Shakespeare Wrote Commercial Fiction–The Battle Between Literary & Commercial Fiction

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Image via Wikimedia Commons (Source The Washington Times)

In the last post, we had a little bit of a debate about literary fiction versus commercial fiction in the comments, thus I wanted to take a moment to point out something very important. Just because fiction is commercial, doesn’t mean it’s the equivalent of Transformers Part 5. Commercial fiction runs the gambit from fluff that is just there for fun entertainment to multi-dimensional, powerful writing.

I want to point out that Shakespeare’s works were all commercial fiction. His plays were written to entertain regular, illiterate working people. BUT, why his works were so brilliant was that they were multi-layered, threaded with nuance, symbolism, and powerful themes. His work could be understood and enjoyed by “common” people, but there were references that captivated, challenged, and even upset the highly educated.

We still study Shakespeare to this day. Just because our work is “commercial” doesn’t mean it’s plebeian. Conversely, just because a work is loaded with fancy words and references that only a PhD can understand, doesn’t make it good literary writing.

Um, The Canterbury Tales were also “commercial fiction” ;).

Layers and Complexity Make the Difference

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Oprah Winfrey in “The Color Purple”

Joy Luck ClubWinter’s BoneLonesome Dove, The RoadThe Color Purple, are all good examples of literary works that were multi-layered. I watched Lonesome Dove and enjoyed it when I was 15. Maybe I didn’t catch every reference, theme and nuance my grandparents did, but I could enjoy the story at least on the surface level.

In my opinion, the best literary works are the ones with the skill to entertain all audiences in different ways. But, at least that’s my opinion.

Back to the commercial side…

One of the reasons that Monty Python’s The Holy Grail is one of my all-time favorite movies is because the writers employed the same layers of brilliance. I first saw the movie when I was 5 and laughed at the knights hopping around clacking coconuts. The Black Knight was my favorite. It was basic slapstick even a 5 year-old could find funny.

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As I grew older and studied more history, more and more references, layers of comedy and double entendres, that, before were hidden, bubbled to the surface. To this day, I still catch new references, making The Holy Grail funnier every time I watch.

Who made you King? I didn’t vote for you. We’re an autonomous collective.

*clutches sides laughing*

Help! Help! I’m being repressed! Come! Come and see the violence inherent in the system!

Thou shall count to three, and the number of the counting shall be three. FIVE? Is RIGHT OUT!

Okay, I’ll stop.

The point I am trying to make here is that literary fiction and commercial fiction are not polar extremes people might believe. Commercial fiction doesn’t automatically mean the fiction is one-dimensional, simplistic and written only for people with an eight grade education or below.

Harry Potter was brilliant in that it could captivate children and adults alike. Rowling’s characters were visceral, complex, and riveting. Winter’s Bone on the literary side, could engage a commercial audience, but those who wanted subtlety, theme and symbol walked away fulfilled.

We Must Look at What We Seek to Accomplish

Goals are goals. Your goals are yours and don’t let anyone belittle those goals. If you want to write commercial fiction that simply entertains and doesn’t take on deep, raw societal issues, that’s a noble goal. If you want to write for the super-educated and challenge the status quo, go for it.

But, I will say that if our goal is to write for a living, to make money, we have to appeal to a larger audience. That’s what will drive sales. If we seek to merely win awards and accolades, then write for the PhD audience. Write for people who read The New Yorker. We have to write what we’re called to write.

Dennis Lehane is one of my favorite authors. He had astounding commercial success with Mystic River (nominated for an Academy Award), Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island and all these stories were rich, complex and appealing to a wider audience. He made a choice to write some more literary works, and, though they won awards and accolades, they didn’t make the same kind of money.

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Sean Penn in “Mystic River”

Goals are Critical

But this is why goals are important. What do you want? Books are like food. Want to make big money? Reinvent pizza. Want to make a statement? Experiment with squid and duck livers. Want to do both? Be Julia Child and invite regular people into a world that, previously was inaccessible.

Be a bridge between the extremes. Mystic River is that kind of literary bridge.

In the end, good stories are good stories. Commercial isn’t better than literary and literary isn’t better than commercial. It depends on our goals and what we are called to write. But just because a piece of fiction is loaded with million-dollar words, obscure references and self-indulgent navel-gazing doesn’t mean it’s literary.

