The Intersection of Literary and Commercial

IntersectionI asked people on Facebook to tell me what they’d like me to address on the blog. This post is in response to Debbie Maxwell Allen, who said:

Several agents post on their sites that they’re looking for manuscripts “at the intersection of literary and commercial.” Could you give a few examples of books that fall into this category?

This question kind of cracks me up because it’s hard to identify a book of this type until it’s already a commercial success. I mean, you could have a book that you think lies at that intersection. It’s on the literary side, and you think it has commercial potential. But it doesn’t gain any traction in the market so it’s not a commercial success. So did it lie at that intersection or not?

Basically when agents and editors say they want something at “the intersection of literary and commercial,” they’re looking for big bestseller mainstream (non-genre) fiction. They probably want something that might be categorized as general fiction opposed to genre fiction. It’s well written, with some depth, and a broad theme that would attract a large audience. Some might consider it to be on the literary side but it’s totally accessible.

Some 2011 examples might be:

  • The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  • The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
  • The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
  • Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
  • 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

It’s important to note that if you ask different agents and editors this question, the answers will be all over the map.

What are some books you’ve read in the last few years that could be considered at the intersection of literary and commercial? How do you define it?




  1. Wouldn’t it be best to just call this type of book” big bestseller mainstream literary fiction?

    So with that in mind, Freedom would be there, and IQ84, like you said, maybe that Goon Squad book, maybe Water for Elephants.

    Stuff like that.

  2. June Bourgo says:

    My book “Winter’s Captive” just released may fall into the crossroads. It is very character driven and carries a message, yet has a strong plot. It is literary, but not snobby, but time will tell whether it is commercial or not. I agree with Tim, in that no one knows if a manuscript will be a best seller.

    Of course, commercial fiction is money driven and there’s nothing wrong with that. But since my publishing success has come late in life for me, I’m not entirely driven by money at all, which leaves me free to write the way I chose. However, having said that, I’m sure my publisher is, and rightly so.

  3. CG Blake says:

    Literary fiction explores deeper themes and issues than commercial fiction, though it’s possible for literary fiction to enjoy commercial success. Contemporary examples of literary fiction include anything by Michael Chabon, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, Jane Smiley, Alice McDermott, Richard Russo and Ann Patchett. In the 20th Century, examples included authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Saul Bellow.

  4. Amazing! With every new comment I found myself nodding my head in agreement. This is truly a fuzzy subject!

    How about St Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince? A book for children? A literary masterpiece? Throughout, the story is told on two levels: on the surface, a delightful tale for kids; underneath, deep comments about the human condition.

    Maybe the cross section between literary and commercial is precisely that: on the surface it looks slick and appealing, easy-to-read at all ages; underneath, well, ideas are suggested that illuminate our understanding of the world around us and ourselves. Still waters run deep…

  5. Sharon Wood says:

    I agree with Roz Morris, especially in her comment on writing quality and how “it sings the story like a musical instrument.” I would add that this intersection between literary and commercial seems to be located at the point where depth and forward motion dovetail – where the author manages to balance the tension between what happens next and what happens under the surface. I think Anita Brookner is a quiet master of this art.

  6. OK, now the light is beginning to dawn. Thank you for your answer. Would love to hear some more about best seller, main-stream, non-genre fiction. Would Jan Karon’s Mitford series fall in this category?

  7. Christina says:

    I’m nominating “The Passage” by Justin Cronin for this topic. It’s got beautiful prose, careful worldbuilding (Can you think of any other book that decides to include academic conference materials written 1000 years in the future about the apocalypse happening in the contemporary timestream of the rest of the book?), and really interesting characters. And then there are nuns, vampires, and nuclear bombs, in addition to a daring escape by train.

    Seriously, it’s a delicious milkshake of genre and literary conventions.

  8. To me, the intersection of literary and commercial means a combination of the two — literary being emotional depth and beautiful prose where the author has “a way with words”; commercial meaning it’s still accessible (not hoity-toity) and has a universal theme and is a story that keeps the reader turning pages – no lollygagging allowed in commercial fiction — so the meandering nature of something purely literary is kept to a minimum. In books that are literary or have a literary bent, I find there are lines or paragraphs I underline or highlight because they are just beautifully written, because they explain or express something in a way I’ve never thought to do (and wish I had). In something completely commercial, it might be a fabulous well-written story but there’s nothing “underlinable.” That’s my distinction.

