Commercial fiction is a type of fiction that caters to a mass audience and has the potential to sell a lot of copies, so it’s written in a way that it’s accessible, easily understandable, and can be enjoyed by people from all walks of life.
In general, this type of fiction is read more for its entertainment value than its artistic quality. This has led some people to form the opinion that it isn’t as good as literary fiction. But is it?
Commercial Fiction vs. Literary Fiction
Commercial fiction (also known as Genre fiction, Mainstream fiction, and Popular fiction) is one of the two main categories of fiction. In general, it is more plot-driven than character-driven, with narratives that tend to be distinct and easily understandable.
One of its most important characteristics is that its stories can be classified into a specific literary genre. As such, they use themes, tropes, techniques, styles, and tones that set them apart from stories in other genres. Examples of popular commercial fiction genres include thriller, fantasy, science fiction, crime, horror, and romance.
Because of this, commercial fiction reaches a broad range of audiences that primarily read it for entertainment. Not only is this fiction easy to get into, but readers can quickly immerse themselves into a story through familiar genre elements.
In contrast, literary fiction is any work of fiction that’s considered to have literary merit—the quality of a story to be considered art. It’s considered by some people to be more intelligent than its counterpart. There’s more focus on the style and characterization, with its audience reading for its artistry and depth rather than just for entertainment.
Literary fiction often takes on grand or complicated subjects such as philosophical musings, social issues, and political arguments. This, combined with its writing styles and frequent experimentation of literary forms, can make it somewhat difficult to digest and classify into any genre.
Let’s put it this way: any novel your university puts into its curricula is almost guaranteed to be literary fiction, while the popular stories everyone’s talking about are commercial fiction.
Here is a simplified comparison between the two:
|Commercial Fiction||Literary Fiction|
|Read more for entertainment||Read more for its artistic quality|
|Easily classified into a genre||Does not fit neatly into any genre|
|Plot is mostly straightforward and easy to understand||Usually tackles complicated subjects|
|Easily marketable; popular among a wide variety of readers||Has a smaller market and high sales can be hard to achieve unless a work is associated with a prominent literary prize.|
This is not to say that the two are completely separate, nor is it any indication that one’s better than the other. They’re simply different, written with different goals and different audiences in mind.
The largest qualities that divide the two are simply their accessibility, readability and relatability. Commercial fiction can be easier to reach, understand, and connect with. Literary fiction can be hard to get into, but may offer more artistic value to the reader. Both work in different situations.
And they do overlap. Many novels can fall between both these two territories. Take Cormac McCarthy as an example. Most of his works (The Road, Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men) can be classified as Western or Post-apocalyptic, genres that cater to many people, but he is also known for layering themes and adding depth to his writing.
One of his best qualities as a writer is his unique writing style, frequently foregoing punctuation and attribution to create a flowing and immersive story.
Myths About Commercial Fiction
There’s a well-established prejudice against commercial fiction, mainly from an elitist point of view. While there’s a lot of discussion of why literary fiction is better, all of them seem to devolve into a case of “more complicated = better.” That’s just being pretentious.
That kind of thinking is an easy way of limiting your reading habits, depriving you of many works that may or may not benefit your life. It’s hard enough to get people into reading; adding more obstacles will not lead to a better reading experience.
Here are some of the common arguments and prejudices against commercial fiction:
Commercial fiction is low quality
Admittedly, there are badly written commercial books our there—but that’s true for literary fiction too. This flaw is also more on the writer’s skills and experience than a failure of an entire classification of fiction.
The thing is, there are a lot more bad works of commercial literature out there than there is literary fiction simply because it’s a more accessible format. Take 50 Shades of Grey, for example. Though it’s a successful series, it’s not exactly an example of good writing. It’s full of cliches, poor descriptions, and awkward dialogue.
Some people will take that as proof that commercial fiction is indeed low quality. But if you consider that there are a lot more writers and readers on the side of commercial fiction, you begin to realize how unfair it is to make that conclusion. Bad writing is simply more noticeable in this category because it’s more visible to people.
Most readers become aware of literary fiction when a book wins a prestigious award; the bad examples simply don’t get as much attention.
High-quality prose is important for both categories. In literary fiction, that means the artistic usage of themes, characters, and styles to create a meaningful work of literature. For commercial fiction, it means clear, consistent, and enjoyable storytelling.
Commercial fiction is lowbrow
There’s this persistent idea that commercial fiction is less complicated, less artistic, and below literary fiction. That, in order to reach a wide variety of people, these works are intentionally simple and undemanding. But that’s a fallacy.
While there is truth to it leaning more towards straightforward plots and less use of symbolism and allegories, this does not necessarily mean that it’s inferior. In commercial fiction, the economy of words and minimal use of literary devices are more about the clarity of a work of literature.
Commercial fiction can be written in simple language and style but also tackle deep concepts. For example, George R.R. Martin’s popular A Song of Ice and Fire series caters to the majority of fantasy fans but presents a complicated political world that people say is similar to modern politics.
And while literary fiction takes advantage of literary devices and experimentation to exhibit artistic value, it runs the risk of isolating readers. You may have constructed a beautifully complex metaphor, but the reader may not necessarily understand your meaning.
All of this simply means that there’s a wide range of things readers find enjoyable in terms of entertainment and artistry. After all, people aren’t confined to reading one type of literature.
There are times when the distinction between literary and commercial fiction is important. As a writer, it’s good to know what kind of fiction you’re writing. It tells people that you’re knowledgeable about what you write, letting readers see that you’re serious about your craft.
Understanding the distinction can also guide your approaches when it comes to editing, publishing, and marketing. Agents and publishers will know how to better treat a book if they know what type of fiction it is and what genre.
As a reader, knowing what type of fiction you like makes it infinitely easier to find works that you’ll be interested in. Genre fans are able to distinguish books that they’ll more likely love from all the books that are flooding the market.
Don’t get caught up with their differences, though. Enjoy them as they are. With the constant development of literature, the divide between the two might soon become moot, anyway.
Which category of fiction do you prefer reading? Share it in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this post, then you might also like:
- Literary Fiction: Definition and Characteristics
- The Most Popular Fiction Genres: Definitions and Examples
- Exploring Speculative Fiction: Your Guide to this Super-Genre
- Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Breaking Down the Differences
Cole is a blog writer and aspiring novelist. He has a degree in Communications and is an advocate of media and information literacy and responsible media practices. Aside from his interest in technology, crafts, and food, he’s also your typical science fiction and fantasy junkie, spending most of his free time reading through an ever-growing to-be-read list. It’s either that or procrastinating over actually writing his book. Wish him luck!