Grigory Ryzhakov – Russian Writer

Literary versus commercial fiction: are you on the borderline?

Ulysses or Sherlock? Vast amount of writing blogs give advice to newbies on how to write commercial fiction. This type of text, I call it text not literature, has a primary goal to SELL. To achieve that, it needs to entertain. However, there is a difference between art and entertainment.

(Here is the right time to exclaim in disgust at my snobbery, but I carry on.)

A true literature, the art of word, can hardly become best-selling, unless of course you are selling a sleeping pill. A teenage romance book can however fly off like meals at McDonalds, but do you want to cater just fast food? If you are like me, you want to be in a so-called mass culture market. The art for masses!

Many world’s super-bestsellers are in fact a combination of literary and commercial fiction.

Writers like Haruki Murakami and Michel Houellebecq write literary yet commercial fiction. Do you want to be like them? I’m here for suggestions. Got a cup of tea, sitting comfortably, fed the cat? Let’s start.

Grisha’s formula of a literary best-seller (absolutely for free, but share with others)

1. an exciting story dazzling your imagination

2. deep and controversial characters

3. a conflict many people will find interesting

4. a theme working with new ideas or a new way of looking on the established ones … All multiplied by

5. a dynamic structure (not a chaotic racing of thoughts like my posts lol)

If other components are missing, the reader will likely forgive you as long as these five are a smash. Pay attention to number 4. Ideas! Memes! Spread like viruses.

Let us examine Stieg Larsson’s unexpected masterpiece A girl with the dragon tattoo. Yes, many writers hate it, yet it’s clearly a mega-bestseller. I discussed the reasons of its success with several people, some dismissing it as the weird outlier (I won’t give the names), others finding its appeal in the pulsing socioeconomic and political themes.
To me this trilogy’s success is all about scoring high in the each part of my formula.

Story: mysterious disappearance of a teenage girl, the puzzle of the enframed dried plants, the serial killer investigation, the crooked oligarch sidestory. A totally wild mix.

Characters: Lisbeth and Mikael, – resourceful, loners yet capable of working in fruitful collaboration, sexually liberated, full of skeletons-in-closets. A central heroine – with suspected Asperger’s syndrome. Already too much to endure.

Conflct: simply put I call this trilogy a Thrillogy. Every page has a confict, the books at times are too gritty.

Themes: violance against women and children, personal struggle for acceptance, small person against big crooks, civil rights and duties, presumption of innocence, human endurance, mental health and responsible journalism, etc.

Dynamic structure: so dynamic in fact, that once you are through the initial hurdle (first hundred of pages of the glue hardening), you are basically stuck! You start thinking like a sub sitting on a bench waiting to go out there instead of a fallen minor character and to kick some arse!

It’s true, the book takes a hundred pages to kick in (some books never kick in, still you don’t necessarily dump them in the bin ). Have patience. Of course, not for every book. But at least for something that has depth and been recommended by your friends whose taste you trust. Why do I think ‘The Girl’ trilogy became a best-seller? Because it managed to touch and change something very deep in us, so those slow first hundred pages were worth it.

Ultimately, be excited you, the borderliner, you, the weird outlier! You can write both for litcrits and teens, it is possible to write beyond the genre/market constraints.

It is just harder.

But then, if it what you are, stay what you are (and remember to learn and progress). Let others try to be popular or smart. If you stay yourself, you are more likely to be both.


Your brilliant thoughts


  • Jelena M

    I absolutely loathe definitions like “literary fiction” and “genre (or commercial) fiction”. A storyteller has to tell a story the best way possible  — that’s the goal. I can punch a person just for bringing up that topic of “differences”. There ARE NO differences, because you are working in the same medium for the same audience out there. You’ll never know who will pick up your book. Make it good. 

    If you are writing literary fiction, ask yourself “why.” If you are writing commercial fiction, ask yourself “why.” Are you writing because you want to tell your story the best way possible? Be true to yourself: if the answer is NO, you are a failure as a storyteller. You might be a writer, an author, whatever you call yourself. But you are a failure as a storyteller.

    There is no other reason to write a book. NONE. You can make more money doing something else, you can become an artist in any other genre – painting, music, drawing fonts (if you love beautiful text that much).

    Selling millions of copies of a book or produce a literary monster the author adores while people hardly can relate can be called art, but just NOT the art of storytelling, since the focus is something else.

    • Grigory Ryzhakov

      A storyteller has to tell a story the best way possible – that’s the goal.

      I completely agree with that. And that doesn’t contradict the definitions you loathe so much. The story is the king, but the audience is not the same for different books.

      Different people prefer different stories, that’s why literature is divided into genres.

      Jelena, it’s not about the money, every writer, literary or pop, chose their path to write the best stories they can.
      But a lot of fiction is purely for entertainment, which is fine. Because most readers prefer action over reflection, prefer light prose over deep psychological prose.

      The reading audiences have different tastes, there’s no such thing as one audience.

      Literary fiction descends from the classical literature, it aspires to be a form of art, an artistic representation of life, it tends to reflect life, to analyse it and show something new. It often has a role of moral guidance. It’s not just entertainment. Literary fiction is mostly based on reflection. While the pop fiction is based on action.
      One is not superior over another, they are just different.

      What I was talking about in the post is that there’s a continuum of books ranging from extremely pop to extremely literary, and there’re books in the middle and very often they become appealing to wider audiences.

      The same about film. Many people go to see blockbusters. Very few went to see Synecdoche-NewYork. Target audience is very important.
      Calling fiction literary or commercial is just a classification system, it doesn’t tell anything about a book per se. A commercial fiction book can be written brilliantly, while the literary can be a mess. Those genre definitions reflect the book content, structure, theme, narrative style, not how brilliant the story is.

      Selling millions of copies of a book or produce a literary monster the author adores while people hardly can relate can be called art, but just NOT the art of storytelling, since the focus is something else.

      Once again, I think every writer wants to tell his story, but different people relate to different stories and that’s why we have genre definitions. With so many books around, it’s a way to orientate for the reader and also for the writer to find the dedicated audience.