On the other hand, just because we want to write stories that entertain millions, doesn’t mean we can’t stretch and add layers of complexity. This is why it is critical to read, explore and learn about craft. My opinion? The true geniuses (literary AND commercial) entertain a wide spectrum, each on their own level.

What are your thoughts? I am no PhD and this is my opinion, so am I off base? What are your thoughts? What are some examples of commercial fiction that was complex? Literary fiction that could be widely enjoyed?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of March I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!


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    • SweetSong on March 21, 2013 at 11:40 am
    • Reply

    I love the last point in blue, because that’s what it all comes down to. Good stories are good stories. Period.

  1. Thanks. You took the blurry out of the discussion, but I am still in the fog. I am begining to dislike what I am writing. Maybe it is the review of the same old stuff I have so far writen.

  2. I echo and believe Nabokov’s definition of genres… he said he didn’t believe in any genres other than good writing and bad writing.

  3. Be true to your writing and let others label it as they may.

    1. YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Thank you for this timely clarification based on the previous discussion. I think often the issue is not with the writing per se, but with people’s biases. Literary ‘snobs’ look down on genre writing. People who love commercial books feel they are being dismissed and talked ‘down’ to. And some from each side fail to find satisfaction or entertainment in the other.

    I don’t watch a lot of movies, so I shall have to go look for the movies you referenced, but I agree that good writing is purely good writing, regardless of where it falls…and the same is true for poor writing, whether it wins awards or not.

  5. That is the real question, what makes a good story good? Another blog topic?

    I am writing biographies of Greek philosophers in epic poem format with blank verse. I hope I am telling good stories. I have no idea if they are good or not, but I am having fun writing the stories.

  6. Thank you. Until I read this I was worried where my novel fit in. I know it’s a good story and it fits the description of having complex layers… my question is to buff up the second draft to make it more literary or keep the meat and bones of the story. Nothing wrong with commercialism eh?

  7. I believe that the writer should just tell the story. The nuance and layers will be built in if you’ve planned your character. I allow my people to sometimes surprise me. I started a dialogue and let it take its natural course. It just flowed. When I went back and read it I was amazed at what had come out of the mouths of the characters. My rule; Let it flow. Sort it out later.

  8. Yes — “But, I will say that if our goal is to write for a living, to make money, we have to appeal to a larger audience”– this is what my editor told me over two years ago, “Kathryn, if you would write something *along these lines,* you would find a wider audience and do very well — but write it how YOU write – write with your unique voice and style and imagery – don’t go looking at other commercial fiction and try to ‘do that’ – but instead write in your way but with *this blah blah etc* in mind. . . .” — I railed against it for two years until I wrote what I wanted to get out of me, what I’d said I would do. Then I thought seriously about her words – I felt free to try something different.

    Someone asked me “Did you feel you sold out?” Um, what? No. I just wrote something I hope will find a larger audience while still satisfying the audience who already follows my work.

    So, I agree about the “crossover” -the one not excluding the other – least I hope that’s what I accomplished 😀

  9. I’m a cross genre reader. A good story is key.
    However, having said that, genre does matter when you want to market your writing. I.E. How will you explain what you have written to literary agents? What publishing house will you seek? How will you approach bookstore owners? Some times labels are helpful.

  10. Couldn’t agree more. There are extremes on both sides, and the best bridge the gap. Just because a book is widely loved, doesn’t mean it’s plot-driven only (To Kill a Mockingbird, almost every classic…); and just because a book is multi-layered and character-driven doesn’t make it good literature. You HAVE to be able to tell a good story. The best just do it richly and meaningfully.

  11. Perhaps a good story is based on who does what and why.

    Young male with magic talisman, aided by wise old bearded male, battles and defeats a middle-aged control-freak male with anger issues.

    Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter.

    • annerallen on March 21, 2013 at 12:34 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for this post. I keep saying this in every literary vs. commercial argument I stumble upon Shakespeare, Dickens, and Jane Austen were all commercial authors. They were writing to please the masses. They didn’t set out to write stuff that would impress a handful of professors and critics. The distinction we make now is artificial. Some of our more literary writers write “genre” fiction. Vonnegut wrote sci-fi. So does Margaret Atwood. She also writes women’s fiction. They’re commercial AND literary. And I think the best books are always both.

