Labels, man. Labels.

If you don’t write in genre, then the chances are that you’re writing either commercial or literary fiction. Despite both being classified as genres these days, neither fits the definition as I was taught many moons ago — gene pool — from the French. When you say the words ‘thriller’ or ‘romance’, certain elements, regardless of character or setting, appear right there in front of you: pace, story expectations, recurring motifs… The gene pool: shared elements re-spun story after story, and if the writer’s good then advanced and added to.

By that definition commercial and literary fiction both fall short when examined in isolation. And when compared to each other, it seems to mean that one is accessible and sells, if perhaps a little dull, while the other is arty, worthy, yet unsalable. In short: the comfortable artisan versus the tortured artist.

Perusing the internet, it seems that many writers, agents and publishers have vastly differing opinions about what literary fiction entails. Other than the value judgement that I can’t help but feel is implicit, there are a few decent yardsticks out there to try to help you decide what type of book you’ve just written.

Writer and ex-agent Nathan Bransford has some interesting ideas about how interior plot in literary fiction is more important than exterior plot and vice versa for commercial fiction. To check out his post click here.

Other ideas that have stuck in my mind (although I’ve since lost the original sources) are that literary fiction goes after the big ideas, the big themes, whereas commercial fiction is less concerned about examining the broader human condition and more about story pace. I find the idea that literary fiction is full of difficult vocabulary and stylistic devices, whereas commercial fiction is straightforward but with tighter storytelling, to be vague and simplistic. As for the notion that literary fiction is about character while commercial fiction is about plot, well, that’s just absurd.

Does any of this matter? Not really I guess. If you’re trying to prepare your jacket blurb or submitting to agents or editors, then it’s handy to be able to moniker what you’ve just created, I suppose. Labels. The whole thing reminds me of dorks loitering in record shops back in the nineties, splitting hairs about which kind of bleepy dance music they’ve just purchased and how there’s no way it’s progressive house because it’s more like breakbeat hardcore.

To paraphrase Updike: perhaps labels and terms limit us in some way, and all works are literary simply because they are written in words.

Next week, Andrew Oberg looks at quieting those writing demons.

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  1. Posted April 8, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Paul, I agree entirely. You don’t waste time in pushing the chairs around here- to the point and all the better for it. It’s strange, I have my next couple planned and two almost finished (first drafts, at least – and you know how THAT is).

    But I’m thinking ahead, planning my non-genre ‘serious’ novel and I think I’ll get there by the time I am fifty. If I don’t it will kill me, so I have to. If I do, it may kill me too but at least…

    Are we all the same in that respect?

  2. Andrew
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    Hear, hear, Updike!

  3. Paul
    Posted April 9, 2011 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    Mark, there’s nothing wrong with writing genre all your life. Elmore Leonard, Cormac McCarthy could both be called genre writers. Both advance the genres they work in and some might say that they’re commercial-literary hybrids. Their sales point to that being a great place to hang out, too.

    Andrew, as for Updike, he said that on The Charlie Rose Show (2006). When pushed further about how he felt being labelled a literary fiction writer he said: “As though I sit down and say: ‘ today, I’ll write some literary fiction, and then tomorrow I’ll sit down and write some unliterary fiction.’”


  4. Posted April 11, 2011 at 2:22 am | Permalink

    Salmon Rushdie; “Literary fiction is often extremely well written with little or no plot. Popular fiction is often poorly written with a wonderful plot.”

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