One of the most frequently asked questions that students on our creative writing courses ask is, ‘What kind of novel am I writing – literary or commercial fiction?’ They’re often confused about what the terms mean and are uncertain of what they should be aiming for.
It wasn’t always this way. Dickens was not wracked with despair over the question of whether Bleak House was crime, or literary. I don’t think Joseph Conrad lost much sleep over whether he should market The Secret Agent as an espionage thriller, or a difficult piece of modernism. Nonetheless, in a crowded and competitive marketplace, this admittedly blurry (and often unhelpful) distinction is with us to some degree – whether we like it or not. I thought it was worth delving into this a bit deeper, and I sourced some views from the Curtis Brown and C&W office.
It’s commonly felt that writers of literary fiction are inherently prejudiced against books which are fast paced or tightly plotted, and that genre writers aren’t interested in good prose, complex characters or challenging themes.
But bestselling author and C+W client Matt Haig has several times used Twitter to rail against what he sees as the completely false distinction made between the two; for him, the only worthwhile distinction is between books that are good and books that are bad.
Curtis Brown agent Karolina Sutton, who represents a wide range of authors including Emma Healey, says: ‘For many, literary fiction is a genre like any other. Under this meaning, literary fiction encompasses books which stem from the modernist tradition: self-aware, formally innovative, preoccupied with deeper understanding rather than instantly gratifying storytelling. For others, literary fiction has come to mean ‘‘fiction writing with literary merit’’… In publishing we often use the term as shorthand for literary ambition, nuance, good prose, a level of intellectual and psychological sophistication and a rejection of cliché or formula. Can all of the above apply to a genre thriller? Yes.’
In my view, there’s an issue with the words themselves: ‘Literary’ suggests understanding, bookishness – ‘genre’ implies (obviously) the generic, predictability, structure, and ‘commercial’ suggests something rather cynically motivated. Karolina points at the fact that the terms are used inconsistently – sometimes as simple categorisation, but other times as a qualitative judgement. As CBC course tutor Charlotte Mendelson explains it: ‘the debate rages partly because almost all writers think ‘literary’ is somehow superior, which it isn’t! No one should underrate the value of writing a novel which will engross and captivate readers; beautiful writing is no substitute for a compelling story’.
CBC’s Director Anna Davis explains: ‘Lots of our students think they’re writing literary fiction because that’s what they read. They don’t want to be told what they’re writing is “commercial fiction” – but really what we mean by this is that a novel’s strongly story-led and with a potentially broad appeal. Commercial fiction is less about style, voice and innovative use of language/form than literary fiction but there’s also an area where the two meet and blur – that’s often called ‘sweet spot fiction’ and it’s top of many publishers’ wish-lists.’’
Everyone I spoke to agreed that for new writers, the most important thing is not to get too distracted by this question. Karolina stresses the importance of writing the book you want to write: ‘make it match your ambition. Don’t worry about labels and categories or about not fitting in’. Similarly, Anna states, ‘While it’s good to have an awareness of what goes on in the marketplace, your focus should be on writing your novel as well as you can, playing to your own strengths.’
It seems to me that the key message for new novelists is to write what you feel you want and need to write. If you don’t read or particularly enjoy psychological thrillers, then don’t attempt to write one because you think it might be a commercially smart move; you’re very likely to fail. Equally don’t set about writing a piece of literary fiction, with pretensions to Booker-winning greatness, just because you think that is what ‘serious’ writers do. Follow your instincts – questions about whether to categorise your book as literary or commercial are for much further down the line.
Our 3 six-week online novel-writing courses are now open to all-comers featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis. Enrol on whichever suits your stage of writing, or take all 3 courses to go all the way from first idea to finished novel: