Literary vs. Commercial

Last weekend I participated in the Writer’s Digest Conference Pitch Slam. After the event, an agent-friend and I discussed the pitches that got us excited, and there was one in particular that became the subject of a debate. I talked about a pitch for a magical realism novel that I couldn’t wait to read; she said the same about an urban fantasy. It took us all of ten seconds to realize we were talking about the same novel.

During the pitch, the author didn’t label his work with either genre, so we were left to fight over it. In her more commercially inclined hands, she would find an urban fantasy angle and exploit it to publishers. My tastes run more literary, so my mind ran with ideas of magical realism comparison titles and where I’d place it. (Keep in mind, neither one of us has read this manuscript yet, but this is what an agent needs to think about when hearing a 3-minute pitch.)

When I receive queries that claim to be literary fiction, it often turns out, after reading the synopsis, that they are very, very commercial. The flip side has happened too. I’ll request a supernatural thriller or dark mystery, with the intention of hopefully selling them to those specific markets, and the books turn out to be much more literary than the author probably realized.

I don’t think writers should get too hung up on labels, but it’s important to know the market in which you’re writing. You’re expected to give an agent an immediate sense of where they can sell your book, but even more than that you should be able to know who you’ll be next to on a bookshelf so that you can read your comparison titles accordingly.

Figuring out thriller vs. mystery vs. suspense vs. urban fantasy vs. supernatural vs. horror can be difficult, I know. In these cases, it’s best to just choose the closest and let a professional decide the best way they can sell it. But the line between literary and commercial isn’t as vague. You shouldn’t claim your book is literary fiction if it isn’t. For one, it’s rare you’ll find an agent who looks for literary fiction and commercial fiction with the same fervor, if they take on both at all. You don’t want to get a rejection based on a mislabel. Secondly, literary fiction can be quite different from commercial fiction, and not learning the difference can reflect a lack of research on your part.

The common argument, however, is that all books are technically literary. Right? Well, yes and no. Saying all books are literary is like saying all Young Adult novels are about characters under 25. Young is young, right!? Except, no. YA is for teens. Young is not just “young.” Like literary vs. commercial fiction, the genre labels can be misleading, which is why it’s important to know what they mean.

If you’re unsure about which you’ve written, here’s a quick definition of each:

Literary fiction: The focus is on character arc, themes (often existential), and the use of language. I like to compare literary fiction authors to runway designers. The general public isn’t mean to wear the clothes models display on the runway. They exist to impress the other designers and show the fashion industry what they can do. Literary writing is a lot like that, but on a more accessible level. Many dismiss literary fiction as “too artsy” and “books without a plot,” but this isn’t true. At least not most of the time. The plot is there; it’s just incidental. Literary fiction is meant to make the reader reflect, and the author will almost always prefer a clever turn of phrase over plot development.

Commercial fiction: If you write genre fiction, you are likely writing commercial fiction. There is also “literary genre” fiction, such as people like David Mitchell, Aimee Bender, Margaret Atwood, Gillian Flynn, etc. Meaning their use of language is equal to their attention to genre conventions. For the purpose of this blog post, let’s pretend that when I say “genre” in place of “commercial,” I’m talking about the ones that aren’t literary or “crossover” hits. I’m referring more to the ones that only fans of that genre know to look for, and usually come in a nice convenient mass market-sized package. [There is also “upmarket” commercial fiction, which I’ll get to later.] Unlike literary fiction, genre fiction is written with a wide audience in mind (aka “commercial”) and always focuses on plot. There is still character development in genre fiction, but it is not as necessary. Characters get idiosyncratic quirks, clever dialogue, and often learn something new about life or themselves by the end. The difference is that their traits are only skin deep. The reader stays with them in the present. Rarely do we see a character’s past unless there is something pertinent to the plot back there. Genre fiction has a Point A and a Point B, and very little stands in the way of telling that story.

An agent or editor will rarely prefer you play with these formats, especially if you’re a debut author trying to find (and build) your audience. If you’re writing a plot-driven genre novel that adheres to a sci-fi, romance, or thriller structure, don’t try to load it with literary devices and huge character back-stories that aren’t relevant to the plot. It won’t impress an agent if you have a super literary genre novel. It will more likely confuse us and make your book harder to sell.

