1. DueNorth
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    DueNorth Active Member

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    Distinction betw literary and commercial fiction

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by DueNorth, Oct 3, 2015.

    I'm wondering how absolute the distinction is between literary and commercial or genre fiction. I have an opportunity to meet a few times with a writer's group to see if it is a good fit (both ways). They focus on commercial fiction: mystery, thrillers, romance, horror, sci-fi. The novel WIP I have going has elements of mystery and intrigue, but my writing style is reflective, and the MC struggles with loss, identity, conflicts about violence, relationships, and revenge--so my story is not just action and has some psychological and social themes. I tend towards a descriptive style. So I really have thought of myself more in the literay fiction camp. I realize that perhaps I will only know if this group can work for me after I attend a few meetings, but it's got me thinking about whether these categories need to be mutually exclusive. I'm curious what others think and whether you can cite examples of authors who seem to straddle this "boundary."
     
  2. Acidveins
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    Acidveins Member

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    This is a sore spot for me.

    "Literary fiction", in my opinion, is a term designed to undermine people who write in genre fictions. What is literary fiction? Generally people will define it as a story that is predominantly focused on characterisation. One where a character goes through some change in terms of personality or thought process.

    So what is the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction? Nothing. Genre fiction can, and usually, includes both of the previously mentioned ideas. Good genre fiction does, anyways.

    Here are a few examples:
    Frankenstein genre: horror/sci-fi Literary fiction? Absolutely
    1984 Genre: sci-fi. Literary fiction? 100% yes

    There are many more, this just from the top of my brain. Obviously, I don't buy into the holy than thou "literary fiction" idealology. It's simply fictional. :)
     
  3. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Vladimir Nabokov - Lolita - is part roadtrip noir & literary
    Margaret Atwood - Onyx and Krake - Literary & dystopian sci fi
    Kurt Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse 5 - Sci Fi & literary
    Angela Carter - The Company of Wolves - fairy tale & literary
    Shelley Kratz - Alligator - Horror & literary
    Cormac McCarthy - The Road - dystopian & literary
    Jose Saramago - Blindness - dystopian & literary
    George Orwell - 1984 -dystopian & literary
    Charlotte Bronte - Jane Eyre - romance & literary

    Genre gets a bad rap but sometimes deservedly so it pretends to be the underdog while thinking that literary cruises around like the popular bitch in school that no one really likes. The trouble is they're not that exclusive and both need each other. Genre has more sense when it comes to plot and getting your reader to turn the page. But literary also has more balls in forcing the writer to bring out his own uniqueness to the story and not lean on tropes.
     
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  4. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I don't think genre has anything to do with the literary/commercial dimension. There is such a thing as literary science fiction and such a thing as commercial science fiction. There's literary romance and commercial romance. Etc.

    I think of literary fiction as deeper, more thought-provoking than commercial fiction. It deals with characters, their psychologies, their philosophies, and so on more than on the basic plot. Usually the style is more sophisticated than that of commercial fiction.

    When I think of commercial fiction, I think of Dan Brown: preposterous, lurid plots, minimal character development, lots of bizarreness to distract you from the fact that there's no there there. When I think of literary fiction, I think of writers like Joseph Conrad, Anthony Burgess, Ernest Hemingway, and so on. Realistic plots (sometimes not much plot at all), but an awful lot going on in character development. Literary fiction is fascinating; commercial fiction is, to me, mostly time-wasting.

    Sorry if I sound like a literary snob, but I guess I am. :eek:
     
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  5. Kingtype
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    Kingtype Always writing or thinking things XD Staff Role Play Moderator Contributor

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    Hmmm beats me.

    I suppose I have a bit of an idea as we've engaged this topic on many occasion on this forum, in fact when I first started writing and still now I do write fantasy and crime and all sorts of things but I got into writing because of what most would call commercial fiction I assume.

    I love that stuff and I still think its good.

    Though also attempt to do a lot of coming of age and just general life things.

    I love Stephen King, Jim Butcher, Terry Pratchett (though a lot of people on here consider him literary as well), a lot of crime fiction authors I like such as Robert Parker, the old pulps and just everything. I think that stuff is great writing!

