Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

What’s the difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction?

The distinction between literary fiction and commercial fiction isn’t straightforward. Some chalk it up to language, categorizing artful and stylistic use as literary. Others put the dividing line at action, with commercial fiction focusing more on plot and literary fiction emphasizing character. Still others look at the numbers, deeming work that has the potential to sell well commercial.

Conversations surrounding the definitions of these terms have also sparked debate in the writing community. Some writers prefer to cast aside these labels. In 2006, novelist and short story writer John Updike wrote, “But let me add that I am dismayed by the recent rise of the term ‘literary fiction,’ denoting a genre almost as rarefied and special and ‘curious’ in its appeal, to contemporary Americans, as poetry.” More recently, novelist Elizabeth Edmondson dismissed the label: “It was clever marketing by publishers to set certain contemporary fiction apart and declare it Literature—and therefore Important, Art, and somehow better than other writing.”

This whole issue is further complicated by the fact that these two categories aren’t always separate. Many works fall into both categories. Cormac McCarthy is often cited as a writer whose works is both literary and commercial.

So, what are you—as a writer—supposed to do when you need to untangle these terms? They certainly come up in listings for agents and publishers and you may want to use one to describe your work. It’s important, of course, to know and acknowledge that this debate exists and that there are variations on the definitions. Do some of your own reading and thinking about this. What differences do you notice and value when you read commercial and literary fiction? If you’re submitting to a certain agent who states a preference for literary fiction, check out the work the agent has represented. What commonalities do you see? Does your fiction share these? If you are labeling your own work in a query letter or in a conversation with an editor at a conference, it may help to take a moment to pinpoint where your use of the term falls within the range of possible definitions. It’s best to keep this clear and concise.