“Upmarket” fiction is where things get tricky. Readers don’t know that word and don’t care, and there’s never a reason to pitch your book as “upmarket” if it doesn’t fall within a specific genre, but if you ever hear an industry person asking for “upmarket,” we mean the type of books that straddle a literary/commercial line. Books like The Help, Water for Elephants, Eat, Pray, Love, and authors like Nick Hornby, Ann Patchet, and Tom Perrotta are considered “upmarket.” Their concepts and uses of language appeal to a wider audience, but they have a slightly more sophisticated style than traditional genre fiction, and touch on themes and emotions that go deeper than the plot. Contemporary/realistic (a.k.a. “genre-less” fiction), “women’s fiction,” or other books your book club suggests are most likely “upmarket.”

With debut authors, I think the main source of uncertainty tends to come from what they set out to write vs. what they actually write. Genre fiction is written with a clear purpose. The author has an idea and writes a story to accomplish their goal. Literary fiction can be more accidental. A writer may start with an idea, and then discover along the way that they don’t want to write about that anymore. They’ve fallen for their character’s personal tale or the images they want to evoke within the reader. If the writing ends up falling somewhere in the middle, then it might be considered “upmarket.” Or, it could mean it needs more focus one way or the other.

What’s important to remember is that none of these types of fiction is better than the other. It’s all about personal preference, based on what you like to read and how you write. If an agent doesn’t represent a certain genre, it doesn’t mean he or she think it’s bad. It just means you’re better off with someone else. Be aware that a genre label can influence an agent, but be honest about what your genre is. It wastes everyone’s time – most importantly, yours – if you try to guess what you think agents want. We want books we can fall in love with that fall under in genres and styles we represent, whether they’re young adult, adult genre fiction, or literary to a Proustian degree. That’s all.

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20 thoughts on “Literary vs. Commercial

  1. Thanks for this post Sarah! I'm still a bit confused, but less so after reading this. I think my manscript is literary fiction, but I had always assumed that that label was reserved for more “intellectual” authors, like Toni Morrison, who can be hard to follow at times because the language is so flowery. Seeing that it is a much more broad term is helpful. I felt pretentious labeling my work “literary”, but it is what it is, haha! 🙂

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  2. I'm in the process of querying. My novel is best described as that upmarket cross of literary and commercial, with a focus more on the characters than on the plot, but without the fancy literary devices. I've read various places that it's presumptuous to refer to your own book as upmarket, that that's for your agent or publishers to decide. Am I okay calling it that, or should I just stick with “women's fiction with commercial appeal” (even though I too hate the term women's fiction)?

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  3. Great blog post. I also love genre blending, as you referred to it in your comment above, especially literary science fiction. Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy and others have accomplished that kind of writing so well.

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  4. Wise words. Not labeling is an interesting approach, especially during the creative process. But take it from someone who has had work described by readers and reviewers as Lit Light, Grit Lit, Hen Lit and Cross over Inspirational, Cozy romantic light mystery (sometimes more than 2 of those terms for the same book by different people) and sold mostly as women's fiction and romance, defining what you do early on can help a writer get where they want to end up (agent/publisher/reader wise). Am taking time to work that stuff out right now before a striking out with a new venture (and having a blast just blogging in character as I do – in a land here literary labels don't matter at all)

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  5. Sarah, I refuse to call my work women's fiction since I also don't like the term. It's mainstream or upmarket, just as John Irving, but gender biased since women written. I won't go there. 😉 It also tends to be lighter than literary fiction.

    I think the line of “literary” isn't quite so cut and dry. I like the “upmarket” term, but I'm afraid it has a condescending air to it toward genre fiction. Interesting discussion. I'll share your link.

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  6. @LK – I also love genre blending (literary horror is a favorite of mine, ala Shirley Jackson). There's also “mainstream literary fiction” like Michael Chabon and Jennifer Egan (or, as Sue mentions above, many of the classics). But that's usually determined after publication. In terms of pitching to an agent, you would just say “literary” or “mainstream” or whatever the genre is. Romance is very clearly defined genre, which might be why your novel is throwing off some editors. You might want to try saying “women's fiction” (not a fan of the label personally, but it exists), or simply call it a contemporary love story.

    Most of this comes down to semantics as a means of breaking into the business. Once you're there, there's a lot more freedom to call your books whatever you want.

