Commercial and literary fiction: what’s the difference?


So you’ve decided you want to apply for the London Writers Awards. You’ve got your writing ready. Now you just need to decide on a category. Is it literary or commercial fiction?

It’s a question that many people ask. Unlike poetry, with its clear form, or children’s fiction, with an obvious audience, and even narrative non fiction, which is rooted in truth, the definition of commercial and literary fiction is more nuanced and blurred.

Whilst there’s crossover between the two, they are distinct categories. Literary fiction is often focused on artistry, with the story being driven by character and internal motivations. Commercial fiction is generally more plot driven, and read for entertainment rather than its art. ‘In literary fiction there is more of a focus on the writing in and of itself, not just as a tool for telling a story,’ says author Diana Evans, a judge in the literary fiction category. ‘Both literary and commercial fiction tell stories, but I would say that in literary fiction story and writing stand as equal concerns, whereas in commercial fiction story is at the forefront.’

Ella Kahn, of DKW Literary Agency, is one of our judges in the commercial fiction category. She also points out the differing focus, and says that ‘commercial fiction (whatever the genre) tends to be more driven by plot and character development, and literary fiction by stylistic or thematic concerns.’

Vaseem Kahn, the author judge for the commercial fiction category agrees. ‘Literary fiction presents a broader canvas to writers, with endless possibilities for exploring character, setting, theme, and style. The bar for the ‘quality’ of prose is deemed to be high for such fiction. The commercial fiction writer’s challenge is to find creativity within the bounds of genre, whilst meeting the expectations of a particular audience.’

But it’s not the case that one is solely about the reader and one only about the art, and a writer should never neglect either of these. The line between commercial and literary fiction is narrowing. For instance, in recent years the Man Booker Prize has seen multiple nominees that cross over genres. In both cases quality of writing is important. ‘A high quality of prose is important for both categories, and thematic explorations & plotting can be just as complex in either,’ says Ella, ‘but in commercial fiction that quality of writing might also be defined by a certain degree of ‘readability’ or ‘accessibility’ in the style that perhaps makes it more instantly engaging.’

Vaseem cites crime fiction as being a great example of the blurring boundaries. ‘At one end of this spectrum crime fiction is being produced that, in terms of style and quality, is almost indistinguishable from literary writing, yet maintains the hallmarks of a good crime story, such as plot, characterisation, and a mystery to be unravelled.’

Eva Lewin, Writer Development Manager at Spread the Word agrees that commercial fiction is often more about the storyline and genre, but says that it ‘partly depends on how (ultimately) a publisher decides to market the novel concerned.’ That’s something that Lucy Luck, agent at C+W agency and judge for the literary fiction category also believes to be the case. ‘For me, the difference is the impact the two types of books are looking to make in the market. Literary fiction (and non-fiction) are books that need hand-selling so rely on critical reception and prize-listings to persuade booksellers to stock copies and readers to want to buy and read them. Commercial fiction (and non-fiction) are books that have a strong pitch and are looking to be placed on the best-seller lists, so will have a strong presence in the bookshop on publication and will be recommended through bookstore promotions and word of mouth.’

As part of the London Writers Awards scheme writers will have the opportunity to hone their work so that it is agent and publisher ready, regardless of genre or category. Before deciding which category to submit to ask yourself whether your story is plot or character driven, how much the words matter as opposed to what the words say mattering, and who you imagine to be reading your writing. All of these will help you make your decision. But remember that, regardless of category, your work has to be the best it can be.

Published 13 June 2018