Frank Fiore – Novelist & Screenwriter

September 8, 2011

Popular Fiction vs. Literary Fiction — Or ‘Show Me the Money’

Filed under: Frank Remarks,On Writing — Frank Fiore @ 10:45 AM

“Few professors of English literature will ever admit to it, but the truth is that popular writers have had just as great an effect on the people of this nation as Dickens, Poe, or Melville and their classic works.”
Editor James L. Collins


According to Shelly Thacker, “There are two kinds of fiction in today’s market. Literary fiction and popular fiction.”

Literary fiction is the fiction of ideas. Its primary purpose is to evoke thought. The writer’s goal is self-expression. Any consideration of the reader—if one exists at all—is purely secondary.

Popular fiction is the fiction of emotion. Its primary purpose is to evoke feelings. The writer’s goal is to entertain the reader. Any consideration of self-expression—if one exists at all—is purely secondary.

 I agree with her definitions and I also agree with her explanation in defense of it.

 I’m not saying that you can’t express yourself in a romance or mystery or science-fiction novel, or that literary fiction can’t be entertaining, or that popular fiction can’t be thought-provoking. We can all name novels that do it all. My point is, before you sit down to write your book—and more importantly, before you try to market it—you had better be sure exactly which kind of fiction it is you’re writing.

And if you’re writing popular fiction, you must be aware that the marketplace is reader-driven. You can entertain, astonish, provoke, even manipulate the reader—but if you want to sell, you can’t ignore her. The reader is your whole reason for being. With every page you write and every choice you make, you need to ask yourself, “What affect will this have on the reader? Will she enjoy this? Will she rush out to her local Barnes & Noble and pay $7.50 to buy this?”

In other words, literary fiction is fine if you want to write for writers—ala: the New York Book Review and nominations for the Nobel Prize for Best Literature.

As for me, I’m a hack writer and just ‘show me the money!

Shelly again.

If your particular genre or sub-genre is popular among huge numbers of readers, your manuscript has a better chance of selling. If your chosen genre is less popular, your chances decrease. Supply and demand. It’s a simple equation—and no amount of whining will change it.

Perhaps more difficult to understand is that this same concept applies not only to genres, but to every element in your book. If you’re trying to sell a novel with a less-popular setting or “risky” themes, you’re going to have a tough time. And it’s not the publishers’ fault that your manuscript isn’t selling (so stop whining); it’s simply that fewer readers want to buy books with those elements.

Shelly goes to say though, that after you’ve built up a successful following, you could try ‘riskier’ themes – themes that your readers are not expecting of you. That has a double edged sword.

You may surprise them with its success or they might surprise you with its failure.

I am fortunate that CyberKill was a success. It was a techno-thriller. A common genre. My next three books, the Chronicles of Jeremy Nash, are thrillers also—each with a different theme.

I am writing now, a novel that is unlike anything I have ever written. Different from the thrillers I hope will create a nice reader following for me. So I will be taking a risk on changing the formula of my writing, so to speak, with this next novel.

Let’s see if Shelly is right.


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