by TWC Founder/Director Judith Lindbergh
A student recently asked a great question that I think many writers ponder and even worry about:
What separates “literary” from “non-literary?” How do you suggest we strive to create “literature,” or not, as my creative writing teacher in college would say, “drivel?”
There’s always been a huge delineation between “literary” and “commercial” – a more market-driven term to describe the idea of non-literary. Many people feel very strongly about what kind of writing is worthy. But in the challenging world of traditional publishing where bottom-lines are the key to not only success but survival, understanding the difference is key.
“Commercial fiction” is just that – novels that sell. Often they fit into a particular genre: thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy, chick-lit/women’s fiction. (Don’t ask… that “genre” is another controversy entirely!) Commercial novels are page-turners that tell a good tale but are thought to have less well-developed characters, relying on character types and narrative tropes. That said, a lot of “commercial” fiction is actually well-written, but… let’s call it “easier” to read?
“Literary fiction” is, in essence, writing that wins prizes. If you enjoy the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and Booker Man prize winners, then you’ll have a sense of what that means. These novels are usually more challenging in both form and substance, following less formulaic narrative arcs, with well-developed, multi-faceted characters, and often with unusual (but not necessarily experimental) approaches to language and form when telling their tales. Literary fiction is always character-driven where commercial fiction is often plot-driven. Again, many commercial novels have terrific characters, too.
MFA and college creative writing programs are renowned for denigrating commercial fiction in almost all its forms. And while I lean heavily toward literary fiction myself (Even though my first novel is historical fiction – another commercial genre – it is very literary in character, language, form, and intent.), I believe that each writer needs to find the right approach for the particular story they want to tell.
Not everyone wants to write literary fiction! And it’s honestly extremely hard to sell to a large, traditional publisher. At a recent event at The Writers Circle, publishing expert Jane Friedman actually suggested that writers avoid the word “literary” when querying agents and publishers, which I found startling. But she said emphatically, “Literary doesn’t sell.”
That’s not to discourage anyone from reaching for literary character, tone, or content. I’m heading back to literary—the work of my heart—after I finish revising yet again my intentionally “upmarket” new novel. The upmarket category is a step down from literature but still not pure commercial “drivel,” as my student’s college professor said. Upmarket is also called “book club fiction” which is discussion-worthy and deals with significant social and emotional issues, but isn’t quite as refined and challenging as the “literary” genre. My agent encouraged me to head in the upmarket direction by saying, “I just wish you’d write something I could sell!” And truly, I hope and pray that this upmarket novel will be just that.
All of this is about markets and publishing, but my message to every aspiring writer is “Don’t worry about any of that yet!” The joy of writing in the earliest stages is honing your craft, discovering your characters, your story, and your voice. Enjoy the journey and hopefully, when you get to the end, you’ll have something worthy to offer to the larger world.