Anita Nair has upped the ante on the final TOI Write India contest and asked everyone to submit literary fiction entries for her preface.

If you’ve walked into any bookstore anywhere in the world, you’ve seen it: Literary Fiction. A separate category from Fiction, Horror, Mystery, Romance, or Young Adult. Often, fiction and literary fiction are at odds with each other in the book market space.

The other day, I was browsing What the Book, my favorite English bookstore in Seoul, when I encountered this dichotomy. On the right side stood the Literary Fiction section. On the left stood the Fiction section. I swiveled my head back and forth in disbelief. Why did this writer go there, but this one didn’t?  My favorite book, Midnight’s Children, was, of course, on the literary fiction side.

But, what is literary fiction? Even experienced writers often have difficulty defining this genre. It’s like porn. You know it when you see it, but ask someone to define it, and they either can’t or won’t.

These answers from Write India authors demonstrate exactly that. Not surprisingly, the authors who fit into the literary fiction genre gave the most complete answers. Nair’s answer leads the slideshow. Also, not surprisingly, the commercial fiction writers tend to reject the idea, saying the category is created by publishers, not readers.

Less experienced writers, like many of those participating in the Write India contest, might not even know such a category exists, let alone how to write a story that meets that requirement.

To solve that problem, Vinita Dawra Nangia, Director for the Write India campaign and Senior Editor at TOI, wrote a how-to guide for literary fiction. Her final checklist provided 6 tips for writing in this genre.

As I scrolled down that list, I realized that some of my own work falls into the literary fiction category. I experiment with style, I have a strong message laced with social and political commentary, and I use sensory experience to create a lucid narrative. Yet, often when asked about literary fiction, I say I don’t read it much. These stories tend to emphasize the emotional and internal lives of the characters, and they stick with you, haunt you even. The best example is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, a book I have yet to finish because I was so deeply scarred by it. The moment where the boys must prove their Hindu faith will haunt me forever, and I just could not continue reading after that. Mistry had ripped my heart out of my chest in that moment, and I switched off my Kindle as if to say, “You know what, I can’t take this anymore. I’m done.”

When asked, I list American and Indian commercial fiction bestsellers among my favorites. Yes, even that bestseller. One reason is that I can’t handle the emotional turmoil that literary fiction often produces in readers. As Dawra Nangia observes, we commercial fiction groupies read for entertainment. Some of my stories reflect that tendency, too. I love to use the 3 E’s that Ashwin Sanghi talks about: entertain, educate, and enlighten. But, I also want the reader to come away lighter, happier than when they started.

Yet, I enjoy books from both categories.

Which raises the question:

Why must I choose as a reader between Fiction and Literary Fiction? For that matter, why must I choose as a writer? Dawra Nangia argues that commercial and literary fiction writers approach their content in fundamentally different ways.

The basic difference between the writer of commercial or popular fiction and a writer of literary fiction is that the former just wants to tell a story, while the latter also takes up the challenge of experimenting with the elements that go into the art of story-telling and ends up leaving a more lasting impact.

There’s the rub! Storytelling vs. experimentation. Commercial fiction writers tend to see themselves as storytellers first and writers second. But, is that really the difference, though?

Not if you watch this fantastic discussion with Ashwin Sanghi, Ravi Subramanian, and Anita Nair. Subramanian argues that books are products, and Nair rejects that notion. She argues it’s deeper than that and touches on the very essence of divinity. For a commercial fiction writer, the reader is divine. But, for a literary fiction writer like Nair, true divinity exists within the writer. A book is a result of that inner divinity manifesting itself in the material world.

I think what separates commercial fiction from literary isn’t so much the writing process. Sanghi argues his process is similar to Nair’s. It’s the role that the reader plays in the process. Subramanian notes he involves readers in the editing phase and even changed the ending to Bankerupt based on reader feedback. A literary fiction writer would be far less likely to do that. For a commercial fiction writer, there’s no story without a reader; for a literary fiction writer, the reader’s presence is optional. The writer must tell the story whether anyone bothers to read it or not.

Literary fiction writers and technical writers have that in common. We all know that no one reads user manuals unless they have a problem. We write because we have a story we must tell regardless of whether anyone actually reads it. Sometimes it feels like we are writing these manuals just for ourselves, even though we have a client and an audience.

Yet, as a technical editor, I tell writers they must keep the audience foremost in their minds. A user manual for a server and one for a printer do not have the same audience. The knowledge and expectations of both audiences are completely different. We must write like the reader matters, but we don’t expect them to actually do so.

Where does that leave me? A writer caught between two worlds, without a home, without a category. It leads me to create my own category:

Commercial literary fiction writer

Now, all I need is for Paul McCartney to write a song about me, and I’m guaranteed to make a million with the bestseller I wrote.


That I haven’t finished writing yet.

14 Responses

  1. An interesting post and feel the line is quite blurred. Who is our audience? Intellectuals, urban youth lapping senseless romance for instance or the shadowy reader who may or may not exist. Love it:)

  2. I am not as experienced a writer, so I wouldn’t be able to discuss this in as much depth. But I can say this – Thank you for writing this. As a new writer and an aspiring author, I learnt something that may help me be a better writer. Thank you!

  3. Loved this, Jean! Often times, as a writer now, I am also forced to think about the readers and set my priorities as a storyteller, but the despondent literary soul inside me revolts, sulks and writhes to let out her own, deep, instinctive voice, irrespective of if the world would care to listen to that voice. What good is reading literature then, if we cannot internalize it in our own writing? The voice argues!

    Thanks for writing this for all of us.


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