Commercial vs. Literary Fiction Redux

I posted this blog in 2009, but the topic has come up a few times recently. I’m reposting it for anyone who may have missed it. It’s undergone a few revisions (in blue), but it’s basically intact.

A local writer who hates my guts had found a new target to pick on. I scanned her blog and found that her vitriol, usually reserved for me, had been directed at a new victim. 

One of her recent entries was a rant about literary fiction and commercial fiction, and her ultimate statement was 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. To me, it’s more like a paint palette with multiple colors and shades on it.


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 (J, this was NOT directed at you!).  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 two limited categories is a mistake.

A truly literary work, one written with the sole 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, and no element in the story, that is irrelevant or that does not add to the meaning or the theme 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 (who do very rotten things!).  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. (If you’re not familiar with this story, I highly recommend it!)

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 more commercially oriented 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 commercial 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 (and award-winning!) 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 vs. Literary Fiction Redux

  1. Gabby Streck says:

    Very well written Kim! I shall read some of these stories, or all of them. Some of the works we read in HS Literature were some of my favorites, especially Hemingway. He just happened to make a lot of money on them too. Anyway, you made a great point.

    But why is she worrying about what you do? Why can’t she just write and prove herself with her own writing instead of worrying about you? She must not be that great if she has time for attacking you instead of churning out another book requested by her publisher.

  2. Kim Justesen says:

    Hi Gabby!

    It’s a very long, complicated story. Basically, this woman has resigned herself to self-publishing. On her own blog she announces that she is the author of 9 books, 3 of them published! Thing is, she publishes them herself. She just decided she doesn’t like me, and there isn’t much I can do about it, so I don’t really worry. In fact, I don’t even read her blog anymore. I’m busy with more productive things, like selling books to real publishers.

  3. Linda Bennett says:

    Great Blog! Usually when someone doesn’t like another person it is because, they cannot have or achieve what the one they don’t like has.

  4. Jared Anderson says:

    I loved The Lovely Bones and this is the book I signed up to give away for World Book Night. I also loved A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings. I’ve been thinking a lot about literary versus commercial fiction lately. This blog helped further my understanding. Thank you.

  5. Kim Justesen says:

    J – You should definitely read Tobias “Wolff’s Hunters in the Snow” – I think you’d really like the challenge of it.

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