    I’d say 100% that The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern has all that — as does The Ninth Wife by Amy Stolls, The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown and A Cup of Friendship by Deborah Rodriguez. These books stuck with me long after The End.

  9. Kristen says:

    This is also a really interesting topic within the grad school community which traditionally pushes for small press, literary publications and shies away from commercial genre fiction. From personal experience, anyone who aspires to write genre fiction and is in a graduate creative writing program struggles with this cross-roads each time a new story is submitted in workshop. This is especially true for me while I work on my thesis which has blatant genre undertones, but a much heavier emphasis on being “literary” because of a community push to do so. I suppose this could become a very positive experience if this is what agents are looking for now.

  10. This is a difficult question to answer because we pigeonhole books extremely fast in today market. Harry Potter was YA fiction, but middle-aged adults loved the series. The Chronicles of Narnia are children’s books with so much depth that every age can appreciate.
    Two books that might fall into this category are: “Clockwork Prince” by Cassandra Clare and the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series by Jeff Kinney.

    A personal observation on the subject: Most general fiction bestsellers start with the children and youth market, but have a broader appeal due to the depth of the writing. This happens when a kid gets a book and it’s so good great mom has to read it. Mom tells her friends and so on. I don’t know a lot of children asking to read dad’s copy of “The Litigators.”

  11. Guilie says:

    When I think of lit-fic that’s commercially appealing, Isabel Allende comes to mind. I don’t think any of her books (except maybe The House of Spirits) ever made it on a bestseller list–in English, of course; Spanish is another matter–but she’s pretty well-known, I think, and her stories are invariably character-based. For me, literary fiction is that: character, not plot. Development of the human through a journey, usually internal. Introspection and deep point-of-view narration.

  12. Josh C. says:

    I don’t read many literary novels. I suppose the ones I’d say are closest to literary would be Blood Meridian (western) and Mystic River (crime). I read a lot of crime/mystery/thriller/horror and all of my writing falls into those genres, too. If done well, genre fiction contains as much depth as literary fiction and the writing itself can be just as enthralling, with a good plot to go along with it.

  13. Brianna says:

    I’d consider people like James Patterson or Dean Koontz to be at the intersection – they seem to do well, no matter what they release, and because they write mysteries they appeal to people who read a lot AND people who might not read so much.

  14. Ane Mulligan says:

    I may be off the mark here, since I don’t read many literary novels, but I fell in love with The Salt Garden by Cindy Martinusen. While it’s women’s fiction, it has a literary bent.

  15. I’m confused, Tim. Are you saying agents, when considering a manuscript, aren’t looking for a best seller, a book that flies off the shelves and appeals to a wide audience?

    • Timothy Fish says:

      There isn’t an agent out there who wouldn’t love 15% of a few million dollars, so sure, they would love to find the new best seller. The problem is that manuscripts don’t come with the number of books that will be sold printed on the front cover. For that, one must apply some kind of theory. This thing about the intersection of literary and commercial is essentially a theory that states that books at that intersection have a higher probability of becoming best sellers. If we include “best seller” in the definition of what those books are, the definition becomes circular and of no value because only God knows which manuscripts will become best sellers.

  16. This is what I dislike in the publishing world these days. A good book can’t just be a good book. It’s always about the numbers and the money. I’ve read some terrific literary books, and they’ve come from small presses, and they haven’t been best sellers. I have a good book with a good story, and, frankly, I don’t care if it makes the best seller’s list. I just want to share my story with some people who will appreciate my rendering of it and say it added a thought or emotion to their lives that they hadn’t experienced before.

    • Timothy Fish says:

      I don’t see it as a bad thing that people want to make money. We kind of need it. But that may be the point of the statement as much as anything. They want to find good books, but they need to find books that will make money.

