Literary Fiction versus Commercial Fiction: Who Decides?
As an undergraduate student studying English, I always heard that the books we were reading were from the great canon of literature. After reading many books from this canon, I began to wonder why they were so boring. I loved some books, such as Jane Eyre, but I could never understand why anyone thought Gertrude Stein was brilliant or a must read. This made me wonder, who has the right to decide what is considered literature? To examine the topic, I will discuss possible definitions of literary versus other fiction, the controversy over these definitions, how others have defined literary fiction, and who decides what is literary.
In order to better understand this problem, I began by looking at the definition of literary fiction. According to Joyce G. Saricks, in The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, “Literary Fiction is critically acclaimed, often award-winning, fiction. These books are more often character-centered rather than plot-oriented. They are thought-provoking and often address serious issues.” Writing style and exploration are both important to literary fiction. As Saricks said, “no set pattern is the pattern.” With this as a definition, it could be assumed no two literary fiction books are the same. Literary fiction books also deal with real-life, universal dilemmas that often have no easy answers. These novels are often complex, multilayered, and can be told from multiple perspectives. Literary fiction often includes award winning novels that are not exactly comforting to read. These books can include unlikable, unreliable characters, difficult topics, uncomfortable scenes, and new ways of exploring language.
Other fiction, also called commercial or genre fiction, could be considered to include everything else. Therefore, this group contains all adrenaline genres, emotional genres, and some intellectual genres. This includes mystery, thriller, science-fiction, fantasy, adventure, romantic suspense, suspense, thrillers, horror, romance, psychological suspense, and probably many more. Here’s an example of what would not be literary fiction – a mystery. The most important feature of a mystery book is the plot, and particularly that the plot fit within the expected sequence. There is a problem, there is a person who goes searching for clues to solve the mystery surrounding the problem, there are dangers and other obstacles, and at the end the person looking for clues solves the mystery and figures out who did it. Another example would be a romance book. In a romance book, the most important feature is the romance itself. The books are predictable in that the ending must be happy. Genre fiction, or commercial fiction, is supposedly focused more on plot, quick action, and sales than wording, style, or characterization.
The problem with these definitions is that classifying a book is not that simple. The definition of how these genres are separated is a socially constructed definition that is not fully agreed upon. Because defining these categories is difficult, it has caused debate. If a book can be a literary bestselling fantasy, then it simultaneously fits in both categories. This undermines the categories themselves.
Most people have their own guidelines or idea of what literary fiction is. Even editors of literary fiction have differing ideas. Marc Fitten, editor of The Chattahoochee Review, said, "Literary fiction for me is primarily based in language” (Allen). “G.S. Evans, co-editor of The Café Irreal, believes that "in its broadest sense, literary fiction is fiction that attempts to communicate ideas, concepts or feelings that transcend the structural elements of the story, e.g., the plot, the characters, the setting” (Allen). According to Alan Davis, senior editor of New Rivers Press, "literary fiction renders an experience that has not been rendered before (originality) in language (style, voice, etc.) unique to that experience" (Allen). “I’m looking for books that are distinctive and not familiar; I’m not interested in midlife, mid-Manhattan angst,” said Jay Shafer, senior editor of Chronicle (Kinsella). Even though each of these editors publishes literary fiction, their definitions focus on different aspects of the genre as most important. This demonstrates that the people who publish literary fiction cannot even agree upon a definition.
People also create their own personal definitions of what literary fiction is. Nathan Bransford clarifies on his blog that “In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.” Another blog author gives one of the most confusing definitions of literary fiction I’ve ever read. Daniel Davis Wood states that “literary fiction is exactly what the adjective ‘literary’ suggests: not a work of fiction that possesses a certain set of “literary” freedoms, but a work of fiction that makes an issue of its own nature as literature, its very literariness. It is irreducibly literary, and therefore utterly unable to be translated into any alternative artform.” Ken Gelder as quoted in “The Opposite of Literature,” defined literary fiction versus popular fiction as different in three ways. “First, Literature is created by Author-Artists; popular fiction by writer-craftsmen. Second, readers of Literature read vertically ("seriously," slowly, skeptically); popular fiction is read horizontally (for "leisure," quickly, credulously). Third, Literature eschews commercial success; popular fiction embraces branding” (St. Clair). Finally, Robert J. Sawyer points out on his blog one distinct difference: “Literary publishing is done without hopes of making a lot of money, and often in small print runs produced by small publishers.” Overall, personal definitions of literary fiction show an even higher level of disagreement, or difficulty defining literary fiction.