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  7. What you're calling upmarket sounds like what used to be called mainstream, right? Mainstream at least used to mean non-commercial/non-genre, but not quite literary. I started to call my work that but then romance publishers started calling non-erotic romance 'mainstream romance' to differentiate, although it's still genre romance. So I call my books 'literary romance' since they are character driven, with family backgrounds, the stories are society and relationship driven with themes and ponderances prevalent and plot as a general guideline, and my style is personalized. It's also highly romance based, with the main story line revolving around a couple's connection and growth. What else would I call it but literary romance? That's what it is. I've also recently seen the term literary thriller. I find the blending of genres exciting, even if it is hard to define.

    This is a big reason I didn't bother to seek out an agent or publisher. Definitely a hard sell. That doesn't mean it doesn't deserve a place in the book world.

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  8. OK, OK, OK. But aren't these labels more for commercial convenience than something that definitively categorises a book? your example at the beginning seems to prove this. What about Shakespeare? Undeniably literary, undeniably popular, populist/commercial even for his contemporaries. Dickens … I could go on.

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  9. As a debut author, this was exactly my challenge! Commercial publishers told my agent my manuscript was too literary, and literary publishers said it was too commercial. My book has since been published by a small press, but now I understand that I write “upmarket” fiction. Thank you!

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  10. Yes! Totally!

    I guess what I'm getting at is that I wish we had a better way to distinguish talking about writing style vs. genre vs. marketability since we've come to use overlapping terminology. That's why we writers snatch up blog posts like these that are trying to clear up the muddy waters 🙂

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  11. @Lauren – I don't think it would be presumptuous to say in your query something like “with commercial appeal.” But you wouldn't need to say your genre novel is commercial because it's implied. While there are niche markets for each genre (i.e. sci-fi or romance), it's accepted that they should have commercial appeal in order to compete within their market.

    I agree that literary is more of a style than a genre, but it's a very specific style that shouldn't be interchanged with “commercial drama.” In the case of genre-less commercial novels, you should say “upmarket,” “contemporary,” or if it's not contemporary, “historical.”

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  12. @juniperjenny – hey, we have some of the same favorite authors! 🙂

    I think Sarah demonstrates why we ought to stop using 'genre' and 'commercial' interchangeably to mean 'as opposed to literary'. In my mind, commercial is a separate concept from genre vs. literary. Genre fiction can be commercial, a la “The DaVinci Code”, and literary fiction can be commercial, a la “Freedom”. 'Commercial' is intended to convey marketability, not categorization.

    On that note, I feel like using the 'commercial' label to describe *intended* audience is kind of meaningless. In the end, a book is only commercial once it's been proven and sold a lot of books. If “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” had only seen modest success we'd all just be filing it squarely on the historical fantasy shelf, wouldn't we?

    So on that note – would it be presumptuous to describe your manuscript as 'commercial' in your query letter? I think so. Instead if you want to convey that your genre story might have mainstream appeal, wouldn't it be better to just couch it that way?

    Of course I also think that literary/genre is a weird dichotomy too, for the reasons juniperjenny notes. Is Margaret Atwood really a 'crossover' writer? Can't literary just be a style, i.e. focus on prose and character instead of just plot, as opposed it its own genre? George Orwell and Suzanne Collins both wrote dystopias, but one is literary and the other is not.

    I feel like sometimes we call something 'literary' just because it doesn't fit in any of the other defined genres and we don't seem to like to use just plain old 'Drama' as its own genre in fiction.

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  13. I suppose based on this, my writing is more commercial. I read a lot of YA and I'd probably say the ones with a lot of plot are the ones that get my attention. That said, if a character doesn't feel real, properly developed, or someone I can relate to, that's something that will drag me out of the story pretty quick.

    It's interesting that this isn't something I've given much thought to. I've been too focused on differentiating between the fantasy/paranormal romance/urban fantasy genres.

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  14. Very interesting, though I can't help but notice that most of my favorite authors exist firmly within the intersection of literary and commercial (Margaret Atwood, Neal Stephenson, Susanna Clarke). I wonder if they'd have found it more difficult to market themselves as debut authors in this day and age.

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  15. I was worried when I first saw the title of this post, but I'm glad you came to the conclusion that nothing is “better” than anything else. I was at a YA conference last year that seemed to push commercial fiction so much. I love commercial fiction, but I'm more worried about following the characters than the plot or concept, so this was largely confusing advice. Also I got so much advice about writing for the market. “What do teenagers like to read? Write that.” Um, no thanks. I'll just write my story and if it's good for teenagers, great. If it ends up being adult, that's great too.

    (That got off topic from your post at the end. I just have ANGST.)

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