Fiction Wars!

It’s interesting to note the ongoing battle between Literary and Commercial Fiction in the blogasphere.  Here is a smattering of opinions on the subject… and sides taken.  Be sure to let us know your own thoughts in the notes below.

Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction by Christy Tillery French
(excerpt taken from: )

“Literary fiction is character driven and appeals to a smaller, more intellectual audience. A work of literary fiction may fall into any of the genres. However, what sets it apart are such things as excellent writing and originality of thought and style that raise it above ordinary writing. Examples of literary fiction: Cold Mountain, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath. Popular authors of literary fiction would be John LeCarre, Barbara Kingsolver, and Toni Morrison, among others.

Mainstream fiction is a term publishers and booksellers use to describe both commercial and literary works containing a universal theme that attracts a broad audience. Usually set in the 20th or present-day 21st century, these books deal with family issues, coming of age initiations, courtroom dramas, physical and mental disabilities, social pressures, political intrigue, etc. Regardless of genre or category, most of the novels on the bestseller list are considered mainstream, including authors such as Sue Grafton, Michael Crichton, or David Guterson.

The more narrowly defined categories of popular fiction that appeal to specific audiences are classified as genre fiction.

Whatever genre you write, it’s a good idea to read bestselling authors of that genre. This will give you a good indication of what is selling. Study the author’s writing pace, plot, voice, characterization, and descriptive.”

The Great Divide: Commercial vs. Literary Fiction by Louisa Burton(excerpt taken from )

“Popular fiction is a very old and classic form of storytelling, embracing certain archetypal themes, character types, and story elements that go back literally thousands of years. The majority of mysteries, thrillers, romances, westerns, science fiction novels, fantasy novels and mainstream bestsellers are heroic stories wherein our protagonists draw upon their innate strength and virtue in order to battle the odds against them—whether those odds be a subtle internal conflict or Lord Voldemort. Hence the frequent and much-loved happy ending—not a deus ex machina, cavalry-to-the-rescue ending, but one that’s been hard-earned—which leaves us feeling uplifted, fulfilled, empowered. Even when the ending is ambivalent or negative, there’s generally a sense of balance and rightness that is, or at least should be, satisfying to the soul.

Popular fiction focuses on character and story, which in a well-written work are inextricably linked. Change one, and the other must change with it. That said, it is character, not plot, that is at the heart of the success of these stories. If they’re page-turners, it’s usually because we empathize with the protagonists so deeply that we have to keep reading to find out what happens to them.

When a piece of popular fiction fails, it’s often because the author relied too heavily on a story that was carved in stone from the beginning, without allowing the characters to mold and shape it. Another common pitfall is the overreliance on the tried-and-true language and storylines of one’s chosen genre. Writers who tend to read only within that genre are particularly susceptible to this.

“Literary fiction” is a term that’s only been around for about the past three or four decades. A much younger phenomenon than popular fiction, it sprang from the so-called naturalist or realistic literary movement around the turn of the twentieth century, in which technique, rather than content, is prized. Story and character take a backseat to style, theme, and imagery. The pacing is often stately; the artful use of language is paramount.”

Literary vs Commercial Fiction by Robert J. Sawyer
(excerpt taken from:

“Commercial fiction tends to emphasize characterization, plot, action, and dialog, and may, or may not, include beautiful, or highfalutin, or arch language, and may, or may not, have an overall theme.

In contrast, literary fiction usually gives short shrift to plot and action, but often has a theme (a statement other than a plot synopsis describing what the story is about).

However literary merit is often found in commercial fiction including that subset of commercial fiction called genre fiction.

But having literary merit is not a requirement of successful commercial fiction, and doing well commercially is not a requirement of successful literary fiction.

In any event, to call oneself a “literary writer” has always stuck me as either a silly redundancy (I’m a “woody carpenter”) or pretentious; if the person saying that means that his or her work has literary merit — sorry, that’s for others to judge.”

