Literary vs Commercial Fiction: a Lose-Lose Debate

First, I must address the fact that you could ask a dozen writers what the difference is between literary and commercial fiction and get a dozen different answers. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll say that literary fiction is more about the writing than the story, while commercial fiction is the opposite. Literary novels are those books we feel we “should” read and enjoy  (remember Tess Gerritsen’s terrific blog on Legume Literature?); commercial books are those we can’t put down. GILEAD, BELOVED, BEL CANTO, all books I thoroughly enjoyed, are examples of literary fiction, full of breathtaking writing (and symbolism) to which the story takes a backseat. THE DA VINCI CODE, which I also loved, is commercial all the way. Then there are those amazing writers who manage to write literary books with commercial appeal: I would put Pat Conroy, Sue Monk Kidd and Anne Tyler in this category, though some would disagree with me.
Anyhow, the conference I attended last week really got me thinking about this debate, which is ongoing in the writing world (and in bookgroups all over the map). I usually attend conferences with published writers of commercial fiction where we talk about the biz of writing. The North Carolina Writers’ Network conference was different in that it was more about craft and VERY literary in its leaning. Lots of poets, MFAs, and simply fabulous writers. (When I did my reading from THE BAY AT MIDNIGHT, I admit to feeling slightly intimidated at following four astounding poets). Here’s the rub: literary writers tend to look down their noses at commercial writers (although I hasten to add, I was treated with complete respect for my work at the conference!), and commercial writers tend to belittle the importance of beautiful writing. Here’s the lesson I took from the conference: By breaking into two camps, we’re only hurting ourselves. I adored the exposure to a different sort of writing that I experienced at the conference, and I have no doubt that the so-called literary writers could benefit from learning some of the skills of story-telling commercial writers have perfected. We cut ourselves off from one another because of our ego, fear and protecting our turf. I’d like to see more of a mix. We can learn from each other.
I’ve been cleaning out my files and stumbled over my early rejection letters that I keep to remind me of leaner times. Here is my favorite rejection (of my fourth novel and the favorite of many of my fans, KEEPER OF THE LIGHT): . . . “the author seems preoccupied with the psychology of the relationships she creates . . . While this approach may work in more literary novels, it won’t in more commercial arenas. In my opinion, Chamberlain is straddling the two.”
I hope I can continue straddling. That’s right where I want to be!


  1. Margo on November 20, 2006 at 2:53 pm

    You’ve got to be kidding me, KEEPER OF THE LIGHT was once rejected?…what makes that my all time fav novel IS the beautiful ‘poetry’ within, the grace of words and symbolism of light, the psychology of the relationships, and the beautiful sense of place…the book is masterfully written and I would debate anyone who said otherwise…I sum it up to the fact that I think someone was grossly jealous of you, Diane.

  2. Diane Chamberlain on November 20, 2006 at 3:39 pm

    LOL, Margo. I’m glad you feel that way about KEEPER. It IS a marketing problem for publishers, though, when a writer doesn’t fit neatly into the literary or commercial camp, so I can see her point. I’m thankful HarperCollins, KEEPER’s eventual publisher, felt differently.

  3. Brenda on November 21, 2006 at 11:42 am

    Diane-I a astonished that my “book” was rejected…Keeper’s is one that I go to when I want to immerse myself in a “good” book–so what if it is not one of the Canon…if you are not??? Who cares? I love Shakespeare…I am a Shakespeare GURU to my high school students…however, I love your work too…
    One should not have to choose…
    I enjoy reading memoirs, biographies, etc., so I read a plethora of different genres…you are right at the top of my list…Just finished reading THE THIRTEENTH TALE–it was different, but I liked it…same with the historical bios I have been reading–some of the authors can’t compare to your literary style-but I still like them…
    I like Mary Higgins Clark–a light read…I loved Danielle Steel’s books-until her last few-something has happened there…
    I read about anything but science fiction and S. King–sorry…just can’t get into his books.
    I am sure you did a great job at the workshop and sounds like they treated you well…The age-old debate about The Canon-versus “Fluff” will exist forever…just as it has….keep writing…we know what we like…

  4. Robert on November 10, 2007 at 4:24 pm

    Hi Diane,
    I found your site by entering: literary fiction. It appears by the dates that you have addressed the literary/commercial debate on your site about a year ago, but it is very much on my mind, so I would like to revisit the issue, if I may. I wrote a traditional mystery/thriller which my agent is submitting to the majors now. I recently started a general fiction book which I want to language as “literary”, but was told by my agent that publishers are now staying away from general and literary fiction (except from established authors). She says that you have a greater chance of getting published by staying within one of the genres – mystery, thriller, romance, etc. I liked your comment about wanting to “straddle the fence”.
    I read someone like Franzen and am dazzled by his prose, but left ultimately disappointed by the lack of a good story. I don’t know if EMPIRE FALLS by Russo is considered “literary” or not because his prose is intelligent but relatively simple language without the tangental exploration of a Franzen. Russo tells a good story. I may not be as dazzled with the prose, but by the end of the book I feel more emotionally satisfied.
    This brings me via the long way to my concern. Like you, I want to write a well constructed and forward-moving story, and also use the beauty of language and take some side excursions into cultural/social issue crannies. I realize that many readers accustomed to the the writing serving only the plot, may not want to go on any of these side excursions, nor are they particularly appreciative of rich prose. Anyway, do you think there is much of a market for “straddling the fence”, and do you agree with my agent who also said I should try to shoehorn my lit work into a traditional genre? Thanks.

  5. Diane Chamberlain on November 10, 2007 at 4:48 pm

    Hi Robert,
    Wow, this IS an old post.
    First, congratulations on getting an agent. You must write well and tell a good story to get that far.
    Second, I hate rules. If you write a complete novel and it’s absolutely knock-your-socks-off smashing whether it straddles the fence or not, it will find a home eventually. Eventually can be a long time, though. If you trust in your agent, I would go with his or her advice.
    I’m with you on Frantzen!
    There ARE writers who straddle the fence between literary and commercial fiction successfully. I’m thinking of Kim Edwards THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, Pat Conroy’s books, author of (blanking. . . )THE KITE RUNNER and 1000 SPLENDID SUNS etc. These are books with literary merit that have still found a commercial audience. But they each have a high concept plot, which is necessary for that success, in my opinion.
    Good luck to you, and I hope you find your niche soon.

  6. Jane on March 27, 2008 at 9:16 am

    Hi Diane and others
    I certainly apreciate your attempt at defining literary fiction -suffice it to say that it is also called sophisticated and serious writing. I would agree it is most consistent with the act of writing moreso than the story itself.
    All the best

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