Putting the ‘commercial’ into commercial fiction

Take two novels: each has lively, interesting characters, each is well written. Each has a theme – let’s say, a love triangle. Each explores the strengths and weaknesses, desires and motivations of the main characters. Yet one is described as ‘literary’, the other as ‘commercial’.

What underpins that distinction?

A year or so ago, a friend urged me to read Jonathan Franzen’s hugely lauded book, Freedom, which I listened to on audio. It was, at heart, about a love triangle. It was very long, extremely well written in the sense that the prose was admirable and his exploration of character profound, yet it seemed to me to amble through various people’s lives and come to no very interesting conclusion. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t either like or care about any of the characters and at the end of the book I was left thinking, ‘Why?’.

Read a great thriller, action novel, romance, sci-fi or any other genre novel, and your reaction is likely to be very different. The characters will leap off the page and into your heart, and whatever situation the author has set up for them to face, you are likely to will them to find the Holy Grail, escape the hit squad, marry the hero, get to Mars and back, or whatever. And you probably won’t stop reading until they’ve succeeded. It’s called PTQ, or Page Turning Quality. (More people like to be entertained in this way, incidentally, than tackle ‘deeper’ but less highly paced prose – that’s why genre fiction is described as ‘commercial’.)

What underpins the difference?

literary novel structure

My diagram a bit simplistic, but this is a basic representation of the structure of a literary novel. Events more or less flatline until near the end, where the author takes us either to a happy resolution or something either sadder or more ambiguous. In between, hopefully, you will be bewitched by magnificent prose, get deeply acquainted with the main characters, revel in glorious settings and more.

By contrast, here’s what the structure of a ‘commercial’ novel looks like:

commercial plot graph

Again, this is very simplified, but you can at once see the difference. Tension drives the action forward to ‘the darkest moment’. There will be many setbacks along the way, but the narrative thrust will be clear – we will know what the hero or heroine is desperate to get, and will take the journey to their goal with them, along all the ups and downs. The ending doesn’t need to be happy, but it does need to be satisfying.

Most readers won’t analyse books in this way, of course – they just know what they like!

What do you think makes a book special?

 

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26 thoughts on “Putting the ‘commercial’ into commercial fiction

  1. I’m just setting off into the relm of mystery writing and have come to the realization that the mystery authors I love and read have different structures within their books. The earlier writers, like Christie and James are wonderful with plot construction and language. But the more modern mystery writerslike Leon, MacCall Smith and Perry are a bit different in that they each have series set in interesting places with recurring characters I want to know more about even when the book has ended. My book is more along these lines. Emphasis on character development and settings and not so much on rising tension. We shall see how it all works out once my own mystery book is launched

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  2. I always find your comments useful and revisit them whenever i need to read a friendly “chat”. A good book for me is when I can be alongside the characters watching their lives unfold.

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  3. So glad I found your post thanks to Mary Smith’s tweet. Your discussion is on point and smart, as are your readers’ comments. I’ve often been turned off by critics elitist decisions on what makes a book worthy of being classified as ‘literary.’ I enjoy a book that is character- driven but also follows a plot with conflict and some type of resolution. And yes, I want a page turner, not a lengthy treatise. I read all kinds of genres and fiction as long as the story keeps me entertained and involved with the characters.

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    • I guess boxes are just boxes, and maybe you think something fits one, while someone else can’t get it in! A good read is a good read, no matter what label you put on it – but still, it is interesting to think about the underlying structure. Thanks for commenting.

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  4. Although I mostly enjoy reading commercial fiction, my book group selects literary novels for discussion and I’ve discovered some wonderful reads which may have passed me by had I not been given a nudge in the right direction. I’m currently reading, and enjoying, The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd as my book group read, and I’m now keen to see if it fits into the literary graph above – I think it will! Interestingly, my commercial read of the moment is by American author Anita Shreve, who, in my view, is that rare breed of author who manages to straddle both camps! Brilliant post, Jenny.

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    • Thanks for dropping by and sharing, Rae. I’m sure I’ve oversimplified it all but still, structure is interesting. I’m heading back to my own book now (I thought I’d finished it, but it seems I haven’t!), to check how it runs. 🙂

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  5. Great post, Jenny! I’ve always thought the term ‘literary novel’ quite bizarre and elitist. What does that make other books, when they are all works of literature, no matter what market they are aiming for? Read a description ages ago, that I rather liked (cannot remember the source) – along the lines that a literary novel is a book that takes 400 pages to get nowhere.

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    • Thanks Nell. Yes, I’m afraid it is elitist – and it’s extraordinarily difficult to categorise some books, especially some ‘classics’. What exactly is Pride and Prejudice if it isn’t a fantastic romantic novel, ticking all the boxes of ‘genre’ fiction rather neatly? What about Dickens’ great reads? I could go on! Thanks for commenting.

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  6. Very thought-provoking post, Jenny. To me any fiction where you don’t care about the characters feels like a failure of the author to engage the reader, whether it’s long-winded overblown prose – (so-called literary) – or a commercial attempt that ends up being badly-constructed, predictable and cliche. It’s all a matter of taste, of course, but if the book I’m reading flatlines along some ‘inner journey’ without drama, excitement or unpredictable twists, I’m inclined to toss it in the trash. I believe all good fiction needs that PTQ – page turning quality – or why bother? Literary authors do often seem to have the luxury of exploring and developing characters and situations at a much slower pace while genre or commercial fiction tends to cut to the chase but that’s not to say that blockbusters like Shantaram don’t create worlds just as educational and compelling or that genre authors can’t write beautiful sentences. And what is the distinction anyway? Are Gone With The Wind and Pride and Prejudice literary classics or commercial successes (even chicklit, maybe?) Life of Pi and The English Patient had compelling enough stories to be made into movies while still being hailed as literary masterpieces. What makes a book special to me (Lorraine) is to get wrapped up in the unfolding events, to care deeply about the characters (love or hate) and be desperate to discover the outcome while being entertained and surprised along the way. Language is a part of that, of course. I do appreciate beautiful writing but I want it to enhance rather than overwhelm the story. Just as a side thought too, I wonder if your reaction would have been the same if you were reading instead of listening? Probably so, but I find I have less tolerance for certain things in audio because I can’t skip over parts that are disturbing or boring.

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