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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Monday, January 24, 2011

Commercial versus literary fiction

A writer friend picked me up sharply recently for saying of a recent bestseller, 'Oh, it's only commercial fiction...' The division between commercial fiction and literary fiction is an artificial one, she argued, a marketing ploy for publishers, rather than a distinction recognised by authors. My friend, who has written both types, maintained they required the same skills and gifts and are equally difficult to write. She objected to the inference that commercial fiction is somehow inferior to its esoteric cousin.

Whether a writer has found it hard to write a book is beside the point for the consumer. We'd rather listen to Mozart than Salieri, and we don't expect the primo ballerino to hobble off stage going 'ooh, me back...' But that aside, just what is the difference? I thought I knew what I meant, but the distinction is hard to pin down.

I was once snarkily asked by a radio presenter: 'Why hasn't Catherine Cookson ever won the Booker prize?' When you're in the mood for a Mars bar, I said, you want it to be exactly like every other Mars bar you've ever had. Literary fiction is more like a gourmet dinner: a search for new flavours and techniques. (OK, I was being pretentious.) Commercial fiction has a pre-masticated quality, literary fiction is... snail porridge.

All professionally published works have to be commercial in some sense, and the aim to reach as many readers as possible is not an ignoble one. The wonderful Iris Murdoch (who did of course win the Booker prize) was capable of sloppy writing and saminess. Her books are wildly enjoyable (just in case anyone thought literary fiction has to be tough going). From what I remember she sold pretty well too. Ian McEwan is an easy read (getting easier) and a bestseller. The Brontes wrote genre fiction and Jane Austen was commercial. Du Maurier's 'Rebecca' is commercial fiction but as near to great literature as makes no difference, and 'Frankenstein', creaky, dated and clumsily written, is resonant as only works of genius can be. 'Commercial fiction' as a definition seems to dissolve the more you think about it, like all those Socratic dialogues about beauty and virtue.

'Well, maybe I mean it just isn't very good,' I eventually said to my friend.


  1. I have never met an author who deliberately wrote un-commercial fiction - i.e. fiction that didn`t sell and they did not want to sell. Because that's all it means. Those of us who write for our living, literally, have to be commercial. You wouldn`t call Wolf Hall commercial fiction but it has sold getting on for a million copies.
    The key word is probably 'genre' - crime fiction, romantic novels, chick-lit...genre fiction. This is commercial fiction because it is what most people like to read. The top sellers are almost always in these categories.
    Those who are snobbish about being commercial are being disingenuous.. and remember, when Julian Barnes became a Richard and Judy selection he said it was the high point of his career.

  2. Suzi - I love your book blog. It's good to have views on books that aren't reviews. I like writing my blog too - new genre, new challenge. I write a sideways look at running literature festivals, most of the time (with a diversion into writing about Chloe and Videl's wedding in Italy).http://wayswithwords.typepad.co.uk/litfest/ Must do more. I'll look forward to reading more of your blogs. Can't get enough of books.

  3. Good blog, Suzi, though sinister that the books pictured have no titles - what does it all mean? On the subject in question, most authors don't write just for money so commercial is a misleading label and condemns many serious minded writers. They might pen 'traditional' or 'genre' fiction, whatever you will, but don't we value serious intent in examining particular themes or quiddities of character or burning issues through storytelling? Many write well even if they're not producing snail porridge (yeurch, don't fancy that myself!) Daphne du Maurier's recent promotion to the rolls of great literature is an interesting one. Did 19th century critics argue over whether Thackeray, Dickens and Trollope were literary or commercial (must ask David that one)?

  4. Don't we just want writers to write what is in them, what they have a need and a desire to write, without calculation about potential sales. Some have a kind of inbuilt commercial savvy and will write what is probably going to sell, others give it no heed and pay the price at the till. So many writers say that they write for themselves which sounds superficially arrogant but surely that's what we all do in the sense that we write the sort of books we ourselves would want to read. And the real battle now is to preserve variety, range, difference in a homogenising book world. No formulas.

  5. Love your blog Suzi - will put a link to it from mine. Agree with you massively on the lit/comm fiction issue. What a pity that publishers feel this need to categorise things when most of the really great books managed to escape genre categorisation. Cookson even started her own!

  6. Great blog, Suzi. The margins between literary and commercial fiction seem to have become more blurred since my early publishing days: we now have upmarket commercial women's fiction as a recognised genre, for example. Defying genre is all well and good if you've written a masterpiece, but as one editor pointed out to me, it's not simply about how you market a book, it's about managing reader's expectations.
    On a lighter note, I was in the Dominican Republic at the start of the year and found a copy of On Chesil Beach had been left in my hotel room. The second week I drove four hours across the island only to find the same book waiting for me, but this time in French.

  7. I never really understood what 'literary fiction' was. But I have never had much time for distinctions around 'taste' and 'commerce'. I think an interesting analogy is the (false-in my view) distinctions made between 'pornography' and 'erotica'. As someone once said 'pornography is other people's erotica'. Things can be divided into what I enjoy and what 'other people' enjoy.

    If you are a Catherine Cookson fan you won't care what her work is called: it's just good.

    Really enjoying reading some of these posts thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  8. The author Candi Miller suggested a simple distinction between fiction and literary fiction the other day, at a writer's workshop in Birmingham.

    Literary fiction, she said (and I'm paraphrasing here) was that in which the author tried to do something different - or 'original' - with language.

    Even if you're not convinced that such a distinction is helpful, I think this is an interesting starting point...