Literary Fiction vs. Commercial Fiction: What's the difference and what do I classify my WIP as?


The classification of your novel or short story is crucial to getting it seen and finding the right audience. What sells in Horror doesn't sell in Fantasy. Each genre has its own conventions you may (or may not) follow (but you need to know them either way).


So, what's the difference?



Literary Fiction puts the art (or character) first. So, in LitFic, the author might keep a super deep metaphor at the risk of isolating the reader to preserve the art. You'll see a lot of this with writers like Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. They use long, elaborate metaphors-- conceits-- to elevate their writing. John Donne is also known for his metaphysical conceits and wonderful use of language.


Some really popular books that are classified as Literary Fiction are Of Mice and Men, The Handmaid's Tale, Things Fall Apart, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Bell Jar, The House on Mango Street, The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime, and so many more! What sets these books apart from commercial fiction are their unique use and command of the language as well as the manner in which the authors use figurative and literary devices. They don't rely on convention.


Another common quality if Literary fiction is the novels are often character driven as opposed to plot driven. The plot it less obvious and not as big of a chunk of the story. You're gonna have to really look for it.


Okay, and what's commercial fiction?




Commercial fiction is much more clear cut. The plot is easy to find, and it most often drives the book. The majority of the events in the book are all working towards the final goal of the protagonist, the finish line, so to speak. They all fit easily into a genre.


The main character has a level of mastery or is really good at something. They know their place. Action is rampant and sequences such as car chases and shoot outs happen. Everything that happens is explicit. There's nothing to dig for.


Some great commercial fiction are Gone Girl, Crazy Rich Asians,The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter, The Divergent Series, The Alchemist, Life of Pi, The Book of Negroes, etc. These all are iconic in their genres and targeted for those who read them.


Now that we've learned about both, let's review:


Literary Fiction

  • Character Driven

  • Puts the art form first

  • The plot is more within the mind and hearts of the characters

  • The thoughts, desires and motivations of the character are front and centreUnderlying social and cultural threads will impact the story

  • The plot is less obvious

Commercial Fiction

  • Plot driven

  • A clearly defined world within which the characters exist

  • The main character emerges triumphant or defeated

  • The main character has a certain level of mastery in that defined world

  • Action sequences

  • What unfolds is really happening on the surface

  • A clear and very distinct plot

  • Primarily read for entertainment (though, of course, it has a message)

Keep in mind that all of these are general, so there are books with characteristics of Literary Fiction that belong in commercial and vice versa.


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