Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Jim McCarthy on literary and commercial fiction

It didn’t surprise me when someone asked me recently what the differences are in how I handle the projects I love and the projects I work on for money. It did, however, irritate me. The question came loaded with the insinuation that there are two kinds of books—the ones people should read and the ones they actually do. Often, I find that literary and commercial fiction are pitted against each other, as though they’re totally different beasts that serve entirely separate purposes. But is that really the case?

Too often, category fiction is treated like the bastard stepchild of the written word. But, frankly, I’m a whole lot more likely to pick up Stephen King’s new book than dive into Thomas Pynchon’s latest doorstop. Which isn’t to dismiss literary fiction, either.

Years ago, I was getting a ride to a train station from an MFA student in Massachusetts, and we talked about the challenges of fiction writing and writer’s block, not to mention how competitive the marketplace is. And then he unleashed this on me: “I could knock out the sort of mystery novels that sell hundreds of thousands of copies, but I’m better than that.” If he weren’t behind the wheel of the car, I would have smacked him upside the head. I mean, really. Do you honestly think the only thing holding people back from becoming bestselling authors is…integrity?

As I patiently explained to him (who am I kidding? I sounded like a howler monkey in heat), it takes a lot of talent to write a fantastic mystery, just as it does to write an amazing literary novel. They just happen to be very, very different talents. Anyone who thinks that just because someone is a wonderful writer means they can pull off working in other genres clearly hasn’t read Michael Cunningham’s SPECIMEN DAYS. I recommend they keep it that way.

And let’s not get too far without mentioning that literary and commercial are not exact opposites. There are plenty of authors who mix the two forms freely. One can see this by reading the stunning, bleak mysteries of Dennis Lehane or the thrilling horror of Clive Barker. And is it just me, or is the award winning COLD MOUNTAIN as much a retelling of The Odyssey as it is a historical romance novel?

What I’m saying is, let’s let the snobbery go. Reading MADAME BOVARY can be as entertaining as reading VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and vice versa, and there’s nothing wrong with that. To those people who consider genre fiction to be “guilty pleasures,” let it go. I grew up on a steady diet of Stephen King, Charles Dickens, Jackie Collins, and Victor Hugo, and I’ll happily debate the merits of Lucky Santangelo and Esmeralda any day. I’m the guy on the subway reading The New Yorker and Romantic Times.

The lines for me just aren’t that sharply drawn. So whether I’m pitching a new cozy mystery or a collection of interconnected stories previously published in literary journals, you can know one thing links them: I love both.


  1. And don't forget those who regularly tout: "Oh, sure - ANYONE can write romance novels. I could write one a month if I wanted to. I just choose to write REAL books."


  2. *standing ovation*
    I remember when I was in junior high school, I read every book in our tiny library. At the time, I didn't know that books were labeled as being literary or commercial. I just enjoyed reading everything. I still do. But I have learned that I can't write every kind of book and I admire writers who are able to write something that I just can't grasp. What a boring world we would have if our reading selections were limited to what anyone else thought was good.

  3. Jim~

    Couldn't agree more. Why can't the book be both as you say? Both literary and "genre?" The best books keep you reading because of the plotting, characters, etc - but have something to say underneath it all.

    And in the end, we are all just storytellers, trying to entertain.

  4. Do you honestly think the only thing holding people back from becoming bestselling authors is…integrity?

    I write for kids and hear a lot of comments of the "oh that is so easy" variety. I generally just smile and invite them to try it, just for a lark. Then six months later I can laugh as I wipe their gooey, weeping remains off the floor.

  5. Teacake--

    THANK YOU. I write YA and had someone ask me once, if you know, I was going to write a REAL novel one day.

    People act like if they only had a few spare moments in their day they, too, could knock back a few YA novels and sell them to large publishers.

  6. Yea! Yea! I was published today! It was only POD....sigh. Back to Yea! I was talking on the phone and monitoring the site and I actually sold a book! Now I need to call Mom and sell two! Woo!

    I am getting published by a "real" (sort of) publisher in October! Another Woo! OK, enough with the woos.

    I was rejected by this agency also. Sigh.


  7. Jim,

    Thank you for this post! I have always loved reading and it didn't matter the genre, I would just grab whatever book seemed good.

