Literary / Commercial

writing09

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.

Commercial

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!!”)

dragon2Speaking 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…

Literary

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.

brain3An 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…

Upmarket

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.

books09As 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.

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9 thoughts on “Literary / Commercial

  1. The work i am working on is likely upmarket (although i guess that will be in the eye of the beholder). It’s not quite literary, but is very character driven and thematic, but written in simple language. I guess we will see where my manuscript lands when it is done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, those lines can be quite blurry and hard to define unless one’s book is very far in one extreme or another. I like those blends though, so I would probably like your book! Both of my current books (one finished, one WIP) are boundary-walkers. My first novel is a love story with equal parts goofy humor and psychoanalysis. My WIP is a fantasy adventure, but highly character-driven with semi-literary prose. I say walk those boundaries with gusto – some of the best books are the ones that cross lines 🙂

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  2. I would love to pretend that I mostly read literary works, but the truth is I tend to go more for commercial books. I love the escapism of an event driven story and sometimes you just need a book that is lovely and enjoyable but is able to be put down without leaving your brain all muddled.
    That being said, the best books I have ever read are both (or upmarket as you say, it’s so delightful to learn new words!).
    No matter the genre/style there seems to be an audience for it. Writing is so varied and beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying commercial books! Neither one is better than the other, it’s all a matter of what you like to get out of a story. I read a lot of both sides and wish there was more combining of the two – genre books written like literary, literary books with genre-like plots. Some amazing stuff could be found there. And I like what you said about there being an audience for everything. That’s so true, and very encouraging for us writers! Someone, somewhere, will like what we write.

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  3. I always wondered about the precise distinction between these categories. Now I’ll be mentally sorting everything I read into categories and trying to decide if I like one approach more than the other…

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  4. I missed reading your blog posts! They always spur such interesting ideas. I had no idea I was writing commercial fiction until someone told me I was 😄 I read literature almost exclusively, so I didn’t even realize there was a separate genre for mainstream (non-genre) fiction. Anyway, the person said I was writing literary prose but with a mainstream plot. I thought about it, looked it up, and saw there was a lot of debate on what made something a work of literature versus mainstream (non-genre) fiction. I then posed the question on Critique Circle and everyone got into a fight about it. Oy, that always seems to happen in forums 😄

    It doesn’t really matter to me I guess. I wanted to write interesting literature, because I love literary prose, but the plot is often dry. I love complex characters that have a mix of good and bad in them. That’s one of the things that made Final Fantasy VII such a compelling video game, and one of the most popular RPGs ever made. It is also one of the most popular video game fandoms. I think it is only surpassed by Kingdom Hearts.

    I was reading All the Light We Cannot See, and it’s categorized as literature, but it has mainstream appeal. The plot might be considered mainstream? Everything else about it is literary for sure. One of the main characters is a Nazi, and Anthony Doerr manages to make the reader empathize with this character because you are with him from the start as he transforms from a poor little orphan boy into a Nazi party member. Maybe the lines between mainstream fiction and literature are becoming less defined? I’m not really sure.

    I’m not sure what genre my other works will be in. I guess the issue might need to be clarified once I write a novel, but I’m just dabbling in short stories for now. I stopped labeling my stories as literature because I don’t want to come off as trying to be literary or pretentious. I’m not trying to be anything other than a good writer :$ The label of mainstream fiction doesn’t bother me, and it gives me hope that my stories will have a wider audience because literature is a small market.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think there are definitely more authors crossing genres and blending literary and mainstream appeal now. Which is awesome! I love that. I’ve heard really good things about All the Light We Cannot See – it’s on my to-read. I’m even more intrigued now after your description! Thank you for your note, it makes me so happy when my posts spark thought in people. 🙂

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