Friday, July 02, 2010

From the Vault: Literary v Commercial

Happy summer, everybody!  For the next while, there are going to be some absences from the blog as we take vacations, but we'd hate to leave you guys hanging.  It's no secret that we blog much more now than when we started this baby, and there are far more of you reading than there were way back when.  So we thought we'd bring back some blog entries of days gone by that you may have missed if you just joined us in the last year.  If you have any favorites you think your fellow readers might enjoy, give us a shout below!

by Jim

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.

Originally posted in June 2007.


  1. Thanks for reposting this. Still definitely relevant! As a former MFA poet who's currently working on a YA paranormal romance, I've seen these attitudes pitifully frequently. In fact, I had a conversation with a former classmate a few nights ago where he said something along the lines of: "At first I thought it was a joke that you were writing a novel about a merman. But then you wouldn't drop it!" Then he added some stuff about how it's smart of me to "go commercial" and try to tap into "hot markets." And how maybe he should try to write for teenagers--despite the fact that he's completely unfamiliar with their reading tastes.

    Over the years, I've learned to be a little less angry about that kind of comment. A little. But it hasn't been easy.

  2. I am so glad this got reposted, for those of us who are newer blog followers. I think every writer of genre fiction has faced something like this at least once, no matter what stage of the writing/publication process they're at. This kind of prejudice and snobbery is what kept me from pursuing a creative writing degree (and later was the big reason I decided not to go for an MFA) because it was so prevalent in my college program. It doesn't bother me too much coming from the average layperson, because I can't expect them to know, but it does irritate me when teachers come out with that stuff.

    Thanks for this post!

  3. Glad to see this repost, too. And I think it's important to point out that "Madame Bovary" was the "Valley of the Dolls" of its time. The boundaries between literary and commercial are permeable, and often blur with time.

  4. I don't know anyone in the industry so would never get a conversation where I could smack someone 'upside the head' - that was funny.

    Thanks for this, Jim.

    From the comments, it reminds me how valuable some old posts are and need to go archiving at some point.

  5. It seems like the fact that "category fiction" can sometimes rise to literary heights, while "literary fiction" can employ a category vehicle, is really telling us that we're drawing our line in the wrong place.

    But that doesn't mean we shouldn't draw that line at all. It just means we shouldn't dismiss a piece of fiction because it has a sword, a vampire, a spaceship, a cowboy, or a detective in it. And, we shouldn't praise fiction simply because it lacks those elements and reads like a magnetic poetry set.

    The line between the truly literary and the merely escapist crosses subject/setting categories, and what we currently label as "literary" is simply one category among the many. We should relabel the works in that category, and use the term "literary" as an indicator of merit and quality regardless of the species and occupation of the MC.