Is it Commercial or is it Literary?
By Michelle Barker
If you can’t put it down, it’s commercial; if you can’t pick it up, it’s literary.
If you purposely drop the title into conversations and mention it on Facebook, it’s literary. If you pretend you’ve never read it, it’s commercial.
If you hide it behind your most recent (unread) copy of Granta, it’s commercial. If you leave it lying around by accident on purpose when guests arrive, it’s literary.
If it won awards, it’s literary. If it’s making money, it’s commercial.
If you make fun of it, it’s commercial. If you didn’t understand it, it’s literary.
If reading it makes you feel like you’ve just eaten too much candy, it’s commercial. If reading it gives you a migraine, it’s literary.
While it’s easy to poke fun at the differences between commercial and literary fiction, there’s also a real issue to unpack here. In an article in Scientific American (October 4, 2013), author Julianne Chiaet cites studies that suggest reading literary fiction contributes to the development of reader empathy because characters tend to be less predictable. Reading commercial fiction did not produce the same results.
While commercial fiction tends to focus more on plot and use characters as tools to advance the story, literary fiction is more likely to explore the psychology of behaviour and relationships. The characters we meet on those pages defy expectations and thereby upend both stereotypes and prejudices. And literary authors tend not to over-explain. They give the reader space to make connections and draw their own conclusions.
That doesn’t mean one is necessarily better than the other. They’re designed to do different jobs.
As well, the differences between literary and commercial fiction are not always so cut and dried. If you assert that commercial fiction uses a predetermined structure whereas literary fiction plays with structure as part of the art form, it’s almost guaranteed someone will be able to cite an exception to the rule. And is it a rule? Does it have to be true?
We can say literary fiction pays closer attention to the language, whereas commercial fiction sees language as functional: it tells the story and nothing more. But is that always true?
The Danger Zones
These divisions also point to some real danger zones that are worth paying attention to. If you get too wrapped up in the language and character nuances and forget that your first job as a novelist is to tell a story, you will likely put your reader to sleep. Pay too much attention to plot at the exclusion of all else and you’ll end up with cardboard characters that only serve to move the plot forward but don’t live on the page.
In other words, being a snob for one side or the other might not serve you in the end. Each genre has something to offer; each has something to teach us.
Plot OR Character?
You will probably have already considered if you want to write a novel that’s plot-driven or character-driven. But what if this doesn’t have to be an either/or choice?
What if you could write a novel with a strong main character, a plot that moves well, and themes and ideas that leave your reader with something to chew on? Does such a thing even exist?
It does. It’s a new hybrid category called upmarket fiction. Think The Help. Life of Pi. The Lovely Bones.
In the end, we have to write in the genre that best suits our style and approach, but if you can’t decide (or don’t want to), maybe you can be both commercial and literary.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have been published in literary reviews around the world. She has also published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). She loves working closely with writers, both at the developmental level and on finer line-by-line issues. Many of those writers have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.