    I am a writer and I hate when people ask what I do and their response is "Oh, writing a book is easy. I thought about doing it but I decided I would do something more challenging." It drives me nuts!! I'd like to see them sit down and write a novel, then send it out to agents, receive rejections etc.

  8. What a fabulous post, Jim! Thankyou! I've never understood why there is such snobbery in writing - I've witnessed some pretty heavy "debating" (more like mud slinging) regarding the Women's Literary Fiction group vs Chick Lit writers/readers. There is room for everybody. I love spaghetti, but I don't want to eat spaghetti everyday. It's the same with books. Give me variety and let's lay down the mud and unite - after all, we are people who love telling stories, no matter what kind.

  9. Jim, how do you feel about science fiction?

  10. My hero! Thank you. Really, just thank you.

  11. Perhaps I am a dolt, but I'm needing some clarification: What, exactly, IS literary fiction? (I know what it's not: science fiction, romance, mystery ...)
    Is it writing that's more character driven than plot based? Is there more figurative language/esoteric language/funky structure/syntax/form?
    And who are the ladies behind women's literary fiction, anyway?
    Where does Anne Tyler (my fave) fit? How about Elizabeth Berg or Jodi Picoult? Joyce Carol Oates?
    Is it harder for an agent to sell literary fiction? Why?
    Hoping someone will be able to explain ... .

  12. I think it's just human nature to assume that whatever you're writing is much harder than whatever else is out there.

    It's Lucy Van Pelt Syndrome. My headache is worse than yours, because it happened to me.

    Yeah, I could have come up some cheap, big-selling easily-forgotten crap like "The Life Of Pi," but I chose to write "The Great Texas Trailer Park Escape" because I wanted a challenge.

    Seriously, though. You should have respect for all writers, shouldn't you? You should at least be able to be objective without being envious. You can learn something from everyone.

  13. I seem to have met a lot of people like that MFA student myself. Who exclaim, upon hearing that I write, that they too would be writers if only they had the time. They may be telling the truth, but frankly I write even when I don't have the time.

    How heartening to find that someone else out there (Kathleen Stander) isn't entirely sure of what literary fiction is. I would hate to think that literary fiction is mainly those books that people with pretensions want to be seen reading rather than read, but I have heard it described as such.

  14. To respond to two questions--first, what IS literary fiction? It's kind of a catch-all title for work that isn't "category" or "genre." Or, for an even more useless response, I know it when I see it.

    As for my feelings on science fiction, that's a tricky one. For a long time I said I wasn't a fantasy reader, and then I discovered the works of our own Jacqueline Carey and fell for them. Hard. I don't presently represent sci-fi because I don't know the market and haven't read much (if anything, really) in the category. But I'm certainly open to it as a reader.


  15. Jim,

    Amen to that, my brother! Absolutely FAAAABulous post! I lurved it, thanks so much for making those of us who write comercial fiction feel better about ourselves. :)

    Hugs to you!

  16. My snobbish summer reading will be the adult versions of the primary readers, DICK AND JANE books.

    However, when squirrel hunting, deep in the Arkansas woods, I'll put the cover of WAR AND PEACE over my quilty pleasure/s. Hey - first impressions count!

    Haste yee back ;-)

  17. I just did a post about this earlier this week, Literary Pomposity; Are you a book snob?

    It's great to see industry professionals expressing similar sentiments. There seemed to be a lot of writers who wouldn't 'sell out' to be best sellers when we were all still fledgling writing students. Hopefully a lot of them outgrew that limited view.

  18. Jim,
    OK, I'm gonna put it another way ... let's say Anne Tyler is a just-starting-out writer and she has sent a cover letter to your agency because she's written a novel, only she's unsure how to label her own stuff (being a publishing neophyte and all) ... .
    That said, what kind of fiction would DINNER AT THE HOMESICK RESTAURANT/BACK WHEN WE WERE GROWNUPS/THE AMATEUR MARRIAGE be considered? I mean, this is the writing I love (LOVE!). Does this make me a reader of literary fiction?
    And while I'm thinking about it, how 'bout Alice Hoffman and Jane Smiley? Do they write contemporary women's fiction, or is it tagged commercial fiction? Is their (wonderful) writing deemed literary?
    Hope I'm not being a nudge: I just want to know.

