Literary vs Commercial Fiction

| Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Today's Tune: Set Yourself On Fire

I JUST LIKE THE SONG, GUYS. I'm not telling you to set yourself on fire! Unless you want to, I guess!

Weird sugueeeee.

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.


{ Miss Cole } at: March 7, 2012 at 6:17 AM said...

I'm definitely a commercial writer. Although there are literary books I absolutely love, I can't write in that style. I'm less detailed, my language is more straight-forward and prefer a faster pace.

But if you can blend, I say go for it!

{ Old Kitty } at: March 7, 2012 at 6:31 AM said...

Yay for your bare boned definitions!!! Love em!!

Short stories - I lean to the literary! Which is probably a bad thing! LOL!

My current wip - I'm leaning to the commercial! With bits of the literary - I get annoyed when my characters start to emote and verge on the exposition - so I know in my heart this is not my strongest point!

Take care

{ Rachel } at: March 7, 2012 at 7:15 AM said...

Hmmm... I actually like the quoted definition below better than the character driven vs. plot driven one above (of course, we're probably talking nuances.)

"Is the point to tell a tale, or learn something about a character or the human condition?"

A commercial plot is character-driven.

One of the biggest problems I find in reading unpubbed author's work is that they've got their protags letting things happen around them rather than having the protags choices propel the plot forward.

I think I'm quibbling about the word 'driven.' I like 'explored' much better.


(And since I'm a first time poster, I feel a strange compulsion to tell you that you are pretty too and I'd love to be friends. ~Grin)

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: March 7, 2012 at 7:30 AM said...

Interesting point, Rachel. I think it probably is largely a distinction between what we mean by "driven," because I definitely agree that active characters that drive the plot need to be present in commercial. YA in particular blurs a lot of lines here because it's heavy on the interiority (characters' inner thoughts and feelings) because of its nature, which is focused on teens.

I think the distinction, for me, is in whether the plot as a whole is the main attraction of the book, or whether the characters/language/style are.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: March 7, 2012 at 7:31 AM said...

Also: thank you! :D

{ E.Maree } at: March 7, 2012 at 10:33 AM said...

I'm commercial, all the way. My characters are complex, but they show their many sides in action. You find out about these people as they're running from the enemy or trying to save the people that matter.
It fits with my view of people, as well -- while I can find out plenty about them in their quiet moments, it's the highest highs and lowest lows where I'll see them at their truest.

{ prerna pickett } at: March 7, 2012 at 12:01 PM said...

thanks for the simplified explanation. I've always been a little confused by the two terms.

{ Whirlochre } at: March 7, 2012 at 10:19 PM said...

I probably couldn't write commercial fiction if the Lords of Writing inseminated me with The Ultimate Plot-Driven Story Seed.

{ Carol Riggs } at: March 8, 2012 at 8:33 AM said...

Great breakdown, Steph!! I tended to think of literary as more purple prose, so it's good to get that clarified. Hmm, me? I think I've written both kinds, but mostly I'm a blend. Frankly, I think that's the best kind, too. Popular, yet with depth. That's my goal, anyway. :D

{ Nicole R. Zimmerman } at: March 8, 2012 at 12:16 PM said...

I recently made a similar distinction on my blog, where I wrote about my recent foray into literary fiction. (I'm taking short fiction in my MFA program at USF--veering from my usual genre of nonfiction.) But last night my instructor denounced that line, pointing out that all plot is intricately linked with character.

Perhaps a better distinction is what the comments have alluded to: external action vs. interiority. Or, as you stated, "The key is in the intentionality and artistry of language" (both prose and structure). Certainly, the "literary" books I'm reading in my classes aren't easy or quick (or even entertaining) to read through, and we read them more for style than content. For the latter I've got my bedside pile.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: March 9, 2012 at 7:23 AM said...

I completely take your professors point, Nicole. Thanks for the comment :)

I see what the instructor means -- essentially yes, all stories are somehow tied to character, because the protagonist isn't a dark vacuum floating around the plot (... that might make a cool experimental story, actually). I think in my mind, the distinction lies in what draws the reader into the book. Are they there first for the language and interiority, or are they there for the external action, as you mentioned?

It's definitely not a clear-cut if-or scenario :)

{ We Heart YA } at: March 14, 2012 at 11:37 AM said...

