Years ago, I read an interview with thriller writer, Richard North Patterson, in which he made the distinction between what he termed "New Yorker" fiction and commercial fiction. Patterson claimed that the kind of fiction that gets printed in The New Yorker Magazine, is the kind of story where a man gets up in the morning, contemplates whether he should leave his apartment to go outside and then, by the end of the story, decides not to.
The New Yorker Magazine is, of course, a highly esteemed publication and considered an arbiter of quality. It is also the kind of publication that curls its lip at hacks who toil away in genre land. Commercial fiction writers respond to this kind of snobbery by arguing that their writing brings pleasure to far more readers than their upmarket counterparts and that most people who buy literary fiction end up not reading the book, but leaving it on the coffee table to impress their friends.
There is something undeniably hip to reading literary fiction. Carry a copy of House of Leaves under your arm and your cool factor is infinitely higher than if you tote around a dog-eared copy of Twilight.. And whereas a large readership is usually something authors strive for, some literary authors are not interested in reaching the great unwashed. Who can forget Jonathan Franzen snubbing Oprah Winfrey on National Public Radio? He suggested that the Oprah logo on the cover of his book, The Corrections, would be to its disadvantage. For one thing, it might dissuade men from reading it. Oprah rescinded her invitation to Franzen to appear on her show and he did not get to have dinner with her. But The Corrections went on to become one of the biggest literary bestsellers of all time.
Literary authors are blessed with patient readers. Readers of commercial fiction, on the other hand, are in a hurry and if your book doesn't grab their attention within the first thirty pages, you will be pushed aside. Of course, one man's boredom can be another man's delight. I tend to glaze over when I read a Tom Clancy novel, whereas my husband makes these annoying little lip smacking noises when he gets to the bit where Clancy describes the intricacies of the trigger mechanism of an AK 47.
Popular wisdom has it that genre fiction is plot driven whereas literary fiction focuses on character development. And unlike the writer of literary fiction, the writer of genre fiction usually makes use of language that draws little attention to itself : after-all, self-conscious language can slow down the pace of the story, which in commercial fiction is the ultimate no no.
Keeping this in mind, I thought it might be interesting to try the following as an exercise. Which of these examples are from literary novels and which from commercial fiction?
"It was summer in New Orleans, when the streets steamed in the morning and the rain teemed in the evening, when the brown river flowed thick and muddy, and the bayous spread in an ooze of lily pads and crawfish. In the old St. Louis Cemeteries, where the raised crypts had cracked and sunk into the earth, water lapped at the rotting bones so that the sweet smell of decay rose into the air and took on the breath of resurrected life."
"Select any woman, slap a ring on her third finger and she becomes a wife. First she takes you into her warm soft body, which is pleasant, and then she takes you into her warm, soft mind, which is not so pleasant. She does not share, she possesses - she clings and she smothers. The relation of man to woman is uninteresting in that it confirms to an inescapable pattern, nature has made it so for the very good reason that it requires us to reproduce."
"You know how the earth feels before a thunderstorm, how everything gets still and colors seem to stand out with the brilliance of things seen during a high fever? My winter dreams... were like that, each leaving me with a feeling that was not quite sickness."
These examples are all taken from commercial novels. The first paragraph is from the book Mortal Sins by Penn Williamson who started her career as a romance writer. The second is by Wilbur Smith from his debut novel, When the Lion Feeds and the third is from Stephen King's Bag of Bones. To my mind, all three paragraphs are examples of superior writing.
Horror is not a genre known for its literary merit but Stephen King has an angel ear for language, which consistently sets the best of his work apart. Wilbur Smith is often called the master of the pot boiler but When the Lion Feeds is not only a fantastic action novel but gives a sweeping and insightful view of South African society in the nineteenth century. There is also a scene in this book, which is one of the most wrenching I have ever read. In it Smith describes the excruciating death of one of the characters who contracts rabies. It is stunningly well-written and memorable for both its physical and its emotional impact. You read it with your heart beating triple-time, even as you weep.
"Literary" is not automatically synonymous with "quality". There is nothing worse than making your way through a book whose author takes himself far too seriously and who submits his readers to pretentious prose and his own self-indulgent navel-gazing. However, I do think the best literary novels can be amazing in a way that is tough for a commercial novel to emulate. It is true that these masterpieces often unfold leisurely. The structure can also sometimes push the boundaries of the form -- but by doing so, these novels challenge the reader's perceptions and understanding of the world in a rather fabulous way. Consider Haruki Murakami's Wind-up Bird Chronicles - weird and wonderful. But then there is his Wild Sheep Chase, which is simply weird. It's a fine line.
The passing of time often seems to bestow literary status on books that were originally conceived as pure entertainment: the work of Alexander Dumas, Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters. Their stories still engage us powerfully. The archetypes resonate within us. The language, the atmosphere, the emotions continue to weave a spell even after we had long closed the pages. The characters are as dear to us as loved ones.
And this, I think, is what counts in the end. Does your book have staying power? A hundred years from now, will people still be reading Portnoy's Complaint? I don't know, but I bet they will still have Gone with the Wind on their shelves.
So let me know what you think! What is your definition of literary fiction? Do you have well-defined criteria or is it more a case of "I know it when I see it"? Or maybe you think there is no distinction and the boundaries are fluid?
Hope you guys are doing well. I've been very busy and I'm still waiting for Summer to arrive in London. Damp and chilly over here