  19. Well said, Mr. Jim! (but nevertheless, I would love to be your cash cow. You just seem like a most excellent agent).

    There are too many good SF novels to count, but off the top of my head, I'm going to recommend you try Frederik Pohl's GATEWAY.

  20. One of the reasons I decided to go into publishing instead of academia was the almost determined ignorance by many professors in regards to genre fiction. I love fantasy novels just as much as I love Shakespeare! Luckily one of my college advisors agreed with me. She let me write my thesis on Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight, partially just so she could prove to some colleagues that science fiction and fantasy are just as intricate and well written as literary fiction.

    To take things a step furthere, similar arguments can be made for the value of comics and graphic novels as well.

  21. Intriguing post, Jim.

    While I realize publishers/marketers like to categorize their releases, I've always felt the best books are ones that take risks and blend the literary WITH the commercial, "The Corrections", "Possession" and "Sacred Hunger" being examples.

    When you can bend a genre, you're creating something familiar but new.

  22. Hi Kathleen,

    Anne Tyler, Alice Hoffman, and Jane Smiley are all people I would categorize as literary fiction writers. Heck, Jane Smiley even won a Pulitzer for A Thousand Acres. Of them, I would say Anne Tyler has the most "commercial" edge.

    And Jeff, I'm curious how you see The Corrections blending literary and commercial. I think I get it, but I probably would have categorized it as straight-up literary. But regardless of category, I'd go ahead and say it's one of the best books of the past decade. Even if the talking poo scene tripped me up for a few pages.



  23. I just hope and pray my lierary fiction has that mainstream appeal!

  24. I'm blind...literary! Sheesh!

  25. I would propose that there are three categories... and you left out one. The books I buy but never get around to reading...


  26. I was attending a writer's workshop when one of the participants asked the Instructor how he felt about Stephen Kings work. His response was "I wish I wrote as well, and had as many best seller." This from a "Literary" writer. To me, reading is entertainment, whatever floats your boat!

  27. Jim,

    As far as The Corrections goes, I felt it was in the "dysfunctional family saga" genre, but with amazing characters, prose and insight to elevate it to greatness.

    Unless that genre only exists in my head.



  28. Your post made me realize that I'm a bit of a "commercial fiction" snob. I like action and dark family secrets and suspense and murder. But I adored "A Thousand Acres"--so hey, maybe I shouldn't be so quick to judge. ; )

    And folks who think they can knock out a romance or a mystery need to sit down and try writing one.

  29. No matter how you break it down, dissect it, structure it, study every little intricacy of it, writing is insanely and frustratingly difficult. If one manages to actually finish writing a novel of any kind however, it has got to be, in my humble opinion, one of the most rewarding expereinces one can do. It's creating something that in a lot of ways, has a life of its own, and if that doesn't make you sit back and say, 'wow!' nothing will.


  30. What IS literary fiction?

    I've been told I write literary fiction/commercial, and that confuses the hell out of me. What's with the stroke?!

    The pigeon-holing baffles.

  31. Jim,

    Great post. Thanks for the discussion.

    I couldn't agree more with your comments about Dennis Lehane. The opening paragraph of Mystic River is, in my opinion, one of the very best entries into a fictional world in recent decades.

  32. My hero... sigh...


    A romance novelist.

  33. Yeah, brotha! You tell 'em!

  34. "I could knock out the sort of mystery novels that sell hundreds of thousands of copies, but I’m better than that."

    I used to think that way until I actually started writing fantasy.

    And frankly, one of the greatest authors of the 20th century was a fantasist. I speak, of course, of Mervyn Peake. For sheer literary genius, there are few writers of the English language who can match him, even among the greatest of the great, but he was considered a genre writer because he set his story in a huge sprawling castle called Gormenghast.

  35. Thank you, thank you, thank you for saying this. I wish I had read this sooner.

    I've never understood the snobbery of either side. I think we all grew up reading a variety of books. And what propelled us to become writers? Stories that were well-told and moved us. Nothing more.

    I don't know why MFA programs feel the need to put such sharp, snobbish divisions into a field that thrives and needs a diversity of offerings.

    It's destructive to a writer, and the MFA student you met was still in the "hignly idealistic" stage of his or her life. When she or he is out of the Ivory Tower, they will find out that their goal is to be a "working writer" that people want to read, rather than an MFA student with an unpublished manuscript.

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