Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor
Last week, I read Tony Lazlo’s article “What Best-Selling Crap Can Teach Us,” and it got me thinking: what exactly distinguishes commercial fiction from literary fiction? Can commercial fiction be literary? And can literary fiction be commercial?
There’s no way to settle this question definitively unless we define our terms. According to the voice of authority—Wikipedia—literary fiction is defined as a term used to distinguish “serious fiction (that is, work with claims to literary merit) from the many types of genre fiction and popular fiction (i.e. paraliterature).” Okay, so that helps us…not at all. Literary and commercial fiction are basically defined by what the other is not. Commercial fiction is popular, whereas literary fiction is less so. Literary fiction is “serious” whereas commercial fiction is not. Literary fiction has literary merit, whereas commercial fiction does not. (And to the person or persons who decides whether a book has “literary merit”: who died and made you the Book God?)
It’s interesting to note that within the article, when you click on the term “popular fiction,” it links to the article for genre literature. So basically, Wikipedia is saying that all popular fiction is genre fiction, and genre fiction does not have literary merit. That’s a bit of a broad generalization if you ask me, and it speaks to the pretentiousness of the literary community. It would seem to imply that anything that falls outside of a specific genre is literary.
But wait…isn’t every kind of fiction genre fiction, if you think about it? Let’s think about some of the common genres: horror, thriller, science fiction/fantasy, romance, etc. Lots of horror novels have murders in them, so our hypothetical literary novel must not have any murders in it. Many thrillers have lengthy courtroom scenes or other kinds of legal drama, so the characters in our hypothetical literary novel must not get anywhere near the legal system. Science fiction and fantasy novels have elements of the supernatural or unexplained, so our hypothetical novel must take place squarely within the confines of the reality we know. And of course, romance novels have romance, so under no circumstance can any of the characters in our hypothetical literary novel fall in love.
What are we left with? Theoretically, a novel in which the hero contemplates life and nothing happens. And someone will read it and call it a deep and profound meditation on the existential crisis of modern life.
Obviously, I’m exaggerating here, but it highlights the main paradox of literary fiction. You cannot define something only by its relationship to something else. Imagine if you opened a dictionary to look up the word loud, and the only definition listed was “not quiet.” Undaunted, you look up quiet, only to find a definition of “not loud.”
And that’s my whole point. Since literary and commercial fiction can only be defined by their relationship to one another, the terms are absolutely meaningless. Commercial fiction is not always devoid of literary merit, just as literary fiction is not always unpopular…nor does literary fiction always have literary merit.
The truth is, there have been times when I’ve tried to read some of those literary novels—award-winning books showered with critical acclaim—and I’ve been unable to finish them. One of two things stops me: either the writing style is oozing with so much literary pretentiousness (lack of punctuation, second-person narration, overly flowery language, structural strangeness, etc.) that I just can’t get past it and put myself into the story, or the story itself just isn’t that interesting. And to me, good fiction should not be boring.
Hey, I’m not going to say that the Nicholas Sparks and James Pattersons of the world produce works comparable to the great literary classics—but then again, I’ve never had any trouble finishing any of their books, either.
A good book is a good book, and should be recognized as such regardless of what it’s about. Take Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The book follows a father and son journeying through post-apocalyptic America in hopes of finding a warmer climate where they can survive the winter. They constantly face danger from exposure, disease, and cannibals. Totally a science-fictiony concept. But instead of shoved aside by critics as merely “commercial” or “genre” fiction, it was embraced by the literary community, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2007. But—gasp—it was also popular. Perhaps The Road was just a good book that transcended the constraints of literary and commercial fiction.
If this happened more often, I think the literary world would be a much richer place.