Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Literally confused

What's the difference between literary and commercial fiction?

Yeah, I know, I'm opening a massive can of worms. But this is the kind of question some writers obsess over, certainly a question I ask - and debate over - at nauseam.

Definitions for both literary and commercial fiction have gone through numerous iterations. According to Wikipedia, the term "literary fiction" came into usage around 1960 to distinguish "serious" fiction from genre or commercial fiction. While a literary novel focusses on style, psychological death and character, the "page turner" pays more attention to narrative and plot.

I'm uncomfortable with that definition.

If you assume that a book about somebody's attempt to solve a mysterious murder isn't literature because it can be classified as a murder mystery or suspense, then how would you label Snow Falling on Cedars? And does Romeo and Juliet not fit within the boundaries of a traditional romance novel?

Some may argue that literary fiction takes more liberty with the language. They point to longer chapters, looser writing, a more poetic voice and the tendency to lean on metaphors. I don't need to look any further than within my own critique group to question that definition. Both of my partners have the skill to weave beautiful metaphors into tight prose - and thus creating a sensory bouquet that allows the reader to live the story vicariously through the character's eyes. I would classify both of their novels as commercial fiction.

Perhaps you subscribe to the theory that commercial writers pay less attention to craft. But the same rules for good writing apply to all fiction. Passive writing, excessive narration, dialogue tags and grammatical errors are all red flags for editors and agents - regardless of literary style. The writer's fundamental objective is to compel the reader to turn the page - the only thing a literary artist should do with language is 'get us to the end.'

Popular fiction is often created to entertain, allowing the reader to escape into another world and explore fantasies and dreams without leaving the confinements of their safe environment. And while literary fiction often challenges societal beliefs and thoughts, I would argue some commercial fiction can cross those same boundaries. The definition should not be based on sales, either. Many literary books - Gargoyle, for instance - enjoy commercial success, just as several novels on the New York Times Bestseller list don't always conform to genre - and yet are clearly not viewed as "literary" fiction.

It seems to me, that the line between what is deemed commercial or literary continues to shift as the industry evolves. What distinguishes them is, perhaps, the experience you expect from reading it. When you buy a commercial book, you expect to be (for example) romanced or terrified - you read to get to that already-anticipated place. But literary fiction is more of an unknown - you are not certain what experience you will have. The writer takes you to unfamiliar territory, the kind of place you feel you can only get to with "this book."

But in either experience, you expect good writing.

The responsibility of the writer - regardless of category - is to provide that.


  1. Even though I can see the practical value in having them, I learned to be wary of labels as a physician. Give a patient the diagnosis of depression, for instance, and you'd pretty much guarantee their nonspecific symptoms would be dismissed as psychological. In other words, when used inappropriately, labels give us permission to become lazy in our thinking. And narrow in our scope of reading.

    I value diversity and self-challenge, so I'm trying to expand my literary repetoire, not contract it.

  2. Iwonder why anyone actually cares. I mean if it's a good book, that's all that matters to me. :)

  3. I agree - in the end, I'm just looking for a good read.

  4. Ditto here...if it can keep me turning the pages..why worry?!?!

  5. Re why people care: because we're constantly measuring ourselves against others to see how we stack up. (It's that evolutionary biology thing I keep refercing.) Some people make conclusions about other people's relative social standing and intelligence by the books they read. It pains me to admit it, but that might have included me on occasion. ;)