Commercial Fiction vs. Literature

The local writer who hates my guts has indirectly mentioned me again in one of her recent diatribes. I love that she is so intimidated by me, and by the fact that I have two college degrees to her none.  She does, however, have a new target for her vitriol.  The writer of another blog seems, of late, to be the focus. 

One of her recent entries was a rant about literary fiction and commercial fiction, and her ultimate statement is that the world needs both.


Here’s a common error.  In the world of books and writing, it’s not an all or nothing deal.  There are many commercially successful books which have literary qualities, and many literary works which are commercial successes as well.  It’s not a matter of identifying a book as one or the other.  Writing and publishing cover a broad spectrum with overlapping aspects.

The fact that a writer may be striving for commercial success doesn’t make him or her a sell-out.  Of course, writing a pop culture vampire novel doesn’t make you a literary genius either.  There are certain qualities that cause editors, reviewers, or the public to refer to a book as more, or less, literary, but trying to group all books into these few limited categories is a mistake.

A truly literary work, one written with the purpose of providing a greater insight into the human condition, will have a number of elements in play.  It may use symbolism to convey a deeper meaning.  It may draw upon techniques of figurative language such as metaphor, simile, personification, or others to create more vivid imagery in the reader’s mind.  Sometimes assonance and alliteration are used so that an auditory component is introduced.  Often times, works of a literary nature provide endings that are unresolved, or do not provide the “happily ever after” that much of (though by no means all) commercial literature does.  Most importantly, literature relies on a sort of artistic unity.  This means that there is nothing in the plot that is irrelevant or that does not add to the meaning of the story.

These elements combine to create a theme in a work.  That theme is the author’s commentary on those particular people (the characters) in those particular circumstances (the plot) at that particular time.  It is nothing more and nothing less.  Nearly all works of fiction share this trait.  This often leads people (including a good number of my students ) to think of literary works as being overly analytical of human behavior, and lacking in good story.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Tobias Wolff’s Hunters in the Snow is a sardonic, sharp-witted story that is compelling and darkly funny.  On the first read, many students find it to be disturbing.  It makes them angry because the characters are such rotten people.  Once we go through the story, looking for the clues that Wolff has left us, and take into account the secondary and tertiary layers, many of students find this to be one their favorites. 

The first time I had to read Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’ short story A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, I felt lost.  I knew that there were things I was missing, and I was angry that the writer and tried to hide them from me.  Years later, I read an essay on this story and decided to reexamine it.  That was the beginning of my love affair with Marquez, and particularly with this story.  This, too, often becomes a favorite with my students.  Once they understand the symbolism, they can dig deeper to discover the humor and lyrical qualities in his writing.

But there is also a place in the world for commercial fiction.  Not every book needs to be a commentary on human existence, nor should it be.  Getting a laugh out of someone is just as important and twice as difficult as creating a great metaphorical moment.  Touching someone’s heart or causing them to shudder with fright are goals just as worthy.  There are many commercial books that draw on literary qualities and manage to be public success stories.  The Lovely Bones is a personal favorite that I believe straddles that invisible line established by some writers.  The Alchemist is another one. In the world of children’s literature, M.T. Anderson’s Feed was written with literary intent.  Anderson’s National Book Award Winning novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, was also a literary work that achieved top-selling status.

To try to divide writing into two separate and absolute categories is to misunderstand literature completely. It’s not a WWF Smack-Down type of contest.  There is far more overlapping going on than many writers want to admit to.  But that lack of admission doesn’t change the fact: it’s not one long continuum with commercial on one end and literary on the other.  It’s a big, swirling pool with lots of party-goers.


6 thoughts on “Commercial Fiction vs. Literature

  1. drtombibey says:

    One time a guitar legend came through town for a workshop. He asked for a someone from the audience to jam with him, so we sent up Roger, who was the hottest guitar man in town.

    Roger hung right with the pro who said, “Man, that was good. What kind of music do you usually play?”

    Roger replied, “Whatever pays.” Roger knows no matter how good he is, if he doesn’t connect with the audience it doesn’t matter.

    He is a true musician to me.

    If no one reads a book, (ie buys it) regardless of how literary it might be, mission is not accomplished.

    Dr. B

  2. drtombibey says:

    Ms Kim,

    One more thing. Your words inspired me to post on this subject today. I mentioned you in the text. I hope you’ll leave a comment and a link so folks will come check out your blog. Anyone (like me) who wants to learn how to write needs to check you out.

    Dr. B

  3. Karen says:

    Hi Kim

    I found you through Dr. B – and instantly added you to my blogroll…only to discover I was on yours too. Thank you!

    And thank you for providing such clarity on the literary vs commercial fiction issue. I’m the first to admit I’m one of those ‘untrained’ authors that is a novice in the industry (but I like to think I have a teachable spirit!!). I haven’t studied anything specifically to do with writing at University, although my teaching degree no doubt dabbled in bits and pieces. I am also aware that I’m not someone who operates in the ‘arty’ sphere so to speak. I like the arts, I appreciate talent, but you’re not going to find me chewing the cud over the merits of a dot on a blank page. I think I’m perhaps more grass roots than ‘classy’ 🙂 And I’ve always been confounded by the term ‘literary fiction’. It just didn’t seem to make sense to me. Isn’t all fiction literary by default??! (Did I just put my lack of sophistication on display for the world to see…?!)

    Your post has helped me gain a clearer understanding and I like the concept of a vortex of literature where there are crossovers and cross-pollination between mass market and literary works. I think perhaps I have always felt that die-hard enthusiasts of literary fiction often come across as book snobs – ‘the rest of you can’t possibly understand’ kind of attitude, which turned me off completely! After reading this post I’d like to think that even my 500 word picture books are literary at heart. They have layers that my young readers might not understand yet, but the adults that read to them might. And perhaps that’s what makes a picture book a ‘classic; layers that keeps the reader coming back again and again in years to come and getting something new from it each and every time.

    I hope I can sit in on one of your workshops one day when I’m in the States. But for now, I just might spend some time wandering through your blog…

  4. Kim Justesen says:

    Glad it helped. There are a lot of people who struggle to understand that this isn’t an all-or-nothing set of circumstances. And yes, your picture book could certainly have literary qualities! Many of the best ones do, in fact.


  5. Misa Ramirez says:

    Very insightful commentary on literary v commercial fiction. I absolutely agree with everything you said! I’ll be back here to visit.

  6. john p says:

    I know lot’s of stupid people who read literary fiction and can’t stand genre fiction. I know lot’s of intelligent people who hate literary fiction and love genre fiction. Preference for a style of writing has nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with personality type. There are three types of people in the world, those who act first, those who think first, and those that feel first. The act first type? A person who get’s things done. Get out of my way, I’ll handle it. The think first type? doesn’t like being told what to do, want’s to think about it, often neurotic and personality-disordered. The feel first type? Mom.

    Basically, anyone who likes literary fiction should be avoided at all costs. They think so much that the outside world ceases to exist.

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