Struggling with the Supposed Distinction of Literary vs. Commercial

In three weeks I will drive to Montpelier, Vermont, to begin my final semester in an MFA in Writing program. Over the last few weeks I have devoted every spare minute to polishing the first draft of my work-in-progress–a travel memoir–so that I can hand the manuscript to whichever faculty member I am paired with at residency. My goal is to have a manuscript fit for submission to publishers by the time I graduate in July. Given the fact that it took me two years to finish this draft, that goal seems overly ambitious. But as award-winning science fiction author Michael Swanwick told me when I interviewed him in his home in Philadelphia, when you set your goals absurdly high, even in failure you likely have accomplished something remarkable.

When I started writing this book in the fall of 2010, I never would have imagined I’d still be working on it. Years of daily journalism forced me to become a fast writer, and the writers I read growing up churned out new books every year. I was addicted to Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels. Every year I would put aside allowance money so I could buy the latest volume in hardcover, too impatient to wait for the paperback.

This photo has nothing to do with this post. But I spent a fair amount of time decorating this weekend, so I'm posting a photo of some of my work. The power of a personal blog at work.
This photo has nothing to do with this post. But I spent a fair amount of time decorating this weekend, so I’m posting a photo of some of my work. I can do that, because this is my blog.

I blame what I consider a slow pace on the demands of my Vermont College of Fine Arts instructors, who insist that I produce a memoir of lasting literary value. It’s not enough to share a detail. I must slant it, to convey larger meaning. It’s not enough to share with the reader a funny moment from my cross-country U.S. road trip; I must ensure that every sentence in the scene advances the narrative. It’s not enough to explain how I experienced a creative transformation; I must delve deep into my past to reveal how it was that I came to be creatively stagnant in the first place.

Parker’s novels are not considered “literary” by most, but I didn’t care about that when I would read each one from beginning to end in one sitting. Looking back, I can see that his plots were often uninspiring, and his details amusing or dramatic but not necessarily “slanted.” His characters were rich and complex, however, particularly Spenser himself, but also his best friend Hawk and his longtime girlfriend Susan. Those three were so real to me, in fact, that I never watched the TV show based on the books, because I refused to believe any actor could convey them as fully as Parker did on the page. As a reader, Parker’s books brought me pleasure.

VCFA’s writing programs attract writers of all types and genres. But I will confess that a handful of my MFA classmates are what I expected in an MFA program, dismissive of what we might call “commercial” fiction. On the Vermonter train to last winter’s residency, I overheard an upperclassman giving advice to two new students on who they might want as their instructor. Someone asked about one of my favorite writers among the faculty. This student dismissed her as a potential instructor: “You wouldn’t want her. She writes popular fiction.”

Actually, I thought to myself, she writes literary fiction that is popular. And who wouldn’t want that, to write something literary critics will admire but readers will actually want to read? I question sometimes the amount of effort I am expected to put into each chapter, each paragraph, each sentence, each word. Is that level of effort truly necessary? But then I project ahead thirty years, and imagine how I’ll feel about the book as part of my writing legacy. The long view makes the time I’m spending on it now seem quite short. So with my final semester, I’ll follow the literary guidance of my instructor. But I’ll also press to meet my self-imposed deadline, to bring my fast writing skill to bear.

And I suspect I am not alone in this reconciliation of wishing to bring a manuscript to a timely conclusion while also seeking to write it as well as I can. The marketplace believes this distinction between commercial and literary to be real. But it doesn’t have to be real to a reader. We want a good read, well written. And thus it shouldn’t have to be real to a writer.

What is your experience with this supposed distinction? What mindset do you bring to your own creative writing?

15 thoughts on “Struggling with the Supposed Distinction of Literary vs. Commercial

  1. As a reader, I look for works in the intersection between commercial and literary. Most literary fiction bores me to tears because the plots are not compelling and most commercial fiction drives me nuts because of the lack of complexity of characters, themes, etc.

