The Writer’s Journey is a column dedicated to different styles of writing
and the exploration of one writer’s path to publication.

Written by Samantha House

Welcome to the second article in our series on writing styles! Last week we took a look at fiction and non-fiction writing, but this week it’s all about literature and commercial fiction. Even if you’ve heard of both writing styles, these forms can seem very different, but below the surface, they can cross over into other writing styles just like fiction and nonfiction. Let’s check it out!

Literature = Art

In broad terms, literature is any piece of writing with artistic or intellectual value. Oddly enough, a category of writing known as “oral literature” exists which encompasses forms like spoken-word poetry, work that is sung, and orally recited histories as in those of ancient tribal people, but just about every other style of writing can easily find itself beneath literature’s broad umbrella.

Literature uses a number of devices to increase the beauty of your writing. Examples of these literary devices include metaphors, similes, ellipses, allegory, narrative motif, and word play. These tools give your work added meaning and depth, and one mark of a skillful writer involves layering these devices, so that the reader is not only impressed with the beauty of the work but also understands it on a level that goes beyond what has been written.

Literature has five major forms.

  • Novel – By its simplest definition, a novel is a long narrative: Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a good example of this.
  • Short Story – Little sibling to the novel, a short story has no particular word count other than they are short(er). The Bet by Anton Chekhov, Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf and The Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe are a few examples in this well-populated section of writing.
  • Novella – Let’s call novellas the cousins of novels and short stories. The only true tell for a novella, is that it is too short to be considered a novel and too long to be called a short story. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck and Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s fall into this category.   
  • Drama – As the name suggests, drama is writing intended for performance. Monologue, soliloquy, and plays are all unique iterations of drama, and a few examples include the original War of the Worlds by Orson Welles (read during live radio broadcasts) and Greek plays such as Oedipus.
  • Poem – Poetry is usually very rhythmic, utilizes aesthetically pleasing language, and is frequently subject to artistic interpretation, but all poetry is set in lines as opposed to sentences. Homer’s Iliad, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and Beowulf are beautiful examples of this style of writing.

Commercial Fiction = Entertainment

While literature is more concerned with the art of writing, commercial fiction puts the reader first and aims to tell a story as quick as possible. Often plot-driven and fast paced, commercial fiction makes use of metaphors, similes, and other devices but only sparingly so as to not overwhelm the reader and take away from what is happening in the story.

Commercial fiction is a popular form of writing and is sometimes referred to as “genre fiction” because of the categories its stories tend to fall into: romance, historical, mystery, and many others which we covered in the article, “Fiction and Nonfiction.”

Gone Girl by Gillen Flynn
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

All wonderful examples of commercial fiction you may be familiar with.

Normally in the literature category, sometimes novels are more appropriately labelled commercial fiction. Take The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan for example, wherein Allan uses beautiful prose to tell the story of two sisters in early-1900s Tasmania. The argument that the novel is a form of literature would be easily won, but because the story is also character driven and fast paced, spanning +70 years and several generations, many lively debates have been created over what, specifically, constitutes literature versus commercial fiction.

Depending on what you want from your experience, literature or commercial fiction may be the way to go. Is pure entertainment what you’re looking for? Then commercial fiction is for you! If you’re looking for a more intellectually stimulating experience, though, then literature is your best bet. Both worlds will always have a place in the writing community, though.

I hope this breakdown of literature and commercial fiction has helped you to fine-tune your ink-stained voice! In our next article, we’ll take a closer look at novels and novellas and why word length is so important.

Have a happy and creative day! x

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for that insight into my book—yes, The Sisters’ Song does sit on the fence between commercial and literary fiction. I think when you’re writing, don’t worry about where your book will fit—just write the story you want to tell. The genre is something a reader/publisher can decide later. 🙂

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