Literary vs. Commercial Fiction: A Necessary Divide?


Over the past couple of weeks, we've been talking about the distinction between literary and commercial fiction, and speculating about why lit fic is losing so much ground. Of course, this phenomenon is not new, and neither is the two-way snobbism. In 1855, Nathaniel Hawthorne famously attacked that "damned mob of scribbling women" for selling hundreds of thousands of copies of books, while he and other more "serious" writers struggled to hold their own in the marketplace. "Dollars damn me," wrote Melville at age 30 in 1851, deep in debt and headed towards financial ruin. And yet he and Hawthorne continued to write and continued their famous correspondence, even as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin went from its serialized publication in an antislavery magazine to a wildly popular book and oft performed play.

Yet who do we read now? Who is most often assigned in high school and college classrooms? The answer is less straightforward than you might think, and leads me to my biggest question: Why do we assume that what is now considered "literary" will be the literature of the future? Why do we assume that someone who wins a Pulitzer prize or the Booker award in 2010 will be read 300 years from now? How do we know what tastes those people will share? How do we know their aesthetics? And why, for that matter, do we make such a distinction between "serious" literature and commercial? Isn't it possible to write "genre" fiction that is high quality? Isn't it possible to write "literary" fiction that is just downright bad?

I have a growing unease with the increasing polarization of literary and commercial fiction, in part because I still believe that it is possible to tell a good story, maybe even a great story, and tell it well. Perhaps I am naive, but I believe readers are hungry for quality even in genre, and I know many intelligent people who don't even know what "literary" fiction is. I think literary fiction writers need to see what they can learn from commercial writers, and I think writers of commercial fiction need to see what they can learn from the literati.

We all have to get over this "you suck/you don't sell" divide and realize that when we sit down with our notebooks or in front of our computer screens, we are engaging in the same basic practice. Good literary writers struggle over plot points too, and good genre writers struggle over characterization. Perhaps the genre writer does not have the luxury of time to worry about every little detail, but perhaps the literary writer could learn from the genre writer's work ethic, discipline, and pressure to connect with readers. And maybe commercial writers can learn from literary writers how to avoid cliche and pat, convenient formulas, even while staying true to the conventions of their genres.

Finally, we all need to realize that to some degree, there is still a gender bias at play. Chic lit is still dismissed as frivolous, even when "guy lit" (think Hemingway) of earlier eras is still lauded. J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer may have become phenomena, but critics have largely ignored them. Alice Sebold was herself considered "literary" until a certain book of hers became the biggest American debut since Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. Had The Lovely Bones sold only a few thousand copies, how would she have been received?

I still don't know where I'll end up as a writer, but I'm hoping to keep my options open. In the meantime, I'd rather dwell among the "scribbling women" than be the one who damns them.

Comments

Amen, sister! Great topic.

Lit/commercial hybrids happen, and they're often quite well published and successful. And I can think of any number of commercial authors, including Dennis Lehane and Stephen King, who use literary-quality craft to make their stories stand out. Also, a number of lit authors (Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates among them) use genre elements to write stories with great cross-over appeal. (I love all four of these authors, for different reasons and in different moods.)

Btw, Agent Jenny Bent just called via Twitter for queries for a "literary suspense"/"literary thriller." Is this you?
Possibly. We'll see. If I can just solve this darned rising action problem. I really hate that the main part of my book that isn't working is the part right after my partial! And I get so frustrated when readers say "but before and after that, the book cooked!"

Begone, thorny plot problem! :)
And I'll have to keep Ms. Bent's name in mind.
I understand where you are coming from...

As a writer, I'm a combination of commercial and literary fiction, (it creates interesting 'friction') bringing the best of both of the genres together in one novel. I like to think of it as "com-lit."

It's proving to be a harder novel to sell, but much more interesting to read (just my opinion). Multi-dimensional characters woven into a twisting-turning plot - what could be a better recipe for a great story?