  12. Your points strongly echo what Donald Maass said in a talk at the Writer’s Digest Conference in 2012. Books that read like commercial fiction (entertain, fast-paced, page-turners) combined with the high-concept layering of literary fiction are what’s staying on the bestseller lists for weeks and weeks and weeks. He cited The Help, Water For Elephants, Time Traveler’s Wife as examples. The lines between commercial and literary are blurring, and I think that’s a good thing. IMHO

  13. I am so glad you made this point. I do tire of people who think commercial fiction is somehow lacking in craft. Granted, much of what is written today will not become classic, but some of it will and it will all come from commercial fiction. Of course, I would love it to be one of my books, but in the meantime I am just happy that people are finding the stories and the writing engaging.

  14. Love the references! I’d add Twain to the list, Huck Finn in particular. Love, love the layers in that one! 🙂 Ooooh and Dickens too! I even named our boys William and Charles for 2 of the great “commercial fiction” writers. 😉 (though hubby will say they’re named for Wallace and Ingalls…)

  15. As a literature major in college, this concept of creating a purely literary work of sheer genius has kept me from simply writing. At this stage in my life, I just want to make money doing what I love.

  16. Interesting thoughts, Krysten. Your post made me reflect. I have story ideas, but since I’m new at this I’m not sure I can even write well enough to draw in readers. Or even if the general public will find my story ideas interesting or lacking creativity. I just know I have a passion for creating stories.

  17. I enjoy both genres, so blurring the lines is fine with me, but only if you know how to write that type of story. However, authors shouldn’t force it if its not for them. Write what you enjoy writing. Don’t make it bigger than you can handle. (I need to take my own advice in my current WIP. LOL)

  18. lol I liked transformers. However, there is often a difference between work that is done to enhance one’s life and work that is produced to sell. It’s a sad but unmistakable truth. Making money is good…no one will disagree with that, but it’s tawdry to think of that as a purpose…even for Shakespeare.

  19. What’s wrong with Transformers Part 5?

    [okay … so I shut my eyes because it’s so campy and dream up my OWN space robot movie to the beautiful soundtrack of Steve Jablonsky while the movie plays to shut out the bad acting, lack of plot, and excessive T&A]

    This is a discussion we’ve been having in my writers group lately. Saleability vs. art.

    • Rachel Thompson on March 21, 2013 at 1:45 pm
    • Reply

    Its goes back to write what you love, or write what you love to read. I don’t think writing what you know is the answer either. Its better to write what you want to know. In that way, the excitement of learning and discovery comes through. Very few can write works deigned for the hot market successfully. The market is so big there is room for everything. Look at Kurt Vonnegut. The market called him sci-fi and social satire but he didn’t pigeon hold himself. He defied categorization and therefore defined his own market. It doesn’t matter what others call it. Good writing stands on it’s own.

    • Jamie Burton on March 21, 2013 at 1:49 pm
    • Reply

    IMHO The Road is the best book ever written. I recommended it to a friend, who is a avid reader, and she told me I owed her the price of the book back or at least a good dinner out. I want to make money so I’m writing, PLEASE GOD, a book that will be commericially viable and entertaining to the masses.

    1. I LOVED The Road. Beautiful writing and so dimensional. Wish I were smart enough to write like that. Sigh.

      • J. F. Smith on March 21, 2013 at 2:05 pm
      • Reply

      I have taught The Road a couple of times, and I love it so much. I think it is hard, though, to get through for people who aren’t avid readers. It has the “Hills Like White Elephants” Hemingway effect in that most readers have to go over the dialogue so many times to properly attribute who is speaking when. There’s very little in terms of proper grammatical notation in the book, which is both brilliant and exhausting.

  20. Interesting. The writing class I am currently attending had a similar discussion as it related to, SciFi vs Speculative Fiction. It too seemed to boil down to who is the audience you are writing to, hard-core tech geeks or the reader who is looking for a fun escape?

