Literary or Commercial Fiction – What’s the Difference?

Recently, I read a Facebook post from a fellow member of the Romance Writers of Australia that lamented over a speech they had heard from Paula Hawkins, author of “Girl on the Train”, where she apparently dissed chick lit. But that wasn’t what grabbed me about the discussion. It was a post that suggested that the book was actually Commercial fiction, rather than Literary fiction. I was confused. How can you tell?

What is commercial fiction? Literary fiction? Upmarket? Mainstream? Genre fiction?

Did it matter?

Should I be hurt that the books I was writing might never be considered to be Literary fiction? Should I be aiming for that?

When an agent or a publisher says those things, what are they talking about?

I felt a bit like this guy.


So, I did a little research. It’s my thing, alright? Geez. And I came up with the following:

Literary Fiction

Literary fiction is written for art’s sake.

It is not written with a view to mass appeal (even though that might happen).

It’s pace is slower, with perhaps moments of fast pacing.

I disagree with the people who say it is “character-driven” while commercial fiction is “plot-driven”. They obviously have never read a pure romance novel.

Some say the craft and quality of language are better in Literary fiction – I disagree. I would hope that when most writers write, they don’t try to ‘dumb it down’ for their readers. However, it is widely acknowledged that Literary writers do tend to use more flowery language. That I can agree with.

Commercial Fiction

Commercial fiction is written for entertainment’s sake.

It is written with a view to achieving mass appeal, mass sales and mass smiles from publishers.

It has a satisfying ending. Not always a nice ending. Unless you write romance, then there MUST be a Happily Ever After (or a Happily For Now)

It’s generally fast paced, with moments of quiet.


Those distinctions are fairly easy to make. Did you write it purely for yourself, or with a view to mass appeal? What pace does it run at? Is the main purpose art or entertainment?

It’s when the two cross over each other that the distinctions mainstream and upmarket are used. Usually, mainstream works are those that a publisher thinks they can sell to the wider public, and upmarket is a term they tend to use when literary fiction crosses the divide into commercial.

Genre fiction is the breakdown between the categories of commercial fiction. Romance, mystery, suspense/thriller, historical, science-fiction, horror…

Does it matter?

If you are trying to have a book published, yes, it matters. You need to know where your book fits, so that you can pitch to the publishers most likely to print.

If you are a reader, yes, it matters. You need to know where to look for the type of books you want to read. However, I’d also suggest you expand your boundaries – if you’ve not read a ‘literary fiction’ book, give it a try. Start with an ‘upmarket’ one – one that started life as literary fiction, but grew in popularity.  If you don’t read commercial fiction, give it a try. Choose something that stretches your boundaries.

I will never write Literary fiction.

When I first started writing for more than just fun, I was all jealous of the people who wrote Literary fiction. They get all the accolades, they get all the awards, they get all the cocktail parties.

But I read something in Robert J Sawyer’s explanation of the difference between Literary and Commercial fiction that made me smile:

Literary merit is often found in commercial fiction including that subset of commercial fiction called genre fiction.

That is what I will be aiming for – literary merit. Not writing a stupid book, but a well thought, well researched story whose purpose is to entertain the masses.

After all, I write commercial fiction, right?


(Incidentally, using the above descriptions, Girl on the Train falls directly into the commercial fiction bucket – Paula Hawkins wrote it because she was broke and needed the funds… so it was written with a view to mass appeal…)

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Literary or Commercial Fiction – What’s the Difference?
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