Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Literary, Commercial, Mainstream: Are they all the same?

Ashley asked: "What's the difference between literary, commercial, and mainstream fiction? Mainstream isn't touched upon very often (and that's what I consider my WIP), so I wonder, is it not as prominent as the other two? And how is it very much different from commercial?"

Ashley, I don’t think anyone will say that the lines between literary, commercial, and mainstream fiction are at all clear. To answer your question, I decided to consult the sources that actually rely on this sort of categorization, and those sources aren’t the writers.

The two main reasons why you will need to fit your book into a category at all is because 1. you want to find an agent to represent your work and 2. you want to place your book in the corner of the store where interested readers will find it. So, let’s see how those two groups are breaking it down.


I checked out the preferences of a few literary agents to find out how they are using the terms. The website, which serves as an agent database, has two of the three genres in question, commercial and literary fiction, among a host of other genres. Emma Sweeney from the Emma Sweeney Agency uses only the term literary fiction. Paige Wheeler from Folio Literary Management prefers both commercial and “upscale” fiction. Laney Katz Becker, also from Folio, prefers literary, commercial, and mainstream. Blogging agent Nathan Bransford considers commercial fiction to be a blanket term for all genre fiction. So, he would say that literary fiction is the un-genre, un-commercial stuff, which has nothing to do with the actual commercial value of the book. Sandra Dijkstra, from what I can interpret, also seems to go by this definition. She prefers both commercial and literary fiction, which I’m assuming covers everything—maybe I’m wrong. Interestingly, another agent from the Dijkstra agency, Elise Capron, says she prefers “character driven fiction,” “offbeat fiction,” and “debut fiction.”

So, my take home message from this short look into the agent side of things is that different agents interpret the terms differently, and you should do your homework for each specific agent before you query them. Decide if your book falls into the categories they prefer, and decide what you should call your book based on those categories. Don’t feel committed to any one category. You might end up calling your book mainstream fiction for one agency and literary fiction for another. For a third you could end up calling it offbeat debut fiction.

Book Stores

Genre categories are probably most important in that they help your readers find you. When going into a bookstore or shopping online, genres help to orient the customers so that they don’t look for Russian Classics next to Romance novels. This is especially important if they’ve never heard of you as a writer. I’ve discovered new writers in the literary fiction shelves of stores, but never in the sci-fi shelves, simply because I rarely go there. It would take forever to find anything if all of the books were just alphabetized.

Looking at the big books stores, Borders has only the literary fiction category, as does Barnes & Noble. Amazon, on the other hand, has both literary fiction and general fiction. None of these places have mainstream fiction or commercial fiction. In general, I would guess that the stores (and libraries) lump all three of these categories together.

So, Ashley, for you, I’d say to call it whatever the agent calls it when you are querying each of them. You probably won’t need to choose once it’s ready for publication, but I’m guessing—based on what little I know about your writing—that it will fall into the literary fiction shelves.


  1. This is something I had never thought of, but really good information. Thanks for doing the homework for us, Davin :D

  2. I always wondered about the difference between these and often ended up calling my pieces mainstream. It's good advice to query agents by their categories. That way they know that you know who your book is going to and if it fits.
    I suppose my book would still fit into general fiction but it sounds so...well, general, to call it general fiction.

  3. Another informative post, Chouette Dude.

  4. Wow! Bowman's even breaking out the French for you. Agents seem to care more about it than bookstores. Thanks for the rundown.

  5. I don't think libraries usually make a big distinction, except for genre fiction. Our library shelves mystery, sci-fi/fantasy, and western separately within the adult fiction. The books even get little stickers on the spines to make it easier for say, mystery readers, to identify the books. All other adult fiction is mixed together.

  6. Thanks so, so, so much for researching this, Davin! You're the best! :) I, too, have noticed how in Barnes and Noble (the closest and virtually only book store anywhere near me) a lot of genres are lumped together--chick lit, literary, what would probably be considered commercial and mainstream, the classics, and so on. The only ones with their own categories are romance (the steamy, erotic kind), sci-fi, and young adult. There may be a few more as well.

    I think it's interesting you picked up on different agent interpretations and boy does that make the distinction unclear. I've often read that mainstream and commercial tend to be plot driven and in literary, the plot kind of floats under the surface. For that reason, I'm not sure I'll ever label my WIP literary because my story is highly plot driven. From the first couple of pages and certainly by the end of the chapter, you can definitely pick up on what the main plot is. Everything that happens from then on is completely centered around a particular conflict (with sub-conflicts--is that even a word? LOL--mixed in there as well).

    I will definitely keep in mind how each of the agents I query interpret these genres when the time comes. So I'm glad you brought that to my attention, Davin!

  7. Informative post.
    I usually lump literary and mainstream together, too. That is good advice on doing whatever the agent does.

  8. Hi Davin,

    I'm a literary agent with the Emma Sweeney Agency, and thought I should offer my two cents here. Agents will put all kinds of descriptions in their bios about what they're looking for, in the hopes that casting a wide net will catch the very best work.

    That said, I think there are some pretty standard, broadly accepted differences between literary and commercial fiction. The take I've seen most often goes like this: Commercial fiction happens on the page. The themes covered in commercial fiction may be far ranging, complex, or "deep," and the prose may be as sparkling or flat as any prize-winning title, but the content of the story in commercial fiction is limited to what appears in the text. Literary fiction, on the other hand, happens between the lines. The plotting may be as tricky as any thriller novel and the pace may be fast or slow, but what distinguishes literary fiction is what is left unsaid. Narrators may be self-absorbed or unreliable, things are pointed to do without being explained. These are the novels that make you re-read every third paragraph because of they way it makes you think -- then you re-read the entire book and discover new things therein.

    Hope that helps.

    All best,

  9. Eva: I just wanted to say thank you for stopping by! Your advice and comments are excellent. I agree with you on the distinction between literary fiction and commercial fiction.

    Davin: Thanks for the research you've done here! It's better than I could have offered, so I'm glad you took the question. I think it is important for us to understand, or at least think about these differences as we consider the publishing side of things. Thank you!

  10. I put a post on my blog with a link to Janet Paszkowski's discussion of what she feels are the differences between literary and mainstream/genre fiction. It's an interesting list.

  11. Tess, I tried to do a little bit of research because I had never thought of the distinction too much myself. I'm glad Ashley asked us!

    Cindy, Ha, yes, sometimes I feel the same way. I wish I could say my fiction was a thriller! I do love my literary, though.

    Thanks, Justus!

    Lois, thanks for stoppng by. Yes, Bowman never ceases to impress me.

    Michelle, you're right. In the libraries I frequent--although I honestly am trying to buy more books--they do lump much of the fiction together.

    Ashley, I do hope this was helpful. It was a really interesting question and one that stumped me.

    Annie, Yes, my understanding is that SOMETIMES you can lump those things together.

    Eva, Thank you very much for stopping by and for your thoughtful comments. I think I speak for everyone when I say how grateful we writers are for agent information. I'll keep this interpretation in mind.

    Jim, thanks a lot for your link! I'll check it out!

  12. Davin, I really appreciate the info. I had wondered about this myself a while back. How is it that so many agents have such different takes on all of this? And you're right. Do your homework. That's the best advice anyone can ever give a writer. :)

  13. It is very important to label your book properly before querying. If you're not sure what genre your book fits into, ask a writer friend to read it and give you their thoughts. You don't want to describe a gothic, religious thriller, as inspirational women's fiction. Sure, both may have religion and a woman protagonist, but the tones will be completely different!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.