Let me first start by saying this isn't really an explanation on what commercial fiction is or what literary fiction is or which is better. In my Senior AP Lit class, we had to carry a thick book around for several weeks with different works of short stories and poems, and an explanation on what short stories and poems were. Because I am a writer, a reader, and a lover of words, I read the beginning of the book because it did provide some insights into how to write a good short story (and it worked, because if it didn't, I probably wouldn't have had a short story published). But I came across something that was pure literary snobbery, just made me angry.
This book stated that commercial fiction is often composed of flat or cliched characters, and that there isn't much depth in commercial fiction.
This is flat wrong. This may apply to some commercial books, but I've read a lot of commercial books with as much depth as a so-called literary novel.
The best way I can describe commercial fiction is that it's genre fiction, bestsellers, as it were, or books that appeal to the masses. Literary fiction is the stuff you're forced to read in school, the stuff hardly anyone reads outside of school because no one has time to sit down and tear it apart to figure out just what the fuck it's saying (I love some literary novels, of course, don't get me wrong. I've actually read a few literary novels outside of class, but it's usually literature with clear plots, like Of Mice and Men.
We definitely should not snub literary books. They have a place in the market too, and they have people who want to buy them. But literary snobs drive me nuts. There are bad books in commercial fiction as there are bad books in literary fiction.
But to say that commercial fiction is filled with flat or cliche characters--to generalize--is pure snobbery. Most people prefer characters over plot (especially readers of young adult novels). If the characters are cliche or flat, they aren't going to care about the plot, or the book in general. People want to relate to the characters, because if we can relate, the journey, or the plot, or whatever is happening to the character is a lot more insightful than if we couldn't relate. Most commercial fiction I have read contains amazing characters.
One series I love to cite constantly is The Gemma Doyle trilogy. They are the most amazing books I have ever read (along with Carrie Ryan), and though they are commercial fiction, if you actually think about the books, you realize the plot is more than just Gemma and these problems with the realms. You realize the main plot is the struggle between men and women in general. My AP Lit textbook proposed that no such depth can be found in commercial fiction. Well, if this is true, then how come I found plenty of depth in The Gemma Doyle trilogy? Did I make it up? No. In an interview Libba Bray did in A Great and Terrible Beauty, she provides answers to questions that suggest there is a lot more depth. So commercial fiction can have just as much depth as a literary novel. It's just called commercial because it appeals to the masses and not just a small sect of people. I mean, really, do you want to sell to the masses, or to a small lot of people who aren't going to do much for your career?
As an author, this is how I work: my short stories are literary fiction because short stories aren't as marketable as novels, and I like to write around the concept of themes and pure analysis when writing short stories. I love writing literary with short stories because they are short and won't take as long to analyze as it would take a person to analyze a literary novel. With my novels, they are commercial, because they are genre stories, stories that I don't think I could ever put into short stories, and I want to take the masses on a journey, not just a few people. True, The Oddville Press is literary and it's first issue apparently got 2,000 downloads (if I read the statistics correctly), so that is a lot of people for a first issue, but it's an exception. Plus, it's easy to figure out the plots with the type of fiction they produce--and they are short stories and don't take as long to analyze as a novel would.
Commercial fiction does not mean bad fiction. This is a misconception. It is possible to write a well-written book that appeals to the masses.