Perusing “Potter” – An Ode to Commercial Fiction
The last Harry Potter book came out in 2007, but the tale of the Boy Who Lived remains one of the biggest book fandoms worldwide more than ten years later. J.K. Rowling’s famous series not only changed our world as readers but altered the course of YA fiction and YA publishing forever. But it’s unlikely you’ll find it on a school syllabus for English class despite its worldwide impact. The answer to why Harry Potter doesn’t get taken as seriously as some other books is easy – it’s commercial fiction.
So what is commercial fiction? In publishing, there are two main fiction categories beyond age group and style – literary fiction and commercial fiction. The line between the two has to do with marketing, writing, and audience, and it is a notoriously difficult definition to pin down, especially as some books fall into both categories. In general, literary fiction often has a narrower audience. These books are more likely to be considered pieces of art; they’re the kind of books where the writing and language are just as (or more) important as the plot of the book, and they are frequently character-driven. Commercial fiction, on the other hand, is more often categorized as entertainment and is generally driven by the story itself (think J.K. Rowling’s school year formula). Commercial fiction appeals to a much broader audience and is often considered more readable.
Of course, these definitions are fairly general, and I’m sure you can think of books that fall into both categories, but here are some examples of famous children’s/YA fiction that will maybe help you understand the difference – Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and A Wrinkle in Time are on the side of commercial fiction. A Clockwork Orange, The Lovely Bones, and To Kill a Mockingbird are more literary fiction. Now, these are my distinctions, and you may disagree, but something you may notice that’s revealed by these lists are their genres – “genre” books (e.g., fantasy, horror, and science fiction) are less common on literary lists, which are more often populated with contemporary fiction.
So now that we sort of know the difference between commercial and literary fiction, why does it matter? Personally, as a reader, I would say it doesn’t. A good book is a good book. But while commercial fiction generally has a wider reach and therefore much higher sales, literary fiction is more the sort to win awards, to be studied, and to be added to the canon of literature. In short, literary fiction is taken more seriously. Now, there’s a whole separate argument to be had about why children’s and YA fiction are less likely to be considered literary, but we’ll leave that alone for now. Instead, I think it’s important to look at one of the major distinctions between the two: Literary fiction is art, and commercial fiction is entertainment.
Some of the elements that I consider essential for literary art are deeper meaning, a critical mirror, and emotional connection (whether that be love, revulsion, or sadness). For me, Harry Potter satisfies all of these. There are some great MuggleNet articles discussing this in more detail, but some examples include the pure-blood movement and racism, Harry as a Horcrux and the intersection of choice and identity (something we can trace back to Milton and beyond), and Dumbledore’s ruminations on death (some of the most quoted lines from the books). Whether you agree with my definition or not, I think we can all agree that art is subjective. But regardless of how you feel about Potter, to pass over genre fiction, children’s fiction, and commercial fiction when we’re handing out the accolades for important literature is a major oversight.
While literary fiction is important in its own right, it would be nice to see commercial fiction get a bit more of the respect that I think it deserves. Fantasy, horror, and sci-fi novels can be just as moving, layered, and nuanced as their literary counterparts, and their lasting impact on the lives of readers is a testament to that. Harry Potter itself has proved that over and over again.