    As a writer, I find myself trying to live in that middle ground of powerful use of language, fully-drawn characters, layers of meaning, and strong story-telling, though I tend to fall more on the commercial side of things.



    1. Kate, I like your criticisms of the stereotypical representations of both categories. Yes, literary fiction writers sometimes view plot as a dirty word, but the great literary works certainly didn’t. And yes, the lack of complexity in commercial fiction can be annoying, but sometimes you tolerate it for a good story.

      Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was amazingly plotted and suspenseful, but I found his characters devices designed to advance plot points, and hated how he would fold back story into long passages of dialogue. When I finished the book, I decided I enjoyed the story, but couldn’t risk reading another one of his books because I didn’t care for the writing. But give me a slightly poorer plot and more care in the writing and you might win me back, a la Parker.


  2. Patrick… I already want to read your memoir, just knowing how much you’re pouring into it. I will re-read a well written book over again rather than wade into the general run of fiction. I read as much for the experience of standing under a shower of well-written words than I do for the plot. I just read Peter Carey`s “The True History of the Kelly Gang” and allowed it a month beside my bed because the syntax and cadence of the language was utter music before I fell asleep. Each sentence put me inside the protagonist’s heart. I’m considering going back into a novel I spent five years writing, and going at it again. I love it, and yet I know it could be better. I think that the more we revise a work, the more we develop themes just beneath the surface of the story, and I’m coming to believe that those are the book’s most endearing and valuable features. Oh, by the way, what is this “slant” you’re talking about? I’d like to hear more about that.


    1. Love this, PJ: “I read as much for the experience of standing under a shower of well-written words than I do for the plot.” I believe this is where I’m evolving as a reader, one who is gaining more appreciation for the joy of reading a well-crafted sentence. Perhaps it’s all of the literary analysis I’ve had to do in this program; when I read now, I break down the words in front of me without thinking about it, the way an architect likely looks “through” the walls when in someone’s home. It’s hard to turn off, but it allows me to see what works and emulate it, and see what doesn’t work and avoid it.

      Tell it Slant is a term I’ve learned since starting my MFA. Emily Dickinson wrote of poetry, “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” It’s a mantra of creative nonfiction, where you don’t actually make stuff up, but the details you select and how you present them create the impression you want the reader to experience.

      I have a scene in my memoir where I feel trapped in the basement of an artist I suspect is not entirely emotionally stable. The details I chose to include prior to my being in that basement were true to the scene, but were the type that might be emphasized in a remake of Sleepy Hollow. My writer’s group members, to a one, said they felt anxious when as readers they went with me into that basement, but they didn’t know why I had made them feel that, since I hadn’t explicitly said I was anxious. So really, we’re just doing what fiction writers do, except we have to work with what actually happened; it’s choosing the right details to use.


  3. “Actually…she writes literary fiction that is popular.”
    Love that you make this point. Popular can be literary and literary can be popular. Good writing matters. Good storytelling matters. People love to create distinctions and categories and fit everything nicely into them, when really–for me, anyway–the answer is usually somewhere in the middle.
    I would suppose that someone who takes the time to turn his nose at “popular” is probably pretty worried that he won’t be. He might be a great writer, but why waste time and energy bashing others, especially when we all know how hard it is to write a book?


    1. “I would suppose that someone who takes the time to turn his nose at “popular” is probably pretty worried that he won’t be.” Wow, Jessica, I think you nailed it. I know a very successful genre writer who, frustratingly to me, has felt insecure at times that her books are not “literature.” But I think a lot of “literary” writers must feel insecurity that so few people want to read their work. How often do we see in this world that we apply labels to others, and to ourselves, out of insecurity? I think there’s another blog post I can write here.


