What Do They Mean, ‘Not Literary Enough’?


Dear P….

The “literary” versus “commercial” distinction runs deeper than vocab and sentence structure, so elevating the language won’t address the agent’s concern. I suspect your concept promises rich exploration of themes or sociocultural issues, while the story itself is action- and dialogue-driven, having the effect of skimming the surface of those themes or issues. I hear the agent calling for richer layering, with more nuanced character work as you explore how sociocultural elements of the era affect your character and, thus, her interactions with others. Does your protagonist act and react to others in discomfiting ways that force everyone to question or defend worldviews beyond the event at hand? Consider To Kill a Mockingbird, in which a child’s fear of the bogeyman plays out against the larger canvas of a town’s railroading of a black man. As the characters confront the overt theme of racism, they also struggle with universal themes of courage, class, gender, and compassion. Layers. Literary. Above all, rich storytelling that mines the era for more than its events. Is your story layered? Should it be?

Happy writing!
The Editor


  1. Dear Editor:
    thanks for this concise and clear explanation. It is really helpful, especially for those of us who write historical fiction.
    Patricia Nesbitt

    • I’m so glad to be helpful, Patricia. “Literary vs commercial” is a big discussion, but a fun one. It often starts out as “I just feel the difference,” but when you start breaking it down and looking to examples, the exploration becomes juicy and enjoyable. And it’s important to note that this author’s story may be just right as is — one agent’s feedback doesn’t necessarily mean she should overhaul it. So the author will have to consider her own aims with this project. Once she understands the distinctions, she’s in a better position to contemplate revision.

  2. I must be out of the loop because I didn’t realize MG could even be literary. I wouldn’t have thought 9-12 years olds would “get it.” I’m pretty sure I was in high school before the curriculum made me read classics that were supposed to be literary. Thanks for the info. Live and learn! 😉

  3. What an excellent, yet pithy, explanation! And you make it sound so easy, which I know won’t be when I try to deepen my novel. I’m saving this, though, so I can reference it over and over again.

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