    Now maybe not for the wording itself but the authors, stories and characters of those work inspired me to do what I'm doing now and it spoke to me, still does. I of course now have gone back and read the classics such as Dostoyesvsky, Dumas, Joyce, old fairy tales, Eric Remarque and they've come to influence my work just as much. Ironically enough as @minstrel regarding characters and psychology that is often what me to the more commercial authors at first were because of realistic characters (and the development) and I think both do a wonderful job of that.

    I think that's my only real rule for reading and writing.

    That the characters have to be interesting and they have to resonate and feel like real people even if the setting is normal or just fantastical or if its literary or commercial. I've some others pet peeves as well (such as I dislike Dan Brown's work for various reasons) but the character part is me biggest.

    So these days I try not to worry about if I'm doing something that's more commercial or literary and just sorta do it XD

    Hmmmm its hard to explain really.

    I guess my point is try to not worry about which it is and just do it :) either way just make sure you had a great time writing it, practice your craft, work hard to make it as good as you can and it is sure to touch someone's heart no matter what its classified as. :D
     
    Last edited: Oct 4, 2015
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  6. Michael Pless
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    Michael Pless Active Member

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    When I did my writing course, many of my classmates favoured "mainstream" (their term for non-genre), and were contemptuous of anything that was "commercial" (it was used in a quite derogatory manner). To express my ire, I quickly branded mainstream as "unpopular" and at times "something nobody wants to read". (Because the literary section of any bookstores in Australia consists of several shelves, whereas genre is given pretty much half the store or more. Plus literary invariably means one print run only.) This didn't endear me to my classmates, but if you get enough comments like, "I couldn’t critique your work because I don't know anything about commercial fiction", it rankles after a while.

    Returning to the OP's question. An author gave a brief seminar about her work in one of my classes. It was, she said not commercial or "plot-driven", but mainstream or "character-driven" where her characters always have freedom to make choices. Within this framework, I guess Raiders of the Lost Ark, could be construed as character-driven, though to me, it's just a rollicking good adventure. Indiana Jones doesn't have to go chasing after the Ark, and nobody would have thought ill of him if he gave up once the Ark was on the submarine, yet he chose to go after it. James Bond movies, though, seem to be quite plot-driven. M gives Bond his orders and he's obliged to carry them out.

    I think though, that to categorize any novel as either definitively one or the other is superficial. My first novel was set on another planet, but I wrote a lot about the protagonist's thoughts and inner emotions, and he had choices. I'd prefer to think that there is a scale that goes from profoundly literary (like Banville's unrelentingly boring The Untouchable) to stories that are along the lines of Matthew Riley's Ice Station, where the protagonist is constantly reacting to circumstances just to stay alive. Banville's work is about a spy who was operating as a double agent.

    Author's Salon (website) though, describes a plot structure that initially sees the protagonist reacting to circumstances, and then acting and driving the story forward.
     
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  7. Michael Pless
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    Michael Pless Active Member

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    Yes. Yes. Yes! Particularly the latter half of the sentence.
     
  8. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi,

    Once more unto the breach dear friends ...

    There is no genre called literary. Genre is subject. So sci fi and fantasy are genre. Some people - mistakenly in my view - try to include readership in genre such as YA. YA is not genre either. It is still sci fi or fantasy or what have you, it's just aimed at a particular readership.

    As for literary it's just writing that speaks more deeply to the human condition or certain societal or metaphysical truths etc, or else has some qualities of prose that people respect. It's still of whatever genre it happens to be.

    To put this simply, LOTR is fantasy. It has prose qualities and important messages about the human condition which mark it as being of literary merit, but its genre is fantasy. Shakespear's Romeo and Juliet is of the genre drama. Again it may be of literary merit, but its genre is drama.

    And as for those pretentious twats who say they only write and read literary works, ignore them. Every work they read and write is of some genre.

    Further, because a book has literary merit does not mean it is non-commercial. That's just hubris. A book with or without literary merit has exactly the same chance of commercial success as any other book of its genre. If a book fails it is not because it has literary merit. If it succeeds it is not because it lacks literary merit. This is a false dichotomy that certain intellectual twats want to pretend is real.

    But if they were honest they would realise that if a book is good and covers all the bases of plot, characterisation, world build, philosophical truth, prose and literary merit, then it actually has a better than average chance of commercial success. The chances are that a book written with literary merit that fails, fails because it is lacking something.

