According to Wikipedia, the term literary fiction came into existence around 1960, to distinguish serious fiction from the many types of genre or popular fiction (these latter are categorized as commercial fiction).
Literary fiction is more character-driven while commercial fiction is plot-driven. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the former does not have any plot (or is not at all genre-based) or that the latter doesn’t have strong characters. It’s just that one is more dominant than the other in each of the types.
From my research into this subject, here is my summary of what makes a particular book one or the other type of fiction:
What marks a work of fiction as literary?
- Maturity of style/voice
- Content that is more serious and thought-provoking
- Deeper analysis of characters’ psychology
- Richness in imagery
What are the more distinguishing features of mainstream commercial fiction?
- Specific genre(s)
- Fast-paced narrative
- Compelling plot-lines
- Wider mainstream appeal
It is safe to say that commercial fiction tends to have faster pace and beat and heightened drama, while literary fiction delves deeper into situations and the characters’ responses and reactions to them.
Some opine that literary fiction should be considered a genre in itself.
As with anything else related to the field of writing, what sets literary fiction apart from commercial fiction is somewhat subjective.
Here are my questions for you for the day:
- Do you believe that commercial fiction sells more easily than literary fiction in today’s market?
- As a reader, which do you prefer: a literary piece or a story with commercial leanings to it?
- If you’re a writer, which side of the spectrum would you place your work?
Here are my answers to the questions above:
- I think the classics I like to read are considered literary pieces, but I also read a lot of mysteries, whose genre makes them commercial fiction.
- Hmm… this is a toughie. The novel I’m currently working on is historical fantasy, which is a legitimate genre. It has a strong plot, but also a protagonist who drives that plot. And, my style tends to focus on imagery among other things, which means that my WIP has characteristics and elements that are specific to the definition of both literary and commercial fiction.
So, basically, my answer is: I’m not sure!
All I know is this:
I aim to be true to my original vision and write the book so it entertains. Hopefully, it will also leave the readers thinking about it at least for some time after they have finished it.
Fair enough? :0)