Commercial is Not a Bad Word

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Pile of books at a book fair. For a post about literary vs commercial fiction

“I’m not writing great literature. I’m writing commercial fiction for people to enjoy the stories and to like the characters.”

– Kathy Reichs

I remember years ago, explaining the concept of my novel-in-progress to a creative writing tutor who shall remain nameless. The response was a rather judgemental look and the words, “well, that sounds rather commercial.” This was over a decade ago and I still remember it from time to time, because it made such an impression on me. The implication, no doubt, was that I was to take “commercial” as a dirty word and amend my approach to be more literary.

Let’s break this down: one dictionary definition of commercial is “making or intended to make a profit.” So if we look at it through that lens, sneering at commercial literature is just another way of packaging “if you make money you’re a sell-out.” It’s the literary equivalent of saying that a musical artist was more talented when no-one had heard of them and that, when their albums start selling, they’ve somehow tainted the purity of their art.

Through another lens, the implicit statement that commercial work is somehow inferior to more literary work (as if that were even an easy distinction to draw) is just good old fashioned snobbishness. It’s also often rooted in sexism, since books by women are far more likely to be classified as commercial (or “chick lit” *shudder*) than books by men, even when they’re of similar literary merit.

What is defined as commercial also changes over time. In the 1500s and 1600s, theatre was one of the most popular forms of entertainment. Shakespeare wrote plays to make a living and entertain the masses, not to become regarded was one of the world’s greatest literary geniuses 400 years down the road!

Confession-that-isn’t-really-a-confession: I freaking love a lot of commercial fiction.

The main reason that readers read is because we want to be entertained. It’s a pastime just like watching movies or painting or playing a sport or whatever else. We do it because it’s fun. Getting lost in a story, getting to know the characters over 200 or 300 pages and coming to care about what happens to them, reading late into the night because the plot is just so engrossing… this is what so-called commercial fiction gives us.

So why are so many people, including those who really should know better, snobbish and snooty about things just because they are selling well? Or that if something becomes popular, it automatically means that it is of less merit than something more obscure?

I have to read a lot of Capital L Literature for my PhD and, while I love it, I don’t want to always read that stuff in my off time, too. Sometimes I just want a damn good read.

And if my books someday sell well enough that I’m lumped into the category of “commercial”? You know what, that sounds fine.

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