Writing Wednesday: Commercial vs. Literary

Writing Wednesday

Welcome back to Writing Wednesday, a biweekly feature where I troubleshoot some common writing questions. Today we’re focusing on COMMERCIAL vs. LITERARY: what does it mean?

The Commercial vs. Literary dichotomy frequently comes up in writing. I actually wrote about what “literary” means six years ago, when I first started working in publishing.1 I also touch on it in the X Meets Y, or The High Concept Pitch episode of the PubCrawl podcast I do with Wicked Cool Riley where I define the terms as a “style, not category.”

But what does that mean? In both publishing and writing, we tend to think of “commercial” and “literary” as different categories; “literary”, in particular, is nearly thought of as a genre unto itself. But this is a false dichotomy: both “commercial” and “literary” novels are shelved together at the bookstore under the general category of Fiction.

So why are they thought of as two separate categories? A large part of it is marketing. Publishers market books written in a commercial manner one way and books written with a literary bent another. Why? I think some of that comes down to a perception of reading preferences. Do you prefer story over style? Or do words matter more?

Of course, that in itself is a false dichotomy, yet this is how the reading audiences are perceived.2 The perception is that the reading audience for commercial fiction likes fast-moving, plot-driven, “unputdownable” stories whereas the audience for literary fiction likes to linger over character, over words, over metaphysical ruminations. And while I think that’s a fair assessment of how commercial vs. literary books are marketed, I don’t think it’s a fair assessment of a novel’s contents.

Content or concept does not necessarily distinguish literary fiction from its commercial counterpart. As I mentioned in the podcast, a “high concept” idea can be written in a commercial or literary manner. The example I used was Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer and The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. Both novels ostensibly have a very similar high concept: the gravitation rotation of the earth has been affected and its consequences for life on the planet. However, the former is written in a commercial way while the latter is more literary, and both are marketed accordingly.

Commercial vs. Literary Writing

So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of the craft aspects of commercial vs. literary writing. I think some of this comes down to the writer’s natural voice and the way you choose to tell your story. Commercial writing is often more about utility than beauty; the prose zips from action to dialogue to exposition and back with efficiency. At best, I think commercial writing is invisible; the prose takes a backseat to what happens in the narrative, allowing total immersion on the part of the reader. At worst, it can be mediocre, or even laughably awkward. I’m sure everyone’s read a book where the writing was so clunky it jarred you out of the story.3

Literary novels, on the other hand, tend to luxuriate in words, which allows for immersion of a different sort. At best, I think literary novels contain gems of absolute truth, where a turn of phrase strikes you in the heart with such exacting precision, it’s almost like pain. At worst, it can be obtuse and obfuscating, getting in the way of the story that needs to be told.

Commercial vs. Literary Storytelling

The difference between commercial and literary novels may not be content, but the way the story is a significant distinction. Commercial books are usually described as being “unputdownable”: the pacing is swift, but not breakneck, the tension is high, but not unbearable, and readers are often plagued with the need to finish in one sitting because OMG WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

I think commercial novels get an undeserved reputation for being “not as smart” as literary fiction, but a lot of complex mechanics are at play when one chooses to tell a story in a commercial manner. Commercial storytelling is what is taught in workshops and classes: those “beat sheets” you see online are examples of the tools of commercial storytelling. Again, most of this, in the best commercial novels, is invisible. Character development, plot, pacing, tension, et al requires a lot of skill, but moreover, it requires a deft touch and finesse in order to juggle all these elements successfully. To know when to apply with a light or heavy hand. At best, good commercial storytelling is focused, taut, and satisfying. At worst, it is formulaic, predictable, and unoriginal.

Literary storytelling, on the other hand, is a strange thing. Some of it adheres to the strictures of commercial storytelling, but some of it does not. Literary storytelling may approach a novel from a different perspective: instead of focusing on one character’s journey, it may choose to tell the story of an entire city. It may choose to take a distant, affectless (or affected) voice for metatextual reasons. It may break the fourth wall. It may spoil its own ending in the middle of its pages.4 In many ways, literary storytelling calls attention to storytelling itself. Unlike commercial storytelling, which strives for invisibility, literary storytelling is playing with form, to make a point about an idea or concept through form.

An example of this can be found in the Oxen of the Sun chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In this chapter, Leopold Bloom visits a woman in the maternity ward of the hospital, where she is giving birth. The language in the book moves from Latinate to Anglo-Saxon to Norman-French influenced English, all the way to modern (for the time) slang and parody. In one chapter, Joyce gave us the birth of the English language…as a woman is giving birth.

At best, literary storytelling can be clever and witty and incisive, but at worst it can be esoteric, dull, and self-indulgent. In my opinion, commercial storytelling is easy to learn, but takes significant artistry to master, whereas literary storytelling takes a lot of balls. Sometimes the choices taken will work, but just as many times, it can fall flat. To be completely frank, I prefer commercial storytelling to literary storytelling, but there are definitely some form-breaking novels that tickle my inner English major nerd.

Commercial and literary storytelling exists across all genres, and can be seen in science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, and young adult.

Upmarket Commercial

Before I close out this week’s Writing Wednesday, I do want to talk about that Frankenstein beast: the upmarket commercial novel. These are books with commercial storytelling and more literary prose. Upmarket commercial novels are sort of seen as the sort of book we all strive to write: beautiful prose, solid storytelling. But to be honest, “upmarket commercial” is as much of a marketing construct as straight “commercial” and “literary”. In publishing houses, the upmarket commercial novel (if it doesn’t fall into other genres like science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller, romance, etc.) is generally pushed as the “book club pick”.

I love commercial storytelling and more literary prose, but I’m generally not fond of books marketed as “upmarket commercial”, which I can sometimes find a little twee. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just personal preference. I’m a genre reader, so I prefer to read fantasy or young adult novels with commercial bones and literary trappings (which are generally not considered “upmarket commercial” by publishing).

That’s all for this week! Next time, we will be covering DIALOGUE.

  1. I AM SO OLD, OH MY GOD.
  2. This is being a bit unfair, as many publishers are aware that readers will read both commercial and “literary” novels, but marketing by necessity is rather reductive.
  3. Ahem, The Da Vinci Code, ahem. And yet, still couldn’t put it down.
  4.  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, for example.

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