Literary vs Commercial Fiction: A Lose-Lose Debate by Diane Chamberlain
(excerpt taken from:

“First, I must address the fact that you could ask a dozen writers what the difference is between literary and commercial fiction and get a dozen different answers. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll say that literary fiction is more about the writing than the story, while commercial fiction is the opposite. Literary novels are those books we feel we “should” read and enjoy  (remember Tess Gerritsen’s terrific blog on Legume Literature?); commercial books are those we can’t put down.  GILEAD, BELOVED, BEL CANTO, all books I thoroughly enjoyed, are examples of literary fiction, full of breathtaking writing (and symbolism) to which the story takes a backseat. THE DA VINCI CODE, which I also loved, is commercial all the way. Then there are those amazing writers who manage to write literary books with commercial appeal: I would put Pat Conroy, Sue Monk Kidd and Anne Tyler in this category, though some would disagree with me.
Anyhow, the conference I attended last week really got me thinking about this debate, which is ongoing in the writing world (and in bookgroups all over the map). I usually attend conferences with published writers of commercial fiction where we talk about the biz of writing. The North Carolina Writers’ Network conference was different in that it was more about craft and VERY literary in its leaning. Lots of poets, MFAs, and simply fabulous writers. (When I did my reading from THE BAY AT MIDNIGHT, I admit to feeling slightly intimidated at following four astounding poets). Here’s the rub: literary writers tend to look down their noses at commercial writers (although I hasten to add, I was treated with complete respect for my work at the conference!), and commercial writers tend to belittle the importance of beautiful writing. Here’s the lesson I took from the conference: By breaking into two camps, we’re only hurting ourselves. I adored the exposure to a different sort of writing that I experienced at the conference, and I have no doubt that the so-called literary writers could benefit from learning some of the skills of story-telling commercial writers have perfected. We cut ourselves off from one another because of our ego, fear and protecting our turf. I’d like to see more of a mix. We can learn from each other.”

What Makes Literary Fiction Literary? by Nathan Bransford
(excerpt taken from: )

“Now consider literary fiction. In literary fiction the plot usually happens beneath the surface, in the minds and hearts of the characters. Things may happen on the surface, but what is really important are the thoughts, desires, and motivations of the characters as well as the underlying social and cultural threads that act upon them. The plot may be buried to such a degree (like GILEAD) that if you have to describe the book in a short sentence it seems plotless — an old man writes a letter to his young son and reflects on his life. There doesn’t seem to be a plot there. But there is a plot in GILEAD. It is about how the protagonist comes to terms with his life and how he reconciles his desire to leave something behind for his son with his impending mortality. GILEAD has all the ups and downs of a genre novel, but the plot points all relate to the inner mind, and the climaxes and nadirs are almost hidden in quiet moments and small-but-powerful revelations.

Even when the prose is straightforward, literary fiction is more challenging to read than genre fiction because it requires the reader to infer a great deal of the plot rather than simply sitting back and watching the plot unfold. It requires empathy to relate to characters as humans and to deduce the hidden motivations and desires that lurk beneath their actions. The reader has to recognize the small turning points and the low points and the high points based on what they know of the character and about human nature. And there’s a reason very few literary novels end with a shootout (er, except for THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG) — what happens out in the world isn’t as important in literary novels as what happens within the minds of the characters, and thus the climax might be something as small as a decision or a new conviction.

So there’s a reason there are genre busters like Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard, as well as the hybrid genre of commercial literary fiction. These novels tend to be told with more straightforward prose and are accessible, but they have a deeper emotional complexity. They fuse the out-in-the-world plotting of genre fiction with the in-the-mind plotting of literary fiction. The novels have traditional climaxes that also resolve the inner battles of their characters.”

Literary vs Commercial Fiction: A Necessary Divide by Kathryn Paterson
(Taken from: )

“I have a growing unease with the increasing polarization of literary and commercial fiction, in part because I still believe that it is possible to tell a good story, maybe even a great story, and tell it well. Perhaps I am naive, but I believe readers are hungry for quality even in genre, and I know many intelligent people who don’t even know what “literary” fiction is. I think literary fiction writers need to see what they can learn from commercial writers, and I think writers of commercial fiction need to see what they can learn from the literati.

