Literary VS Commercial Novels

Book cover for The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, #amwriting, #amediting, book review, how to write, how to edit

In chapter five of The Story Grid, Shawn Coyne talks about the differences between literary and commercial works, and it’s pretty common sense, but he did have some insights I wanted so share.

So first, a quick primer.Writing Excuses had the best explanation for literary fiction versus commercial, or genre fiction. In literary fiction the focus is on the craft, the word play, the things being accomplished by the text. Genre fiction is all about the story.

There’s a prevailing attitude that literary fiction is better than genre fiction. And in form that’s likely true. But that’s really not a fair comparison because the two have entirely different goals. If a literary fiction novel doesn’t pull your attention to the clever tricks of the words on the page, it’s failed. If a genre fiction novel pulls your attention off the story long enough to dissect the wordplay, then that’s a problem.

Think of it this way. Two people are making their way down a path. One is racing, determined to get their very best time. They are ultra focused on their form, the way their feet touch the ground when they run, everything matters.

The other person is  out for a walk to enjoy the pretty scenery. They are taking the time to look at every plant and flower, smelling the fresh air, basking in the sunshine.

There are similarities between the two. They are both using feet to propel them down the same path. They can learn from each other, use tips and tricks from each other to better meet their goals because the ground rises and falls beneath them identically. But it would be foolish to criticize the racer for not stopping to smell the flowers or the walker for making such terrible time.

The similarities in base form aren’t the only thing that make it tempting to compare the two unfavorably with each other. Literary fiction is what is often taught in the classroom. While literary fiction is still being written, because of the way writing adapts and changes, some genre fiction will become literary fiction as time goes by. Historical context, out of fashion writing styles, and impact of the novel itself has a lot to do with what is viewed as literary. Conversely, a lot of high brow literary stuff was once upon a time looked down upon as over rated genre fiction.

Coyne goes on to explain that within genre fiction, the largest consumers are women. Women’s fiction is historically the best selling fiction genre, followed closely by (and sometimes including) romance. That fact is why pretty much every novel ever written contains a romance regardless of genre.  Authors and publishers want to attract the most possible readers. Recently YA has made some massive waves and is changing the market place, so I’m curious to see what conventions change down the road.

Most helpful to me in this chapter was Coyne’s explanation on how he selected which books to acquire for his publisher by focusing on the recent sales of each sub genre within his genre of genre fiction. You should absolutely check it out in The Story Grid.

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