    • J. F. Smith on March 21, 2013 at 2:03 pm
    • Reply

    Dennis Lehane is one of my favorite authors, too. That being said, even though his commercial fiction is what sells, it’s still written really well. There is a difference between commercial fiction that sells well and is written poorly, and commercial fiction that sells well and is covered in typos.

  21. I’m not sure it’s a genre issue. It’s more about if its art or not. It’s true that some commercial fiction is artistic, but most readers are not looking for art, so it is not a necessary part of a commercial creation and sales strategy. It’s clear that people have their biases and they’re not typically tolerant of the other side.

    1. But, again, art is subjective. Dadaism proves that. Great. A toilet seat. Ah, but it’s in a museum, so it must be special :D. This is why goals are important. Look at what you want to create and for ways to connect to the audience that would appreciate your creations.

      1. Yes – set meaningful goals and do your best to know your audience.

        I’m not at all sure about toilet seats (depending on context), but with some types of writing, we know without question that it’s not art. That doesn’t mean it isn’t extremely well-crafted, but it can be clear that it’s not art because it’s clear that it’s not the intent of the creator. The creator may have been intent on storytelling or money-making, and there’s nothing wrong with those two things!

  22. I think Stephen King tops the list of commercial writers with just good stories. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, The Shining, November 22, 1963… all just great stories. A page turner is a page turner whether its literary or pulp.

  23. I do have a PhD and I’m an eclectic reader. I don’t enjoy plotless navel-gazing literary works at all and I hate being popped out of a story to admire a particularly poetic description that I have to read twice – even though I admire complexity in the books I read. Also, as you can guess by now, I don’t write literary fiction (I don’t think … the genre thing is often difficult). All in all – as a reader, a plot is necessary, a way with words is mandatory and my imagination has to be both captivated and satisfied by the ending.

  24. I once heard a teacher say that Shakespeare’s audiences were something like a junior high school class on a Friday afternoon!! Yet, as you said, his plays also appeal to many other kinds of people. I thought you made an excellent point in your blog! Really enjoyed it!

  25. LOVE this one! I have struggled with not being “literary” enough. I want to reach a broad audience and yet I want my work to be filled with depth and meaning. I was always afraid I could not do both. Now I am beginning to understand it is possible with a lot of hard work and good sense of humor. So I say, “Have at you!”

  26. I had to look up plebian at I use the website often because I just finished a Historical Romance novelette and I will be working on a Time Travel Romance 12.5K novelette for the rest of the month. If you scroll down on a word searched on Merriam-Webster, most of the time you will find the origin of the word. I had a reference book, which had words used during time periods. I wanted to write Daniel Boone setting and Western because I met Dusty Richards and during grade school I always wanted to write Louis L’Amour books (sold at grocery stores), but I have not written any, yet. Let us say that you are writing a story during WW One and the words in the dialogue did not exist back then could be why Shakespeare was downgraded as commercial fiction even with the fancy talk. An Archeologist sent by Adolf and the digger found a pink Cadillac next to dinosaur bones, it might not be considered literary. Stuffed squid with duck livers, plenty of squid but duck livers would be hard to find, maybe KFC chicken livers then bake the stuffed squid in tomato sauce with plenty of parsley and oregano and gooey cheese on top. I am not brilliant enough to decide. I just write what I like.

  27. Any thoughts of the writer were really a woman – of the works written by Shakespeare?

  28. I love this post! I remember being in graduate school and told that Finnegan’s Wake was the greatest book in English literature. I got a drubbing for saying, “But you can’t READ it!” Books that are both good page-turners and literary are the best.

    The Lord of the Rings got bashed for being “popular,” but it is one of the most influential books ever.

    Don’t forget about YA fiction. There are some fantastic books out there. The Hunger Games comes to mind. Action-packed story with layers and lots to say about our world. I teach it, and all the kids love it without exception.

  29. “Well you can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you! ”

    Personally I think a good story is a good story whether its written commercial or literary Fiction. I have read many a literary work that was championed as the highest art only to find a 12000 page novel filled with boring characters were nothing happens till the last three pages when some one’s aunt dies, in short I wasted days of my life reading that drivel.

