It’s common to confuse literary terms and genres. There are so many of them, and the differences aren’t always clear. Two of the genres that are most often confused are ‘Commercial fiction’ and ‘Literary fiction’.
What we want to do here at Grindstone is to build a bridge - connecting new (and experienced) writers with the professional writing industry. It’s hard enough to break in as it is, and any additional knowledge can always provide an extra advantage in an otherwise tough and competitive business.
What is Commercial Fiction?
Commercial fiction, also called Mainstream fiction or Genre fiction, is one of two main categories in which fiction is usually placed. While Commercial and Literary might occasionally overlap, Commercial tends to be more plot driven, faster-paced, centred around a line of events, appeal to a broader audience, and sometimes written in more simplistic language.
The Commercial fiction genre also has countless sub-genres, such as horror, drama, comedy and romance. They are the sorts of books you are likely to read for entertainment, rather than for educational purposes. The terms ‘Beach Read’ or ‘Holiday Read’ spring to mind.
In contrast, Literary fiction is work that is considered to have literary merit, or literary value, like books which deal with grander subjects, like social issues, political dilemmas, emotional journeys, philosophical quandaries, etc. Let’s put it like this: If a book is in the curriculum of your university English class, it’s quite likely Literary fiction, while that vampire romance novel everyone is talking about is Commercial fiction.
Better! Worse? Different.
A common misconception is that Literary fiction is somehow superior to Commercial fiction, and some new writers might feel offended when having it pointed out to them that what they are writing is, in fact, Commercial fiction. This couldn’t be more incorrect. The two are different, yes, written with different objectives and for different target audiences. Commercial fiction can often be more approachable, and easier for the average reader to enjoy and relate to, but this is a tendency, rather than a rule. There is good and bad Literary fiction, just like there is good and bad Commercial fiction. There are also borderline cases, dipping into both the literary, and the commercial pool, bringing together a bit of both, and therefore qualifying both as Literary fiction and as Commercial fiction.
Examples of Commercial Fiction:
The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes
The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
One Day, by David Nicholls
Knowing When It Matters
There are times when it’s important to know the difference between Literary fiction and Commercial fiction (like when you’re pitching your novel to an agent), but when writing, it’s not something worth worrying about. Inspiration is a rare thing, which should never be held back by overthinking, so it is often better to just let the words flow, and then – once it’s done – sit down and try to categorise the outcome.
Contacting a literary agent is one of those times when it’s imperative to know what it is that you have on your hands. Does your novel qualify as Literary fiction, or as Commercial fiction? Not only will this make the agents job easier when going through your submission, but it will also make sure you know what agents to look for, so that you can avoid wasting time querying those who might not represent your type of writing.
As an extra plus, you are far more likely to come across as a serious writer if you know how to correctly categorise your own work.