  4. Fabulous post, and a question I continue to ponder. The lines between literary and commercial are so blurred … And, in the end, you’re right: the reader wants a good story, wants to be transported. I tend to be drawn to books that are character-driven and filled with sensory details. Does that make them more literary? Even if they cross-over and become adored by “the mainstream” (whatever that means)? It becomes somewhat maddening if thought about too much, I suppose. But I’m right there with you — lamenting that I, too, started my WIP in the fall of 2010, and sit here wondering (as a journalist, also) how it is that so much time has passed. But sometimes things improve with age, don’t they? I think for me, I’m 100% certain that the “simmer time” in my mind, the additional finessing, the lack of a ‘rush to get it done,’ has resulted in far better work. Only time will tell, however, if it’s deemed literary, commercial, or that ‘in between’ of upmarket. Here’s to meeting our goals!

    Also truly inspired by this quote: “… when you set your goals absurdly high, even in failure you likely have accomplished something remarkable” YES! I LOVE this.


    1. Hi Melissa, welcome back and thanks for the tweet!

      Let me start with this: “I think for me, I’m 100% certain that the “simmer time” in my mind, the additional finessing, the lack of a ‘rush to get it done,’ has resulted in far better work.” Love it. There is also scientific evidence of the “simmer time” improving our creative process, and writing a book certainly fits in that category! I’m glad you feel that your work is improving given the time you’ve given it, but it’s helpful to hear that I am not alone here (eerie parallels with our professions and timetables, and of course I’m a former Arizonan and you’re one now!).

      You might want to watch the Michael Swanwick video, if you like my paraphrase of his quote. He’s inspiring, but also quite entertaining. And, you know, he writes “commercial” fiction, but he brings a “literary” eye to his writing.


  5. I tend to ignore labels, both in the visual art realm and in the written-word realm. I suppose I have that luxury until/unless I approach a publisher. A bit of a poet at heart, I do love a passage dripping with it … but, as you know, “commercial” novels can also be “literary.” Off the bat, I’m thinking of, say, The Kite Runner. Consider this description:

    “I can still see Hassan up on that tree, sunlight flickering through the leaves on his almost perfectly round face, a face like a Chinese doll chiseled from hardwood: his flat, broad nose and slanting, narrow eyes like bamboo leaves, eyes that looked, depending on the light, gold, green, even sapphire. I can still see his tiny low-set ears and that pointed stub of a chin, a meaty appendage that looked like it was added as a mere afterthought. And the cleft lip, just left of midline, where the Chinese doll maker’s instrument may have slipped, or perhaps he had simply grown tired and careless.” (Excerpted from The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.)

    Gorgeous! I could almost eat it.

    That said, as you know, I loved Wild and Into the Wild and at least the first half of A Walk in the Woods. What I’m looking forward to in your memoir, Patrick, is your “voice” telling your story. Bottom line (at least for this reader).


    1. Terri, I’m blushing at your last line about my memoir and my voice. Oh dear.

      Thank you for that passage from The Kite Runner. I should rewrite this post and put that up front. And as to not worrying until/unless I approach a publisher–as someone who has worked in and around publishing, I’ve been tempted to try to craft WIPs to what I think the market wants or a publisher wants, and I’m not insensitive to that now, but I think the best advice I’ve heard from publishers is to, first and foremost, write the best book you can write, then worry about publishing. So your approach would seem to be dead-on.


  6. There is a larger market for people who like the story than there is for the people who look to the writing. As a reader and as a writer, I prefer to look to the writing for my enjoyment, and there is far too much good writing out there for me to spend much time on the pop stories, but I certainly understand that most people have preference for the story and the easier reading experience.


    1. You’re right about the market, Carl. You’re also right about how much good writing is out there that you, or I, or any lover of words well written hasn’t read. I hear you in saying you want to maximize the time you have to read.


  7. I think it does, unfortunately, largely depend on the audience you to which you choose to cater. As Kate said above, much of commercial fiction is riddled with shallow characters and undeveloped plots, but most people do not desire the depth of a literary work. Be that for better or worse that it how the world works.

    I think the best option is to write commercial fiction that is just literary enough that it might encourage those who read it to venture is true literary fiction, acting as a catalyst to more in depth works. A blending of the two, if you will.


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