The term “commercial fiction” is often said with contempt. Fans of the modern greats might use it to imply a lower form of literature. Literature Editor Chloe Francina believes that this is a misconception. Read on and find out why.
Whenever we hear of the term commercial fiction we generally assume that it refers to a lower form of literature. However, this is a misconception based on the stereotype that such fiction is simple and trashy. I believe it can be just as impressionable, life-changing, and thought-provoking as literary fiction.
The majority of literary fiction is focused on language and the human experience. It also tends to have a much slower pace than commercial fiction. Literary fiction authors tend to use techniques such as complex metaphors, which they hope will create an impressive effect once deciphered, whereas authors of commercial fiction would express their ideas in a clearer way for the reader. I recently read an article online by author Annie Neugebauer and she explains it thus: “Literary fiction does put the artistry first…but commercial fiction puts the reader first”.
Commercial fiction is centred on the plot, a big hook to grab the audience’s attention, therefore allowing them to devour the book quickly. This is why one could argue that commercial fiction is more popular – because it is generally easier to follow, and captures you from the moment you start reading. Commercial readers need their literature to not stray too far from the main plot in order to retain their attention. Perhaps the biggest misconception that arises from the literary vs. commercial fiction debate is that commercial fiction is simpler or not as deep, but it can pose just as many questions.
In order to support my argument that commercial fiction can have just as big an impact as literary fiction, I have devised a list of popular novels that are classed as commercial and which I have read. In no particular order, they are as follows:
1. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
3. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
4. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
5. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
6. Beloved by Toni Morrison
7. The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
8. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Trilogy) by Stieg Larsson
9. Atonement by Ian McEwan
10. Harry Potter (Series) by J. K. Rowling
For anyone who argues that literary fiction is the only type of fiction that can have a serious impact on the reader, I would use any of the books on this list to challenge that perception. Each one of these books have opened my eyes to different aspects of the world and I believe that they would have a similar effect on anyone who reads them.
I do admit that even within this group of ten books, divisions can be made. For instance Beloved, Atonement, Memoirs of a Geisha and The Da Vinci Code all offer deep messages about the past and challenge our perspectives on particular moments of our history. Meanwhile the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games trilogy and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy can be seen as perhaps more commercial than the others in terms of appealing to a wider audience. These books blur the line between commercial and literary fiction due to their hooking plots, developed and complex characters, as well as still using the artistry of literature to its full potential.
Of course there is also the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer which is part of the commercial fiction category. However I believe this series falls closer to the commercial fiction end of the scale, as the writing style appears to be simplified and these books do not seem to offer questions for the reader to get their teeth stuck into (no pun intended).
“And what about 50 Shades of Grey?”
Surely we must include this now-infamous trilogy. Again, I would place these novels more towards the commercial end of the scale rather than adding it to my list of books that can be considered to include certain aspects of commercial and literary fiction. It is well known that E.L. James did not intend the focus of her trilogy to be the language used or her style of writing. The aim of these books is clearly plot and character driven and there is nothing wrong with this; it is simply a different style of literature.
But there is another reason why 50 Shades must be mentioned. E.L. James first introduced her trilogy via the internet through blogs on her website 50Shades.com – so the argument of self-publishing comes into view for commercial fiction. All three books were published online in e-book format and experienced viral marketing. The popularity of the novels at first relied on word of mouth and book blogs due to the lack of funds available. Soon, Vintage Books picked up on the hype James’ stories were creating, took over the licence and re-released the trilogy in April 2012.
This is a great example of how a publishing house can turn a small success into a worldwide phenomenon. In addition, it proves we still have a need for these big publishing names despite what many people may believe. I am not denying there is a place for self-publishing – it is a good way to get your pieces noticed. However, I fully believe that having a publishing house behind you goes a long way to making your text more successful nationally and sometimes worldwide.
“So where to stand with regards to self-publishing and commercial fiction?”
What it comes down to is preference with regards to literary vs. commercial fiction there is no right or wrong, better or worse. Both categories can produce good and bad quality work, as well as create an impact on their readership. As for self-publishing, I for one am not ready to dismiss our publishing houses yet! Yes, technology is great, and it helps with accessibility to opportunities and careers that we otherwise may never have achieved. But it is the name, the recognition and respect towards our publishing companies that still help millions of authors reach their dream. Having the name of a well known publishing house on the cover of a book goes a long way to promoting it, as people acknowledge that this is the company’s way of saying that they recommend and believe in a writer’s work.
By Chloe Francina