. This is something that science fiction does frequently, which is what makes sci fi such a cool boundary-walker between these two forms.
Speaking of boundary-walking, did you know there’s a term for that? I didn’t! Not until recently. It’s called…
Oooh, ahhh, look at that shiny new word with all its glimmering potential. Similar words are “semi-literary” or “crossover.” These terms refer to a book that mixes sensibilities of both commercial and literary. It could be a character-driven novel that uses approachable language and humor to engage its readers. It might be a genre story told through poetic prose. Perhaps it’s a plot-heavy book that goes deeply into the machinations of its characters’ psyches.
As you can see, there are different qualities to each form, and none are better or worse than the other – it’s all a matter of what best serves your story, your goals as the author, and what you like to get out of a book.
Tell me, what form do you normally write or read in? What about that form appeals to you? If you know of any awesome boundary-walkers, let me know! I love recommendations.