Literary or Commercial? I Submit You Should Do Both.

I joined a local writing guild last week and went to their meeting for May. They had a guest speaker, Nan Cuba, who spoke about the journey of getting her book, Body and Bread, published. It took her quite some time. The novel started out as a piece of flash fiction. Over the years she wrote several short stories and eventually worked them all into what became the novel. She gave out a lot of great information for aspiring authors looking to get published: websites, publications, organizations, classes and programs, and more. But the most interesting information came after her talk, when she took questions from the audience. Well, interesting to me.

The biggest problem she faced with getting published, aside from finding and getting an agent and working the book into the best shape it could be, was the fact that publishers consider her book literary fiction. Most publishers are now looking for commercial fiction instead and kept passing on her book. She eventually did find a publisher, a small press, and she is very pleased with them. In fact, she said she ALMOST wished she had started looking at small presses first. But then, she told us, she would not have as good a grasp of everything involved with publishing if she hadn’t slogged through everything on her way to where she is now. At any rate, all the questions asked of her were interesting and concerned things about which I also wondered. But one gentleman asked her the difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction. I had seen reference to these terms during my own failed search for an agent (It turns out that Nan Cuba had used the same resource I had in looking for an agent, She also failed to find an agent through them, but that’s neither here nor there). Ms. Cuba told us that, in general, literary fiction focuses on character and words. The way words sound, the flow of them and even the structure of the sentences is important. And so is the character’s journey—who they are, where they come from and what leads them to their choices. Commercial fiction, on the other hand, focuses more on action. I think she even likened the difference to independent films versus summer blockbusters.

The thing is, while she was describing them, I kept thinking to myself: But . . . I write with ALL those things in mind. So, am I literary or commercial? Now, while it’s true that I don’t agonize for any appreciable length of time over each and every word, I do read and re-read sections many, many times, working out the flow of ideas and words within paragraphs and between them. And I think a story arc for the protagonist is important, too. That we see where they came from, where they are, where they end up, and that getting there is the result of who they are. But I also feel it important to have some action. Or perhaps a more appropriate word would be tension. You want dramatic moments to get hearts racing. It might be a Michael Bay-type action sequence, sure, but it could also be a tense argument.

Over the last several days, as I thought about it again and again, I kept coming back to the same place. I want aspects of both literary and commercial fiction in my work. I can see how leaning toward one or the other is doable, but the books I enjoy reading always have strong aspects of both, and that is what I want to create. After all, you could have one or more characters described very well, could have their lives shown on the pages in such detail that you feel as if you grew up with them. But if there is never any tension, readers will eventually get bored. And if the work is a series of action sequences with only light sketches of characters, the spectacle would soon wear thin. If readers don’t care about the characters, they won’t care what happens to them. So I try to balance aspects of both literary and commercial. Obviously there is more to a good piece of fiction than that, but at the core, that’s how I try to write.

Categories: Tips, Writing | Tags: , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Literary or Commercial? I Submit You Should Do Both.

  1. Out of curiosity, how do you balance the two?

    • Balance, I think, is relative. Some may prefer more action, some more characterization and more poetic prose. For me, I try to do a bit of both. I make sure there is some kind of tension, whether it be conflict with a ‘baddy,’ or a fight with a friend, or even some internal conflict (Am I doing the right thing? Should I do this, should I not? Do I love this person, do I want to break their heart…all kinds of things that a person could be conflicted about) every now and then. And you can have small conflicts along with large conflicts. Mix it up a bit. But I do balance tension with calm. I find too much tension for too long can tire readers and can even take away from the tension, make it lose effectiveness. As far as the prose, I don’t go so much for poetic as much as making sure the sentences have good flow, the words sound natural (for the characters and the narrator), not forced, and I try to make ideas flow logically from one sentence and paragraph to the next. For characterization, I try to include enough back story and everyday events so readers get a feel for the characters. Of course, there’s a fine line between giving enough detail and giving too much. That line is something that’s hard to define. I’m still not sure I know where it is myself. That’s one of the great things about a writing group: they’ll let you know how it feels to them. You can then adjust as you see fit.

  2. Thanks for your comments about my chat with the Guild members. You captured my comments perfectly. I respect and admire your goals as a writer. Based upon this blog, you should have success, which I certainly wish for you.

    • You’re very welcome. I really enjoyed your talk, and, as you can see, it made me think in more detail about my writing. Which I think is great!

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