What is literary fiction and what is commercial fiction? Why do we categorize and label our manuscripts in this way? This seems to be a question whose answer has remained esoteric, as well as a point of contention for those who write in either of these categories. While there is no hard, fast rule, knowing where your work falls on a spectrum is important to help your manuscript reach its target readers.
The best way for me to describe the difference between commercial fiction and literary fiction would be to compare it to art. After all, as writers, crafting a story is our art; words, our medium. To hail commercial or literary as one being better than the other would be the same as to say that Manet is better than Picasso.
It’s okay for things to be different and it’s okay to explore differences without putting anything down. Literary fiction is not pretentious and boring and commercial fiction is not cheap or devoid of art. I want to be very clear on my opinion regarding these hurtful things that get tossed around without forethought: it is impossible and completely unfair to try and compare literary to commercial and vice versa. Both types of work are beautiful and are meant to be consumed in different ways, for different audiences.
Commercial fiction is like a Manet. We look at it and immediately see the picture for what it is. Commercial fiction favors a more tangible form of story-telling. We have a clear plot, a clear sense of the character’s motivation which helps pull the story forward, the prose is digestible and creates movement, and the premise can be sold as a high concept piece; one whose plot can be easily extrapolated and pitched succinctly, cleanly, and effectively to reach the public. It can have depth and interpretation and symbolism. Commercial fiction can have all the same layers as literary, it’s just more accessible for universal, mainstream consumers.
Literary fiction is a more abstract form of story-telling. It’s similar to a Picasso: Looking at it, we can see an idea of the intended picture, but the appreciation and consumption of it takes a more interpretative approach. Literary fiction is heavily character-driven with the journey more about providing insight to the human experience, exploring directly the character’s emotional growth. The plot can be ambiguous and have open-ended conclusions–a very “l’art pour l’art” idea of writing. Due to having the more ambiguous plot, evaluating queries for literary fiction is a bit different.
When reviewing literary fiction in queries and online pitches, I find it more important to look at premise and theme, knowing that it’s not going to be until I read sample pages to see if the execution matches the intended premise. A successful literary pitch may not always have apparent stakes, but the conflict (most often internal) should be present. In reading the sample, prose must take front and center stage; something slightly more poetic, rife with metaphor and rich, figurative language…something that explores profound ideas deliberately. The intended reader is someone who enjoys and expects to work a bit more for the story than their commercial counterparts.
As an agent, I enjoy commercial works as well as literary ones and look for specific genres and stories within each classification. I love the page-turning appeal of a commercial work where I can sit back and enjoy the adventure set before me by an author; one where the protagonist or the plot will pull me along the way that appeals to all my senses and needs for entertainment, one that is impossible to put down. I also have a deep love for literary works that allow me to examine the world around me within the context of story, stepping deeply inside a character’s mind and perception; a story that forces me to put it down every so often, as the thought-provoking material incites a spark of my own existential pondering.
It’s important to know how to categorize one’s work as branding a manuscript “literary” or “commercial” will automatically indicate they journey a reader can expect to take. Reading tastes differ from person to person, which is what makes reading books and the very nature of this industry so great, but those who do favor one type of writing over the other can be disappointed when expectations are not met.
Make sure to do your market research so you know how best to sell your work. You’ve put a lot of time and effort into it, and branding is just another part of that process. I hope this post has been helpful and I look forward to seeing all the wonderful things out there in Book world.
2 thoughts on “Classifying Your Fiction: Literary vs. Commercial”
Thank you Kat, for this clear description and inspiration! We members of the Tallahassee Writers Association are impressed with your depth, and want to invite you to present what grips you and which query letters inspire you. We would love for you to present your agenting process at our regular meeting on Thursday, March 12, 6:30 p.m. at the Marzuq Shrine Temple. Text or call 850-345-1062. (I also sent you a message via Messenger if you prefer) Sincereky, Faith Eidse, PhD, TWA Program Cochair
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Very interesting and informative. As a writer with a disability, I include characters with disabilities in meaningful, thought-provoking roles. I have hesitated to label my work as high-concept or literary-fiction rather than the standard genre labels like science fiction or romance. The message I try to convey has been what I considered subtext. You have me wonder if I should reconsider how I perceive my work.