April 23, 2012

Literary v/s Commercial Fiction

I spent much of rainy Sunday afternoon reading short fiction from The New England Review. I read about a dozen stories, each around five to ten thousand words in length. In recent years I've rarely read short fiction, other than stories in The New Yorker, and a fab collection called Meet Me in the Moon Room (highly recommend).

After reading so many stories, I was surprised to find that they all went together so distinctly. They all had the same wandering pace, conflicted characters, distant voice, and ambiguous ending. These are the kind of stories my husband would quit half-way through. Don't get me wrong, they all showcased excellent writing, and because I'm a reader, I could read and appreciate them. But the distinct style made me wonder how many people do like to read them?

I realized that what the NER and other literary publications showcase is not for everyone, because it's not commercial fiction--it's literary fiction. I've often wondered what the heck the difference was between these two worlds. After reminding myself of the particular flavor of literary fiction, now I know. According to wiki, my favorite imperfect source of summary info, this is the difference:
Literary fiction is a term that came into common usage during the early 1960s. The term is principally used to distinguish "serious fiction" which is a work that claims to hold literary merit, in comparison from genre fiction and popular fiction (i.e., paraliterature). In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more upon style, psychological depth, and character.[1][2] This is in contrast to Mainstream commercial fiction, which focuses more on narrative and plot. Literary fiction may also be characterized as lasting fiction — literature which continues to be read and in-demand many decades and perhaps centuries after the author has died.
See, it says it right there--literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character--not plot. I love plot. I love action. Perhaps I am not a literary fiction fan. I certainly could not imagine myself as a literary fiction writer. Then again, the last line in this description gives me pause: literature which continues to be read many decades after the author has died.

I question whether some of the short fiction stories I read really qualify for that characteristic. Sure, there are oodles of books that meet the test, books like To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Sound and the Fury. But even when I look at lists of the best all-time literary fiction like this one from GoodReads, I see a breadth of story, voice, and yes, even plot, that I am not finding in today's literary fiction reviews.

Perhaps today's definition of literary fiction has narrowed so tightly that it no longer defines all work that is merely not "commercial." I think that literary fiction is not a broad term any more. I think it's evolved into a very particular genre, one that holds a similar scope of definition as any of the subsets of commercial fiction--like romance, or thriller, or paranormal.

Why does this matter?

Well, when I first learned the difference between commercial and literary fiction, and realized my writing fell into the former category, I felt a little second-class. Literary fiction seemed to be the category that "real" writers fell into, whereas the commercial guys are just churning out words for cash. I no longer believe that.

I think that literary fiction is a style, a genre, and I question whether it even requires greater technical skill than commercial fiction. After all, The Pillars of the Earth is one of my favorite all-time books, and Ken Follett wrote it masterfully, but it's commercial historical fiction. If I can ever manage to write like Follett, I will in NO WAY feel second class. I will be grateful.

I'm sure the debate about what literary fiction is will go on as long as books are written. The genre, the style, the characteristic of being literary might never be truly definable. Perhaps John Updike got it right when he said all of his works were literary simply because "they are written in words."

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this post and agree, the word Literati was given to classic writers who wrote not to make a buck, not to a form or a style to suit the market but because they had 'the insight' and a certain perspective that would change society's way of thinking, they had a 'message' for the world, they were visionaries who needed to put into words what the great speakers of today give talks about. More a philosophical approach to writing than action and plot and structure. They told stories about the human condition such as Viginia Woolf who wrote Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens. They all had a view of their world which they wrote about. Therefore the classics, who outlast the commercial writers. They wrote to show humanity under a microscope.


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