Mar 15

Defining literary and commercial fiction. We recommend Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg and All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage.


I’ve just gotten over a reading slump. For a few weeks, I couldn’t get into any books or audios. All I wanted to do was watch TV (I binged the first season of Netflix’s Daredevil. Dark and violent, but oh so good!). I eventually broke the slump by continuing to try things, and I didn’t feel bad about not reading.


audiobooksAudiobook of the week (03:06)

Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel GilbertStumbling on Happiness
by Daniel Gilbert, narrated by the author, is my pick for this week’s Audiobook of the Week.

Special thanks to for sponsoring this episode of Books on the Nightstand. allows you to listen to over 60,000 audiobooks, instantly, wherever you are, and the first one is free. Download or stream any book directly to your Apple or Android device. Sign up for a free 30-day trial and free audiobook download by going to


Commercial vs. Literary Fiction (07:34)

We tackle the difficult task of trying to define literary fiction and commercial fiction. Before getting into those subjects, we define genre fiction which is the term used to describe romance, mystery, and science fiction & fantasy.
Throughout our discussion we mention several times that the defining characteristics of these fiction types are generalizations and they can easily apply to both fiction categories. Also, none of these properties are meant to imply that one of these categories is better than the other.

Commercial Fiction
  • A heavy reliance on plot
  • Less interior character development
  • Page-turner
Literary Fiction
  • Much of the action comes from internal character development (“Nothing happens.”)
  • More ups and downs from emotions than events
  • More complex writing needed to imply emotional states


Two Books We Can’t Wait For You to Read (27:32)

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Smarter Faster Better is the newest book by Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, which I loved. Diving into the research surrounding productivity, Duhigg presents things that were discovered by telling the stories of people and teams encountering problems and solving them. The book’s appendix shows how to put the research and finding to work for you.

Ann recommends All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage, which she says is both literary and commercial (!). A farm in upstate New York is the setting for a murder in the present, and an apparent suicide in the past. How are these events connected and what led to murder?

  • Carol Kubala

    With respect and hugs to both of you, I loved today’s podcast in which you tried to describe what literary fiction means vs. commercial fiction. I laughed several times as this is such a difficult task.

    When I was younger classical literature fell into literary fiction meaning in my mind no way was I reading it. Though that has changed, and I have my own new definition of literary fiction, I see it as being “in the eyes of the beholder”.

    A friend on GR described a mystery we had both read as literary. Wish I could recall what this was but I knew instinctively what this friend meant. I can’t quite explain it but it was IMO.

    As always, you make us think and present a wide variety of books for us to consider. Thank you.

  • Lisa W

    I think we’re all curious, Ann. What was the book that kept you up late reading?

  • Anonymous

    I find it really endearing hearing you both struggle not to ascribe any sort of value judgment to the labels “commercial fiction” or “literary fiction” (or another term “genre fiction”), though in truth I think that there is a value judgment. “Literary” as an appellation is essentially a claim about seriousness of purpose and of quality. There’s a reason you have probably heard of Doctor Faustus, while quite a few mediocrities of the contemporary Elizabethan stage go unremembered by nonspecialists.

    As for whether something is “commercial,” I think that that if it is published, it is to at least some degree commercial. I am not published or even a writer, but as I dimly understand things it isn’t something you accidentally do. There’s a commercial motivation somewhere there. So, I don’t think that “literary fiction” and “commercial fiction” are exactly opposites. What was Dickens if not commercial? Didn’t Austen’s popularity reach quite a fever pitch? The Dream of the Red Chamber is a 2400 page eighteenth-century novel has an entire academic discipline built around its interpretation – Redology – and despite its now centuries’ worth of interpretative build up, continues to be popular and has sold by some estimates over one hundred million copies. I think whether something “literary” happens to also be “commercial” simply has to do with whether it captures a broader audience (which can happen after the author’s death, in the case of Moby-Dick or indeed Austen’s biggest periods of popularity).

    So, I think of them as two separate questions. I also don’t think that something being “not literary” means that it isn’t enjoyable – possibly even more enjoyable than something that is literary when you are in the mood for it. I just think it implies a kind of shallowness; it’s all surface, or its attempts at depth are superficial. If something is literary, it at least makes the attempt. Of course, in practice there are degrees; there’s “literary” like Hamlet, and there’s “not-at-all-literary” like the dinosaur-themed erotica (yes) on the Kindle Store, and a host of possibilities between.

    • gapman

      I wholeheartedly agree with the above post. There definitely is a difference in quality between different works of fiction, whether that upsets some people or not. But that doesn’t mean that ‘commercial fiction’ is utter trash that should be read by no one, and I don’t believe that anyone really implies that either.

      Literary criticism is a whole discipline and field unto itself, and while it can be said that the opinions of critics are still just opinions, they are at least highly informed opinions by knowledgeable people using established and generally agreed upon principles.

      That being said, obviously we are all free to disagree with professional critics and we can go on to like what we want to like and read what we want to read with no shame whatsoever. And besides, most readers that I know like BOTH literary and commercial fiction.
      Sometimes you might be in the mood for something lighter and more geared to flat-out enjoyment rather than a tome that deals with weighty issues, especially after a hard day of work, etc.

      It strikes me as very silly that anyone could be so fragile as to have hard feelings because someone else believes that what they love to read is not generally considered literary.
      Maybe a lot of us need to have a thicker skin so that we can at least discuss what is meant by literary or commercial fiction without being so deathly afraid of accidentally offending someone.

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