Are You Trashy or a Snob?
December 10, 2020 § 18 Comments
Literary writing is often thought of as character-driven and high-falutin’ but slow-moving. Commercial writing, particularly genre fiction, is seen as plot-driven, faster-paced, and often (wrongly) characterized as easy to write and poorly written.
Is your book snobby or trashy? Your answer determines not only your publication opportunities, but who your readers and writing community are, and what bridges you’ll build to connect with them.
What exactly do you love about your favorite books? Beautiful sentences? They gave you a deeper understanding of the human condition? Or do you more enjoy a relaxed read that only demands you show up to be entertained? Literary and commercial writing both pull you into the author’s created world; both put you in someone else’s shoes. But literary writing makes you work a little harder, read more carefully for meaning. Commercial writing’s power is in events so fascinating, you forget the language itself, and invest in the characters, hoping they get it together—solve the mystery, disarm the bomb, fight the ghost, stop fighting each other—before the end of the book.
Think about your writing goals:
Do you want to draw attention to a larger issue as told through your personal experience? How many people should know about this problem? More than 10000, you probably want to write commercially.
Are you writing genre fiction? Almost certainly commercial.
Does your memoir read like speaking to a friend? Probably commercial unless you naturally have a very elevated voice.
Are you practicing making beautiful sentences, phrasing each word carefully on the page with attention to rhythm and structure? Probably literary.
Does most of your action happen inside the narrator’s head, or in “small” locations like a kitchen or a family home? Likely literary.
Are you pursuing an unusual structure, like a memoir made of a collection of fragments? Literary readers want the challenge of assembling those pieces.
Once you’ve got an idea of whether you’re literary or commercial, what do you DO with that information?
- Literary writers are more likely to be able to query a literary or university press without an agent.
- Commercial writers have a better chance of Big-Five publication, but will need an agent.
- For commercial writers in particular genres, self-publishing can be profitable.
- Both commercial and literary writers can land book deals from “hot essays”— topical pieces that grab public attention beyond the publication’s normal readership. Literary writers are more likely to be discovered in a literary journal or sophisticated mass-media publication like Harper’s or The Atlantic. Commercial writers are more likely to get attention in respected newspapers, women’s magazines like Marie Claire and Glamour, and online publications like Vox and Buzzfeed.
- Literary writers gain traction from attending conferences, MFA programs, and winning literary magazine competitions and prestigious residencies like Yaddo, Hedgebrook or The Macdowell Colony.
- Commercial writers are boosted by social-media engagement, mailing lists and regular mass-media publication.
- Commercial writers are boosted by becoming known experts on particular topics. (Become an expert by reading and researching; become known as an expert by actively sharing knowledge.)
The Actual Writing Part:
- When you’re improving your writing, read books you’d like to be shelved next to. Read them more than once.
- First read: enjoy the book!
- Second read: what’s the author doing technically in the voice, structure and story of the book? Can you see their writing choices on the page?
- Are you doing the same things in your work? Are you learning to do them better?
If you’re a literary writer, your number-one responsibility is to write an amazing book. Then help your book sell by committing to publishing in literary journals or prestigious mass media (it’s a long game!). Connect with other literary writers (including your workshop teachers). Actively improve your writing by taking classes if you can afford it, and/or rigorously analyzing books to learn how to do what they do, in your own voice and style. You’re going to need to be as good as the worst book you’ve ever bought, and ideally a lot better.
Commercial writers? You’ve got a lot to do. Genre fiction writers need a compelling book with a great concept and then a slog through the query trenches or a solid self-publishing plan. Commercial memoirists need platform. As you write, cultivate your audience. Who needs to hear what you have to say? Where are they? Engage in those communities. Ideally, by the time your memoir is finished, you’ll have fans so in love with your words, they can’t wait to buy your book for more.
Crossovers—often called “upmarket” or “book club”—books are a thing, too. Kate Atkinson and Hilary Mantel both have bodies of very literary work that reads (and sells) like commercial fiction. And of course, all writers need a strong understanding of plot and structure, and how to hook readers from the first page.
Literary writing is usually more beautiful at the sentence level—but literary writers must work hard to sustain reader interest through a quieter plot. Commercial writing is often more interestingly plotted—but commercial writers must still show quality writing sentence by sentence.
Neither path is superior. But choosing one will help you make other writing-career choices. Writing and publishing are time-consuming and overwhelming. Actively picking your path will be a smoother walk—with the companions you need along the way, and your readers waiting at your destination.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Stuck in the slush pile? Join her June 23 for Why Is My Book Getting Rejected, co-taught with Jane Friedman. More info/register here.