How can you tell the difference between commercial and literary fiction? It’s one of the very most common questions out there in the publishing world.
This question came up when I was on a panel at a writers’ conference, and everyone had a different answer:
- Some people feel that commercial fiction emphasizes plot whereas literary fiction emphasizes characters.
- Others feel that literary fiction emphasizes unique prose whereas commercial fiction is more straightforward.
- Still others stick to the “I know it when I see it” defense
- Then of course there’s the cynical “literary fiction is that which does not sell” definition.
Complicating any delineation are genre busters like Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard, who write genre fiction and have plot heavy books but are considered literary.
What, dare I ask, are we to make of all of this?
Literary fiction should still have a plot
First off, I’d like to bust one of the most common myths about literary fiction, which is that literary novels don’t have a plot or don’t need one.
So much of the literary fiction I used to receive in the old query inbox when I was a literary agent was plotless. It was just a character musing about the vagaries and eccentricities of everyday existence. The prose was lush, the character detailed, but one problem — absolutely nothing was happening and thus it was (forgive me) extremely boring and I couldn’t have sold it in a million years.
Good literary fiction has a plot.
It starts in one place and ends in another. The characters face challenges and evolve. Even in quiet books like Gilead (a seriously amazing book), things happen. A literary novel might not end in a shootout or with the death of an albino and the essence of the story may take a while to emerge, but there’s a plot there.
Here’s my delineation of the difference between commercial and literary fiction:
In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface, and in literary fiction the prose has a unique, distinctive style.
The world of genre fiction
Here’s what I mean.
Most genre fiction involves a character propelling themselves through a world.
The protagonist is usually an one who goes out into a world on a literal quest, experiences the challenges of that world, and emerges either triumphant or defeated.
Think about every genre novel you’ve ever read: sci-fi, westerns, romances chick lit, thrillers…. They are all about a character going out and doing something, bumping up against the challenges of the world they live in, and trying to achieve their goal. Sure, the character might have an inner struggle and be a richly rendered character, but for the most part genre novels are about the exterior — they are about how a character navigates a unique world with its own set of rules.
So the plot in a genre novel usually involves things happening — action sequences, love sequences, chases, shootouts…. The best genre novels fold these action sequences with the inner life of a character, but make no mistake: genre novels are really about how a character interacts with the world.
The things that happen are pretty much on the surface, and thus the reader can sit back and watch and see what happens.
The world of literary fiction
Now consider literary fiction. In literary fiction the plot usually happens beneath the surface, in the minds and hearts of the characters. Things may happen on the surface, but what is really important are the thoughts, desires, and motivations of the characters as well as the underlying social and cultural threads that act upon them.
The plot may be buried to such a degree (like Gilead) that if you have to describe the book in a short sentence it seems plotless — an old man writes a letter to his young son and reflects on his life. There doesn’t seem to be a plot there.
But there is a plot in Gilead. The main character wants something, he goes after it, and he encounters obstacles along the way. He tries to come to terms with his life and reconcile his desire to leave something behind for his son with his impending mortality. Gilead has all the ups and downs of a genre novel, but the plot points are subtle, they relate to the emotional life of the protagonist, and the climaxes and nadirs are almost hidden in quiet moments and small-but-powerful revelations.
Even when the prose is straightforward, literary fiction is more challenging to read than genre fiction because it requires the reader to infer a great deal of the plot rather than simply sitting back and watching the plot unfold. It requires empathy to relate to characters as humans and to deduce the hidden motivations and desires that lurk beneath their actions. The reader has to recognize the small turning points and the low points and the high points based on what they know of the character and about human nature.
And there’s a reason very few literary novels end with a shootout (er, except for The House of Sand and Fog)–what happens out in the world isn’t as important in literary novels as what happens within the minds of the characters, and thus the climax might be something as small as a decision or a new conviction.
A unique style
But perhaps the most important distinguishing characteristic of literary fiction comes to style.
What you will often hear is that literary fiction is “beautifully written.” What, exactly, does that mean?
Well, it’s subjective. There’s absolutely a “I know it when I see it” barometer. Literary authors have distinct, polished prose, and that authorial voice is what sets literary fiction apart from genre fiction. The prose elevates the novels into something approaching art, even when a literary novel has a genre-ish plot.
But the most important element here is that literary fiction has a unique style. You could pick up a page at random from Ernest Hemingway, Donna Tartt, Ian McEwan, Toni Morrison, and you’d have a pretty good shot at guessing who the author is.
What hybrids can tell us
There’s a reason there are genre busters like Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard, as well as the hybrid genre of commercial literary fiction.
These novels tend to be accessible, but they have a deeper emotional complexity a a singular authorial style. They fuse the out-in-the-world plotting of genre fiction with the in-the-mind plotting of literary fiction. The novels have traditional climaxes that also resolve the inner battles of their characters.
And if you picked up a page at random, chances are you would know it was written by McCarthy or Leonard because of their style.
In the end, a literary novel should still be as finely plotted as a genre novel, and anyone who ignores plot does so at their extreme peril. Just because the plot in literary fiction is harder to spot doesn’t mean it’s not there.
What do you think? What makes a literary novel literary?
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Chloe Sencounter says
Hi Everyone, thoroughly enjoyed reading your comments regarding literary fiction and as a result would really appreciate any suggestions you could make on mine.
It's a kind of digital/interactive multi conciousness layered and complex theory in action. And it's meant to be witty!
The basic story involves a Middle aged woman in Britain who makes a wish to be a Fairy Godmother and grant wishes to deserving people who come to ask while she's in her favourite chat rooms on AOL.
She encourages those who'd like to make people happy, if they're GOOD, to support her.
