Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Literary vs. commercial fiction

by Rob - February 5th, 2008.
Filed under: Uncategorized.

This showed up in my email box today:

I have what may be a silly question: what is the difference between genre writing and literary writing? I have asked many people/authors and I’m still confused. At first I thought a genre work couldn’t be literary, but I have a friend who published fantasy novels that were considered literary. So apparently it’s possible to be both.

I’ve also heard that literary writing is writing that is good for writing’s sake, so that a literary writer is good with writing as an art form. Does that mean literature is good by virtue of the way it is written and not necessarily by the content of what is written? That seems to go against what I learned in high school about content being integral to good writing.

Do you consider yourself a literary writer?

And here’s my three-minute response (because that’s all I had time for); I’m not wedded to these observations, and please don’t expect me to defend them to death, but I think they’re a good first approximation of the right answer, and certainly a decent starting point for discussion:

I am a commercial fiction writer (meaning I write books to make money, and my publisher publishes them with that end in mind).

I am also a genre fiction writer (meaning I work in one of the specially labeled categories you see in bookstores: science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, horror, western, etc.; commercial fiction that does not fall into these categories is called mainstream fiction).

Literary publishing is done without hopes of making a lot of money, and often in small print runs produced by small publishers.

Commercial fiction tends to emphasize characterization, plot, action, and dialog, and may, or may not, include beautiful, or highfalutin, or arch language, and may, or may not, have an overall theme.

In contrast, literary fiction usually gives short shrift to plot and action, but often has a theme (a statement other than a plot synopsis describing what the story is about).

However literary merit is often found in commercial fiction including that subset of commercial fiction called genre fiction.

But having literary merit is not a requirement of successful commercial fiction, and doing well commercially is not a requirement of successful literary fiction.

In any event, to call oneself a “literary writer” has always stuck me as either a silly redundancy (I’m a “woody carpenter”) or pretentious; if the person saying that means that his or her work has literary merit — sorry, that’s for others to judge. :)

By the way, nine years ago, I was approached by an academic (whose biases I think were quite evident from the questions he asked) about whether or not I considered myself part of that special form of literary publishing known as Canadian literature (or “Canlit”). I absolutely do consider myself part of that, for the reasons I gave him, which you can read here.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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