THIS is a great explanation. We've never really known how to describe the difference to people; now we will simply point them here. :)

As for what we write, we're kind of split. Sarah and Ingrid are more character driven, while Kristan and Steph are more plot driven. That said, we all think it's really important to balance those out, so we aim for a sweet spot somewhere in the middle overall.

{ Ronald George Roumanis } at: January 5, 2013 at 2:40 PM said...

I like your breakdown, Steph. Sometimes literature seems to be about the environment that drives the character to act a certain way, but it's always connected to some sort of observation and comment on the nature of humanity. It's universal because there is always some degree of subtext, symbolism and metaphor, be it "The Age of Innocence," " The Red Badge...," or "Crime and Punishment." All characters are flawed in some way. Nearly all literature resonates with some part of my life because I'm flawed as well, and the world seems unfair in one way or other most of the time.
In fiction, I want to know what happens next. In literature, I ponder how things got to be the way they are; yet there's always a beauty in the imperfect world we see in print.

{ Jenna Curtis } at: March 2, 2013 at 11:21 AM said...

I just ran across this article on a Google search and it is perfect!

I sometimes feel guilty for loving commercial fiction, but I'm a self-proclaimed ADHD case.I love literature too, when it keeps me sucked in,(Ethan Frome, Jane Eyre, A Separate Peace,Catcher in the Rye),wow...and apparently characters with some sort of mental disorder.

Real clear definitions! Love it!

{ Avree Lee } at: March 19, 2013 at 9:15 AM said...

Aw, you like my hair?? Thank you!
I just thought I should let you know my English 12 referenced this post to explain it better.
Easy to understand, and while I know what a lot of the other comments mean, I feel that your bare-bones definition is really accurate. Of course, lines can be so incredibly blurred. But when it comes down to it... compare Sherlock (BBC) to NCIS (American). Both are commercially linked, but what one has more character development?

{ kwillblog } at: April 4, 2013 at 3:41 AM said...

All the stories that I enjoy have a good plot AND food for thought about the human condition. I have never understood the whole "literary/commercial" distinction, and even now that you've explained it I still don't really understand WHY there is a distinction.

Thanks for the explanation, all the same. Now that I know what people mean by "literary" and "commercial", I can get on with just writing "fiction" to the best of my ability.

{ ragnasock } at: August 20, 2013 at 6:06 AM said...

I don't know if this is true, but I find in my own writing that the distinction is one of time and focus. Literary fiction can have an incredibly intricate and crucial plot (read Gravity's Rainbow) but the issue is whether the story can devote itself to a rapid pace to keep attention.

Commercial fiction can slow down and smell the roses at certain points and heavily develop a character's inner self, motivations, etc. But in the end, if you keep that up for very long you leech out the externally driven momentum of the story and sacrifice it for the internally driven momentum of the character's emotions and thoughts.

Someone may pop on and say you can do both in equal measure, but I think the medium forces brevity if you want to increase pace and that does make internal exploration a trade-off.

Just my two cents. I like your post :)

{ Uzma Piracha } at: August 7, 2014 at 11:00 AM said...

I am definitely a literary writer. Interested in my work???

{ Uzma Piracha } at: August 7, 2014 at 11:01 AM said...


{ C.H. Armstrong, Author } at: August 13, 2016 at 5:41 PM said...

Ugh. I'm so lost. I've never considered myself a writer of "literary fiction," but it's sounding like that may be what my WIP is. It can't be YA because the characters are in college. It can't be NA because there is no romance. It might be women's fiction, but it's very issue-ridden. But I've always though of literary fiction as being akin to having a lot of purple prose.

So I have this MS that is issue driven. Surrounds a traumatic event of the main character (a college student) and the "collateral damage" that is the people around her who are affected by this event, either emotionally as those who love her; or physically as friendships are torn apart as a direct result. So the story originally surrounds the MC and the trauma she has endured, but the second part of it is her healing while everyone else around her is part of the fallout.

Is it plot-driven with a big reveal that makes the reader hold their breaths and flip the pages? No -- not in the way that, say, Divinci Code is. They'll wonder what's going to happen about the perpetrator of the crime, and they'll probably root for the main character; but the story isn't so much about the bad guy getting his due as it is the "collateral damage" left in the destroyed lives.


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