A Real Fairy Godmother?
What would YOU Do?
I love depth psychology and paralinguistics along with Neo-Stoicsm and of course… Postmodernism.
(what's life with a few ism's anyway?)
Diane Thomas says
Thank you, thank you. Had been wondering the same thing myself. Love the "commercial literary fiction" designation. Gives us all someplace to put the books we can't decide about. Does raise the spectre, though, that most literary fiction is not commercial. I may be somewhat gun shy, having just come from reading a poetry blog that said that, basically, literary novelists ought to downsize our economic expectations and regard our work as poets do theirs, as something between an addiction and a hobby (my paraphrase). Ah, well, we do what we do. As for me, I had to put off writing literary fiction until I retired, was lucky to get publisihed, and now have a wonderful second career. Wish I had known at twenty this was what I wanted to do and gone the MFA track.
Paul Dillon says
Great post! You've probably got the elevator pitch answer to "What's literary fiction?" down by now. I just finished my first novel which would not fit into any genre. When asked about genre, I have to go with literary fiction but, as you point out, that's such a nebulous term. I like your idea about the plot being below the surface. I need to work on a cool 10 second explanation.
Koala Bear Writer says
Thank you – this is one of the best explanations for "literary fiction" that I've found. I've struggled with defining it myself but I like what say about interior/exterior plot. That and go read a bunch of literary novels – you'll get a "feeling" about what's different from genre fiction, but you've put that "feeling" into words here.
Now the question is, are there rules for writing genre fiction that do not apply to literary fiction? Specifically, is it okay if your first chapter spends a great deal of time on backstory?
Mark Beyer says
Nathan — you've struck it spot on. There is plenty of genre fiction out there that indeed works as literature (early Peter Straub; sci-fi's Larry Niven). Plot is not paramount to literary fiction, yet its importance for story movement makes even the densest work (eg, Joyce) brings you along to the next scene.
I'll take your definition one step further: scene development drives any story, be it internal or out in the world; and good characters should, for the literary novel especially (but not exclusively), drive story movement and pacing.
Thank you for writing this blog!! I'm in a fiction writing class at my university, and on the first day, the teacher informed us that no genre fiction would be accepted, that we had to writ literary fiction. My first response was, "What the heck is literary fiction???" She didn't have a good answer for me; she just told me to read the stories in our text and I would see. However, even after reading your blog, I still have no clue how I'm going to write literary fiction, when I mainly read and write genre fiction. Your blog has helped clear up some of my questions. Now the only question I have left: How do I write literary fiction???
Thanks for your blog, though! It was great!
You wrote of literary writing: It requires empathy to relate to characters as humans…
I think that the same applies to "commercial" fiction. I can't read anything unless I can relate to the characters at some level.
I think it could be classified as 'default' fiction, which would then be a sort of non-classification, or in Plato's world, it would exist as the form of fiction. One could say that it is the glove of fiction, but not the shoe, since the shoe is too close to the ground. Fiction must fly and be a flying glove, fitting or fit for the perfect hand.
loved reading your post… i was cud-chewing on the idea of 'what makes literary fiction literary' from the moment i got up today… there was a floating world of views in my mind… thanks to your post it is a little more crystalline in nature now… but i need to delve deeper into the question… once i come to a conclusion (which may take a long time), let's have a freewheeling chat on it… what say?
So often when I am searching for the answer to random questions (maybe procrastinating on writing a difficult scene…) one of your blog posts shows up and I know it will be worth my time. I was nodding throughout this post. I've been wondering what makes literary fiction vs. commercial and your explanation makes so much sense.
Linda Lee Williams says
Some of my favorite novels combine commercial fiction with literary fiction. When I read Steinbeck's East of Eden, I realized I had landed in the sweet spot between the two. The plot hums along quietly while the characters negotiate their way through the world. The emotion is powerful, and the narrative sweeps you away. When a story draws you in for no apparent reason, you have crossed over into the literary realm.
I agree with your definition. I have read such types of novels and they are an enjoyable read when they have beautiful prose and a good plot.
Jeff McMahon says
Nathan, after reading all this, and particularly your succinct reference to plot occurring above the surface (Commercial) versus plot occurring below the surface (Literary), it seems to me that Commercial fiction is that which can be transposed to the screen, whereas Literary fiction might (emphasise ‘might’) be adapted for the stage.
B. B Fitton says
Literary fiction does not have to have a plot. None of Beckett’s work had a plot and most of Kafka’s only pretends to. Coover has possible plots, but we never know what they really are. Camus uses an idea in place of plot.
Literary fiction is like love: magical, unique, mysterious, and no-one truly knows exactly how or why it works, but it does. It may seem to draw you in for no apparent reason. There will be a reason: you may understand it, but not yet, or maybe never.
That’s why it is studied and even critics and professors don’t ultimately agree on every element of it. There is a book group devoted to studying Joyce’s Ulysses. They’ve been going for years and are still only on page 44.
That’s how I feel when I read literary fiction: In love. While I can feel uncomfortable, unsure and bewildered, none of that takes away the beauty of that unique and special place.
Reading it is like when you find a special piece of poetry or a painting that touches you. It worms its way inside you, and won’t ever leave. To twist a famous quotation: “People may forget what [literary fiction] said or did, but they’ll never forget how [it] made them feel.”
On the surface level, I think you’ve nailed it.
At the same time, this post reminds me of Orson Scott Card’s “M.I.C.E. quotient.” (Look it up if you’re not familiar with it.)
The problem in the marketplace, IMO, is that much genre/commercial fiction is literary in quality, and so many people refuse to acknowledge that. It’s all about the dominant aspect of a story, which allows the marketplace to park it in one category or another.