    • Rachel6 on March 21, 2013 at 10:59 pm
    • Reply

    You just helped me to understand why I love Terry Pratchett so much, and why my brother insists that it’s still not “great fiction” the way Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and Conrad wrote “great fiction”. (Not that I have anything against those three!) And you know what? Those three wrote great STORIES. I have a deep hatred of Hemingway, in whose novels nothing happens till someone dies. Anyway…

    Thank you. I enjoyed that!

  30. But… but… but… Transformers 5 is multi-layered. I mean, on the one level, you have the civil war that’s been raging for centuries between the Autobots and the Decepticons on their home planet. And… and… on another level, you have the civil war that’s now raging on earth between the Autobots and Decepticons. And… on yet… uh.. well… uh….

    Oh, come on. Explosions! Big ones!!!

  31. I’m one of those people who never much cared for literary fiction and never sought out to write it, in spite of the prestige associated with it. In fact, my goal has always been to write the next fun and exciting novel you read on the beach during summer vacation then leave at the hotel (for the next person to pick up and read at the beach). Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but commercial fiction sells more. 🙂

    Thanks for the great post!

    1. In addition to this while literary fiction strives to “change” and “discuss” the world, I think commercial fiction can sometimes start the debate and draw people in much better, since people are emotionally more invested in commercial fiction. (Not entirely true, but you get my drift.)

  32. All I want is to know I’ve written the best work I possibly can.

  33. So our books should be like onions and have layers? *snorts* I kill me 🙂 Great post

  34. Thanks for writing about this topic. I am delighted to learn of Shakespeare as a commercial writer! Valid idea. I write for no other reason than I really want to and because I cannot stop myself. If it turns out to be literary or if it turns out to be commercial seems to be the luck of the draw as far as I am concerned. You’ve got to write from your heart because trying to be one or the other will not ring true to readers.

  35. Wonder what others think?

  36. I really want to add something brilliant to this discussion, but all I can think now is “It’s just a flesh wound! … Chicken! Chicken!” Probably because my family sat down and watched Holy Grail with our kids a few weeks ago. They laughed as well!

    Anyway…I agree with all you said here. I don’t care what category you stick a novel in, as long as it’s a good story.

    1. I need a word count to get my shorts to novels written, but I was able to communicate with a Random House editor and she sent me an E-mail that not to worry about the word count and just write the story. If an AGENT sent them one of my works, they will consider it. It is the big IF, getting an agent who would even send it to Random House without the spill that my stuff is not Random House material.

      AND on the Internet there are editors who publish the New York Times Best Sellers and who replied on comment text box of blogs that if the submission does not even appear to have 90,000 words, she does not even read the very first word. It automatically goes to the slush pile. One can only make the big decision for his/her writing future and just write it and then just send it.

      I believe in the Vince Lombardi of coaching. I will tell the world my offense. Let us see if the defense can stop it.

      The diamond offense (four sections or three acts) with targeted word count for the publishing house since Big Time publishers accepts multiple genres. They will find a place for it.

  37. Lol, just as I post about how Shakespeare was commercial fiction I see this. Funny xD
    This is wonderfully tightly written and grasps the essence of the debate. Thank you for hammering this out. For a long time I was totally on the literary side but I’ve come to realize that there are more aspects and that I like commercial fiction with layers a lot more than some of the great, literary fiction I’ve read. Maybe because they didn’t have tight story, or maybe because I just didn’t get the references.
    In my post I also discussed Dracula and why I think it’s better than Twilight. Now I wish I had read this post first so that I could have referenced it, since you make some great points. In the Dracula example there’s a totally entertaining, scary and sexually appealing story, but at the same time there are some layers like the more active female characters and the sci fi aspects, the discussion on what we can do with new machines.

  38. Just because something is labelled “literary,” a catch-all for delicately written novels that don’t play off the usual genre tropes, doesn’t mean it is at the level of Shakespeare. But if the DIY crowd and the genre writers could write at that level, their work would be considered literary too. That Shakespeare was “commercial” is beside the point. But, to those who say that story is the thing, there is far more to Shakespeare than “story.”

  39. Reblogged this on bloomyebooks.

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  4. […] that the text has, is that it communicates the complexity of the science on different levels (like in Shakespeare, Monty Python, or Harry Potter), so it can be appreciated by both science noobs and PhD […]

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