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Commercial Fiction vs. Literary Fiction—Which Do You Write and How to Tell the Difference?

by Andrea Lundgren (originally posted on

As soon as you sit down to market your work, you need to know what it is that you’ve written. You may have some idea from comparing your work to other people, but it helps to know what you’ve written from your writing itself, as just “having romance” in your story doesn’t make it a romance (though having elves in your plot pretty much guarantees that it’s a fantasy, of some kind).

But you really need to know what you’re writing even before then, at the editing and rewriting stages, as it won’t help if you pay for advertisement and a cool cover image that says “this kind of story” if the pages inside don’t support your claim.

All fiction can be divided into literay and commercial, or genre, fiction, so that’s the first place to start in discovering what kind of story you’re writing.

Literary Fiction

Most people seem to know what literary fiction is. It’s often considered artistic, high-browed, and targeted towards fans of classic literature—people who like words and don’t mind wading through them to enjoy an artistic experience.

But, in more useful terms, it’s goals are artistry—in plot, narration, pacing, characters, and all the rest. It works to create a mood, a feeling, a general artistic statement rather than just entertainment.

It can be useful to consider the focus of your story, especially since artistry can be so subjective and any story can be told with artistry. With literary fiction, the focus is on revealing an experience and exploring that rather than telling any particular sequence of events.

Thus, if your story examines an experience, like the frustrating nature of life as a cockroach, the uncertain nature of living as a single mother, or the detiorating relationship of a married couple, it’s probably literary fiction.

Now, if it shows these experiences while doing something else—running away from terrorists, finding love again, or trying to locate a missing child—than it’s not literary fiction, just commercial fiction with an artistic flair or an artistic side story.

So what is commercial or genre fiction? Is it just fiction by numbers, a rehashing of old plots that have sold? What keeps it from being all about the money?

Commercial Fiction

As indicated earlier, commercial fiction focuses on how something happens rather than just on an experience. The “something” could be how the detective solved a mystery, how the romantic couple fell in love, or how a group of reclusive dwarves saved their mine, but the bulk of the story and the writing itself is going to be about how something happened.

This doesn’t mean writers of commercial fiction can throw their stories together by taking parts of other books and thus “cook up their story,” though. If a work doesn’t feel real and intriguing, if it doesn’t offer it’s own kind of artistry, either in a clever plot, an interesting world to explore, or a satisfying romance, than readers are going to move on to look for something else.

Why It Matters

Obviously, it’s going to make a huge difference when marketing, but it also matters when you’re working on your story’s big picture. If you have scenes that have nothing to do with the experience you’re focusing on in a literary fiction story, you might need to cut those scenes out, even if they’re fun and interesting, because they don’t further your goals (of course, they could help by providing counterbalance and showing aspects of an experience that you don’t otherwise get to see).

If, on the other hand, your artistic flair in narration is making it hard for readers to understand what’s going on in a commercial fiction story, than you probably need to trim things down and make it simpler. Readers might enjoy the artistry as a perk, but if it takes away from the story they paid to read, then it’s not worth it.

One Way It Doesn’t Matter

These days, both literary and commercial fiction writers need to remember that they’re writing a commodity. They aren’t just making something for art’s sake, as both commercial and literary fiction can be art. Ultimately, we’re selling an experience and a perspective, or a story and a series of events. Whichever it is, we have an audience we have to consider and expectations we have to gauge. If we just do whatever we like and still want to be published, we might find that not many people want to read it…or that, when they do read it, they don’t seem to like what we’ve given them.

It’s like ordering from a restaurant. If you order a particular dish, you’re going to be disappointed if anything else shows up. It may look like crème brûlée, but if it doesn’t taste like crème brûlée—if the components you’ve added detract from the very thing that made them buy it in the first place—then all you’re going to have are angry customers.

Copyright 2019 Andrea Lundgren

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