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Literary Fiction vs. Commercial Fiction? How can one even tell the difference between the two?

Which type should you write? As a fiction writer you will often have these questions going on in your mind.

But you need not worry, as we are going to explain in detail all the differences between these two categories of fiction.

The Difference between Literary Fiction and Commercial Fiction

Although the difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction does exist, it’s also quite subtle. The lines between the two can and often do become blur.

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In a way, the two categories also sum up varying attitudes to writing fiction. While literary fiction aims to give a true picture of human condition, commercial fiction aims to entertain.

Let’s list down the some distinctive features of each of these types of fiction.

Commercial Fiction

Commercial fiction is also known as genre fiction or category fiction because books of this type can fall into various genres like such as romance, comedy, horror, mystery, and thriller etc.

Consequently, it places greater emphasis on a clear and distinct plot while other aspects like characterization, exploration of theme and fine writing are not dealt with seriousness.

It Appeals to the Masses

This type of fiction is created keeping the audience in mind and for that reason it’s often referred to as popular fiction. The aim of the writing is to reach to a wider reader base. It can also be written for book lovers that gravitate towards a particular genre such as mystery, fantasy, history, action etc.

So these books can be easily marketed to an established readership. The idea is to attract more readers and offer them the entertainment they’re looking for.

Features Conventional Storytelling

Genre fiction usually follows a somewhat predictable flow of events. Typically it begins with the exposition of the world and characters, followed by a conflict that interrupts the story. Rising action then walks readers into the climax of the story that finally ends with a satisfying resolution.

Commercial fiction focuses more on reader's entertainment

Entertainment is Key

Most, if not all, commercial fiction books are meant to entertain readers. They provide them a riveting story that makes them travel into a world away from reality. A great example is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

It’s Plot Driven

The plot is the most important factor in commercial fiction novel. You will definitely find a lot of interesting characters in the story, but there won’t be a lot of depth or layers into them as the book will revolve around the story rather than the individual characters.

It’s going to be about the characters navigating a unique world.

The characters may have some inner struggles but their primary purpose would be to serve the plot.

Main Character Emerges Victorious or Defeated

The main character will be shown to have a certain level of supremacy in the defined world. The plot will be based on how the protagonist fights with the challenges and situations that come their way to finally emerge triumphant or defeated. 

There Will Usually Be a Happy Ending

By the end of a popular fiction piece, you will mostly find conflict resolution, answers to burning questions and, all in all, a tidy ending where characters go back to their normal state.

Language and Dialogue Are Plain

Popular fiction is characterized by language that is plainer and closer to day to day spoken language. Use of dialogue is also generous. Moreover, because writers write as they speak, the dialogue is packed with language of everyday life.

Easy to Market and Sell

For all the reasons mentioned above, commercial fiction is easier to sell to public and understandably so. The vast majority of readers are looking for entertaining books that belong to genres they enjoy reading. These also give them a much needed escape from reality.

Literary Fiction

Literary fiction focuses more on artistic prose and does not necessarily fit into any particular genre. Additionally, it comprises of the heart and soul of a writer’s being, who, through the symphony of words makes the reader experience an emotional journey.

Literary books are more about style, imagery and language. They also provide writers a larger room for character exploration and deep diving into the setting and theme.

There Are No Boundaries or Rules

Literary fiction doesn’t follow any rules. The writer doesn’t have to adhere to any particular genre or feel bound by generally accepted norms. He’s free to take risks to offer something original, exciting and unnerving.

English writer, George Orwell, challenged the idea of good conquering evil in his literary novel Nineteen Eight-Four.

The Storytelling Is Innovative

The literary fiction writer is able to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable and at times, the results are amazing. As the story unfolds, the reader is never quite sure where the adventure will take them.

The Focus Is on Character Rather Than the Plot

A unique attribute of literary fiction is that it creates unforgettable characters that stay with you for a long time.

Just like genre fiction is tied to its plot, literary fiction shares the same bond with its characters. There is extensive exploration and development of the characters’ emotions, thoughts and motivations. As a result, the plot is quieter and revolves around the characters and their lives. Thus, readers have to dig in to find the plot and excavate meaning.

In literary fiction, action doesn’t just drive the characters; you also get to see how every action affects the character. This is what drives the story forward.

Exploration of Human Condition

Unlike genre fiction, literary fiction doesn’t take readers away from reality. It makes sense of the world around us by extensively showcasing human behaviors and conditions. Readers can connect with the characters more deeply.

The Language Is Often Complex

Literary authors use language with great skill and art, giving a forceful punch with every line. The use of metaphors and imagery is widespread. Also, there is lesser dialogue as compared to popular fiction.

The Ending Could Be Unclear

As there are no rules, literary fiction can challenge the reader’s expectation of a closure and definitive conclusion. This is probably because real life is more complicated than well crafted plots. So there are confusions, blank spaces and broken fragments.

Literary fiction ends up receiving most of the prestigious awards

More Likely to Bag Awards

Because they bring up unique perspectives and styles of writing, works of literary fiction receive more critical acclaim and awards.

To sum it up, we’ll just say that neither does literary fiction have to be boring nor does commercial fiction equate with lack of substance.

You can write a highly literary novel that can have a massive public appeal. Some excellent examples that also support this are The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkin and Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.

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