Set Yourself On FireToday's Tune:
I JUST LIKE THE SONG, GUYS. I'm not telling you to set yourself on fire! Unless you want to, I guess!
I find it pretty common for people to get confused around the difference between commercial and literary fiction, so I thought I'd distill it down. This is a super simplified and bare-bones distinction. In reality, there are a lot of variations to be had and the lines blur all the time. But let's just go with it for now.
Here is the difference: Literary fiction is character-driven. Commercial fiction is plot-driven.
What does that mean, exactly? It means that the primary focus, the pull of the story, is built around an arc. If that arc takes the form of a character -- if the story is ultimately about their personal growth or destruction -- we're looking at literary. If the arc is the rising and falling action of an active plot, we're looking at commercial.
Generally speaking, literary novels are paced more slowly and like to revel in language and human experience. They like to explore the mind and soul. Because of this, they're described as "plotless" by some, which really isn't correct or fair.
Commercial novels generally focus on a big hook and propelling the plot forward to maintain audience attention. Characters may be interesting, but their personal inner workings aren't what keep a commercial book moving. These are the books that leap off the shelves because people devour them so quickly. They're the can't-put-downables. Some consider them fodder for the unintellectual mind, which again is neither correct nor fair.
Now that the distinction is pretty clear, we can explore those blurred lines. There are many books that straddle the literary and the commercial. They're the books with clever hooks and entertaining plots that also happen to contain deeper character exploration and well-placed language. "Literary" writing is often mistaken for flowery, purple prose, which isn't accurate. Literary novels can be very sparse and tightly written. The key is in the intentionality and artistry of language, not vocabulary used.
Some stories are pretty clearly commercial, but still contain great character development. However, developed characters don't make a story character-driven. Likewise, a functional plot does not necessarily make a story plot-driven. It's all about the point of the story. Is the point to tell a tale, or learn something about a character or the human condition? Neither is superior to the other and both have their place in literature.
As I mentioned, there are a LOT of other nuances to this question that I didn't explore in this post, but this is the most condensed I know how to make the distinction.
How do you write, writer pals? Are you more literary, or more commercial? Or do you like to blend the two? I'm definitely a blender.