      • Of course, money makes the world go round, but I am talking about the ridiculous amounts of money that are attached to some best sellers and the agents (and writers) that go hunting after that. I have a full time job that I don’t plan on leaving until retirement, but a full time writer can make a decent living without hitting the best seller list. Our society is all about celebrity and money and recognition so that’s what people envision as success a lot of the time. But there are lots and lots of good books that don’t have that kind of success but also afford the writer a decent living (if combined with teaching oftentimes).

  17. I agree with Rachelle’s definition, best seller (because it touches a wide audience), well-written with a broad theme (innovative yet accessible and thought provoking). The examples Rachel offers are excellent. May I add The Book Thief by Markus Zusak which was classified as YA but crossed over to adult.

    I suppose that’s what most of strive to write – a book with mass appeal, true to our ideas that’s well-written. I certainly do. And why not? These are the books I love to read.

  18. Hmmmm….

    The Language of Flowers. Although, I’m not sure if that’s been a commercial success. And perhaps its more women’s fiction than general fiction.

  19. Timothy Fish says:

    Personally, I think it is a bit of silliness from people who take themselves way to seriously, but if we must define it…

    To me, literary fiction must attempt to say something meaningful, the one and only one theme must be clearly defined, and it must be clear that the author is trying to make a statement, rather than just repeating the same statement made by several other authors in the same genre. But books don’t sell based on theme, so commercial fiction must have a clearly defined genre, it must meet the expectations of the readers of that genre, and readers should be able to tell what the story is about by reading one or two sentences on the back cover.

    When I think of where these two roads cross, I think of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which was written before anyone thought to classify works a “literary”, but it clearly fits into the Science Fiction genre, but it is clear that he is making a statement.

  20. I’m having a hard time with this one, as I do in most interpret-the-agent situations, mostly because I can’t help detecting a dose of snootiness tucked in behind the verbiage. Mark Twain said, “I never write metropolis for seven cents because I can get the same price for city. I never write policeman because I can get the same money for cop.” The seven cent phrase for “well-written non-genre,” then, is “at the intersection of literary and commercial.” I guess what bothers me most is the inherent assumption in the grander phrase that literary work is well-written by definition and commercial–well, isn’t. Then again, I’m probably just reading too much into it. As usual.

    That said, you asked about examples. I’ve read some; even the hardest-core science fiction and fantasy reader needs a break from other worlds sometimes. The example that comes to mind right away is The Notebook. It was well-written, contained a grand concept, and sold a bazillion copies. Made a cool movie, too.

    And, all THAT said, y’all have fun with that non-genre stuff. I’m off to continue writing the next Harry Potter. 🙂

    • Love the Mark Twain quote! I wonder if some of the success of these novels has to do with the unique way the author’s voice blends with the concept they chose in a compelling way.

      Thanks, Rachelle, for answering my question so well!


  21. My novel as well! But also those literary/commercial novels are the ones I most like to read. Examples are Bel Canto by Ann Patchett and The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

    What gives them that quality? A strong story concept – in one a siege, in the other a murder – and a story that has many more layers and universal resonances than the events and the characters. Third essential ingredient – the writing quality – language isn’t just for clarity or atmosphere, it sings the story like a musical instrument.

    As a reader I’d say more please!

    • carol brill says:

      Beautifully said – in fact your response seems to “show” the intersection.

      I’d add, doesn’t follow a formula to just tell a story but explores and exposes the impact of what happens in the story in language that lets you appreciate its beauty without getting in the way or slowing the story.

    • Timothy Fish says:

      I don’t see writing quality as defining literary fiction, but rather it seems to me that the people who can pull it off are thinkers and thinkers tend to be more intelligent than most, which naturally leads to better writing quality.

  22. marion says:

    How do I define it? My WIP, of course!

    Otherwise, the only one that comes to mind right now is McEwan’s Atonement.

    • I disagree Brianna. They are, IMO, extremely genre fiction. They do well, but they don’t write anything close to literary.

      I think a lot of YA novels lately could be considered at the crossroads. After by Amy Efaw is the first that comes to mind, but I’ve read many others. YA these days seem to be very deep, and it’s read by a very wide age range.

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