We all have to get over this “you suck/you don’t sell” divide and realize that when we sit down with our notebooks or in front of our computer screens, we are engaging in the same basic practice. Good literary writers struggle over plot points too, and good genre writers struggle over characterization. Perhaps the genre writer does not have the luxury of time to worry about every little detail, but perhaps the literary writer could learn from the genre writer’s work ethic, discipline, and pressure to connect with readers. And maybe commercial writers can learn from literary writers how to avoid cliche and pat, convenient formulas, even while staying true to the conventions of their genres.

Finally, we all need to realize that to some degree, there is still a gender bias at play. Chic lit is still dismissed as frivolous, even when “guy lit” (think Hemingway) of earlier eras is still lauded. J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer may have become phenomena, but critics have largely ignored them. Alice Sebold was herself considered “literary” until a certain book of hers became the biggest American debut since Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Had The Lovely Bones sold only a few thousand copies, how would she have been received?”

Literary vs. Commercial Fiction (and Franzenfreude?) by Anne Greenawalt
(taken from: )

“I’ll admit upfront that I am a literary snob and I consider literary fiction to be a superior art form than commercial fiction. Literary fiction requires more skill, time and attention to be written correctly. Commercial fiction, although potentially more plot-driven and entertaining, does not require the same kind of skill and language precision. If the book reviewers at the New York Times prefer to review only literary fiction, I commend them. Commercial fiction already gets a lot of publicity and word-of-mouth attention because they are easier reads and much less complex than literary fiction so more people from the general population read them. Literary fiction deserves critics’ attention and it angers me to hear that some commercial fiction writers want more attention placed on them.”

Lit Versus Commercial Fiction: Writer Wars? by Randy Susan Meyers
(taken from: )

“I have no dog in the Franzenfreude fight. I subscribe to the NYT, Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe. Sean, my overworked mail carrier, delivers Newsweek, People, Time, Entertainment, and Oprah, along with Poets & Writers, Glimmer Street, Nimrod and more to my house.

The Boston Globe reviewed my book twice, the New York Times provided a terrific mention, and other papers including the Miami Herald, Denver Post and LA Times were kind. The media have treated me well. I’ve been categorized as everything from commercial to women’s, to literary fiction.

I’ve read Franzen, Picoult, and Weiner. Authors on my TBR pile include Gail Caldwell, Lori L. Tharp, Lola Shoneyin, Michelle Hoover, Julie Klam, Jonathan Papernick, Susanna Daniel, Karen Palmer, Melissa Senate, Sarah Pekkenan, Bernice L. McFadden, Chuck Hogan, Abraham Verghese, Carleen Brice, Freddie Wilkinson, Nick Reding, Brady Udall, and Fredrick Riken. (They’re getting along on my nightstand quite well.)

It saddens me seeing writers buy into a class war. Lit looks down on commercial, who look down on genre, who eschew whatever is lower on the literary food chain.”



About Daniel

Writer & Musician
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2 Responses to Fiction Wars!

  1. j.a. kazimer says:

    Great debate. Plenty of interesting viewpoints. I like the list of why a story fails. That’s right on target.

    Commercial or literary, it’s not about style but about the story’s shaping. Sure one might use pretty language or rely on plot, but the true test of any work is, does it make people want to read it. So is there really a difference, besides academic, between the two genres? Shouldn’t the great debate be about craft, not style?

    As always, D is a brilliant guy. Nice post.

  2. Yes, J.A., it is absolutely about the story’s shaping. But some people do write art for art’s sake, and I think there has to be a place for that. But then those same people shouldn’t complain when people find them too esoteric, and I don’t think they should look down upon those who are more accessible. I agree too that the debate should be about craft–except that style to some degree defines the way a writer handles his/her craft. For instance, in some women’s fiction, a moment of drama might be labeled “melodrama” by the lit critics, whereas the exact same scene rendered in an Ian McEwan novel might be considered “drama.” And both might be equally appropriate, depending upon the audience.

    I love this post, by the way, and thanks so much for including me. I think I just swooned a little here. 🙂

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