    The chances are also that those books that succeed, no matter how many people may decry them, succeed because they have some literary merit as well as plot, world build, characterisation etc.

    Cheers, Greg.
     
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  9. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    "literary" and "commercial" can and do overlap.

    "literary" = "it engages the reader's heart and mind on a deeper level and leaves a lasting impact even as the reader matures intellectually and emotionally"

    "commercial" = "it has popular appeal (especially if that appeal is to a niche readership that looks for a specific genre or specific tropes)"

    That said, though, the more I hear the term "literary fiction", the less useful I think it is. Everyone means something different by it. Some people use it to refer to quality. (See my definition of above.) Others use it to refer to a genre. (A genre that neglects plot in favor of theme and character development, hyper-accurately depicts some real thing, is based on plausible scenarios, contains no phlebotinum, etc.)

    Some polysemic words (e.g. "table" = "a piece of furniture" or "rows and columns of data") are not a problem because their different meanings are hard to confuse. But the polysemy of "literary" is a problem because, even though the genre called "literary fiction" and the qualities called "literary merit" are distinct and uncorrelated, they relate to each other just closely enough that it is often hard to tell which definition someone is using.

    I think this polysemy exists, and I think the term is often used as if its multiple definitions were interchangeable, due to the common misconception that the "literary" genre is somehow "better" or "worthier" than other genres. And this polysemy perpetuates that misconception.
     
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  10. DueNorth
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    DueNorth Active Member

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    Thanks so much to all who have responded. To be honest, not having an academic background in writing or literature, I had never heard the terms "literary fiction" or "commercial fiction" until they were used in correspondence with me by the organizer of this writer's group I'm looking to join. When I googled the terms I started freaking thinking they'd hate my work and figured I should better understand what I'm getting into. I do think this group is focused on writing to publish--which could be a good thing, and perhaps there is room for my blend of plot, intrigue, character, description, and reflection. You all have helped me understand this better. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.
     
  11. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    I don't waste my time trying to categorise books as one or the other either, but the bit in bold describes pretty much every book I've ever enjoyed. And I'm pretty sure I don't just read 'literary' fiction since I have no snobbery about that kind of thing. I think you will be fine :)
     
  12. RevGeo
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    RevGeo Member

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    Perhaps what we are talking about is the difference between art and craft. When I was writing newspaper columns and ad copy I considered what I did as a craft. Now that I'm writing mainly for my own pleasure I view what I do as art, whether it be fiction or non-fiction.
    There certainly is nothing wrong with craft writing, just as there is nothing wrong with playing music that is written out rather than improvised, or drawing what is in front of you rather than what may be in your brain. Craftsmanship is to be highly regarded.
    Writing is most certainly an art, which means that it is infinitely flexible in scope; a master of the art attains skill and beauty in delivery, subtlety and wisdom of conception. As does the skilled craftsman.
    Why does it have to be either/or? We should strive to be craftsmen and artists both.
     
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  13. PrincessSofia
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    PrincessSofia Active Member

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    I absolutely hate that people use the distinction between "literary" and "commercial" because for me, this difference does not exist. For me, it's the difference between what is deemed "worthy" by a certain elite and what is considered crap and "popular"by that same elite. This morning in my literature class we talked about Coleridge and his "lyrical ballads", and in the preface there's a sentence which sums up what I feel, pretty much " Being less under the influence of social vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions. Accordingly, such a language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings,is a more permanent and a far more philosophical language than that which is frequently substituted for it by poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression in order to furnish food for fickle tastes and fickle appetites of their own creation." Granted, this deals more with the language in itself, but for me it applies to themes and genres as well.
     
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2015
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  14. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    "Literary" is what you call SF/F/and Horror when you want to pretend you don't read SF/F/ and Horror.
     
  15. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Films v movies. Art vs decoration. Education vs entertainment. I would have thought the distinction was already pretty clear.
     
  16. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I don't view the education v. entertainment dichotomy as valid.
     
  17. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    [​IMG]
     
  18. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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  19. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    I wasn't sure about that one, but I figured none of them are mutually exclusive, so decided it was valid.
     
  20. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Ah, I see. If they're not exclusive of one another then I withdraw my disagreement :)
     

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