3.13.2007

The Cat(egory) in the Hat Comes Back

Miss Snark:
Can you please a working definition of Commercial Fiction versus Literary Fiction? Am I correct in believing that the former is a bit more formulaic (with many sub-genres such as Romance, Mystery, Sci-Fi, etc) while Literary is highly original but with only limited, highly refined, appeal?


Despite the discussion earlier in the week about the reproductive habits of frogs, I must remind you that the phrase "publishing science" is an oxymoron. There are no hard and fast rules about what is commercial and what is literary, no phylum, genus and species to safely categorize what is L and what is C.

I throw both those words around to suit my evil mercantile plans. If I have a great project and an editor wants commercial fiction, by dog, this is commercial fiction. If an editor wants more literary toned things, well presto magic, this is literary.

Generally I stay within the realm of reason and don't pitch Killer Yapp's Sunday in the Park graphic novel as literary fiction but I would if I thought I'd get a deal out of it.

When agents talk about commercial fiction they mean the stuff that sells well. When they talk about literary fiction they mean the stuff that gets reviewed well.

Don't worry about this. Call your work a novel or a mystery, or a romance and leave the category dance to the pros.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Like Miss Snark, if an agent says she is looking for commercial fiction - shazam. If both commercial and literary - I like the term commercial literary fiction.

Anonymous said...

Funny though... you know the difference between C and L when you read it!


Haste yee back ;-)

Anonymous said...

Both Nathan Bransford and Kristin Nelson recently blogged on this last week.

Anonymous said...

The best definition I've heard is that literary fiction is fiction driven by language and stylistic concerns as much as plot and characters.

Kit Whitfield said...

I'd always be careful of calling your work literary or commercial fiction when sending it to an agent anyway. 'Literary' means good, according to a certain definition of the word - and every author thinks their book is good. It can come too close to singing your own praises. 'Commercial' is largely a marketing decision, and can steer dangerously close to saying 'This is the manuscript for my bestseller'. In short, they're qualities that tend to be defined by somebody other than the author - and trying to define them for your own work can risk looking naive and/or full of yourself. Miss Snark is right; you worry about the book and let the agent worry about the definition.

Melanie Lynne Hauser said...

This extends to when authors are out and about, trying to interest people in their books, too. And I'm a genre whore, frankly. If I'm talking to a group of young women out for cocktails at a bar, by golly, my book's chick lit. If I'm talking to a bunch of young mothers at the park watching their kids, it's mommy lit. If I'm having a drink with a bunch of male authors at a conference, it's mainstream fiction.

It's all about interesting the people you're talking to AT THAT MOMENT, while not, obviously, totally misleading them. My book could be - and has been - categorized by others as all of the above (and then some). And it's just not smart to be that concerned about labels and categories, especially if that limits your audience of potential readers. (Although in my experience - and not to offend anybody - the writers who seem most eager to limit themselves to just one category are those who consider themselves literary fiction writers. I don't know why this is, but that's been my experience. It's like it's a badge of honor or something.)

Janet said...

"When agents talk about commercial fiction they mean the stuff that sells well. When they talk about literary fiction they mean the stuff that gets reviewed well."

That has got to be the most cogent definition I have ever seen.

Anonymous said...

Who says literary fiction isn't formulaic? Isn't it true that if there's a character in a work of literary fiction who is happy and well-adjusted as of the last page, then it ain't literary?

Just wondering. ;)

flem snopes said...

Killer Yapp's Sunday in the Park graphic novel...

I saw them filming this. I was the guy yelling "Get a room, you mutts!" Dogs, they just don't care.

Daniel Tricarico said...

Miss Snark:

At a writers conference I attended, one of the presenters had this to say:

Commercial fiction takes people on a roller coaster ride. Literary fiction asks "Why do people ride roller coasters?"

I thought that was an interesting take, and it turned a light on in my head about the difference between L and C.

Something to think about, anyway.

P.S. I LOVE your blog and have learned so much about this business. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I thought I was writing literary fiction with a mystery framework, right up until a nice editor read the first few chapters, told me I was writing psychological crime fiction, and explained the difference between literary-fiction advances and psychological-crime advances.

Kit Whitfield said...

'Who says literary fiction isn't formulaic? Isn't it true that if there's a character in a work of literary fiction who is happy and well-adjusted as of the last page, then it ain't literary?'

Have you read Jane Austen? Charles Dickens? Come on, you've got better sense than that.

Anonymous said...

Hello? Charles Dickens and Jane Austen literary? No and no. Many of Dickens' novels were serialized in popular magazines, with readers breathlessly hanging on for next month's installment. They were the trashies of the 1840s and 1850s. Dickens got paid by the word, for heaven's sake, which explains a lot of things. And Jane, whom I adore, was writing love stories. Three volume novels. Pure entertainment, Regency style.

You're confusing "literature", as in classic fiction taught in English lit classes, and literary fiction. Big difference. You should know better.

Kit Whitfield said...

So literary and widely-read are mutually exclusive, and something can't be literary if it's enjoyable? Sounds to me like you're defining literary as 'the kind of book I don't like'. In which case, you're missing out; it's never good to write off an entire genre with an epigram. The more open you keep your mind to categories, the more books you'll discover that you love.

Anonymous said...

My wife, the writer, has a definition of literary fiction: "Twisted loser stories, hold the redemption." She writes what her head-of-dept for her MFA disparagingly calls "genre fiction", but at the end of the day, he teaches writing, while she does it.