As part of the controversy, there are people who seem to be anti-literary fiction. “Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post, who said literary fiction had collapsed on itself out of ''self-regard and self-promotion” (Shulevitz). B. R. Myers, writer of “A Reader’s Manifest: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness of American Literary Prose,” is one of the loudest anti-literary fiction voices. He “declared that the American novel had become convoluted and self-consciously ''literary” (Shulevitz). B. R. Myers also said:
“The dualism of literary versus genre has all but routed the old trinity of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, which was always invoked tongue-in-cheek anyway. Writers who would once have been called middlebrow are now assigned, depending solely on their degree of verbal affectation, to either the literary or the genre camp. David Guterson is thus granted Serious Writer status for having buried a murder mystery under sonorous tautologies (Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994), while Stephen King, whose Bag of Bones (1998) is a more intellectual but less pretentious novel, is still considered to be just a very talented genre storyteller.”
This anti-literary fiction sentiment is one argument that helps to fuel the controversy.
Morpeth, Headline director of fiction, says “"There is a lot of rubbish spoken about the literary/ commercial divide. Why should the two be mutually exclusive? At what point do you sit down and say this is popular and therefore isn't literary?" (Bone). Morpeth argues “that great authors of the 19th century — Austen, the Brontës, Dickens — ‘simply wrote books which appealed to lots of people and stood the test of time. A great novel is a great novel’” (Bone). Morpeth also points out that bestselling authors are not respected in the publishing business, and she thinks they should be.
The arguments for what makes something literary fiction reminds me of similar arguments about why a book is in the literature canon. In fact, the definition of a canon seems to fit well with the argument. “In its most recent manifestation, “canon” is used to refer to those texts which are passed on from generation to generation as being worthy of study, reflection, and admiration, those works which are believed in some way to be inherently superior to others” (Buchsbaum). The definition of what is literature, just as what is literary fiction, is not easily set. Julianne Buchsbaum concluded that “it is an inherent aspect of canons that they will always be in flux, that they will never be fixed, permanent, or unchanging.” If literary fiction is defined in a way that makes it superior to other genre books, it can be assumed that its definition is a social creation and therefore will change over time.
This brings us to the big question, who decides what is literary fiction? Everyone obviously has an opinion on the matter, but what opinions make one book honored as literary and another dubbed genre fiction?
Some may believe that the audience decides. In “Fantasy Goes Literary,” Kastenmeier is quoted saying, “Writers like Susanna Clarke and books like The Time Traveler's Wife are making it easier to package fantasy subject matter for a literary audience. The audience isn't defining literary fiction as narrowly as it once did" (Bond). However, this audience is often influenced by media and only given certain options by publishers. Therefore, the audience has little power until after the book is already categorized, published, and marketed
The media helps to popularize, promote, and make known literary fiction. “When it comes to popularizing literary fiction, the wider media is also playing its part in 2005” (Elliott). Magazines and literary publications are one way people find out about fiction. “There are hundreds of literary magazines, ranging from top-name publications that have been producing award-winning fiction for decades” (Allen). “The New Yorker has been providing some of that exposure. Always a bellwether for literary trends, for many years the taste-making magazine defined literary fiction solely as realistic fiction” (Bond). Critics, reviews, and awards also create exposure for literary fiction. The media promotes and makes known literary fiction, often being responsible for literary fiction that becomes a bestseller. However, the media can only promote literary fiction that has been published. It can be assumed that the fiction may already be categorized before it reaches the media.
The publishing industry can include not only the publishing house, but the editors and agents that help to promote the books. Sarah Lapolla, an associate literary agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd. pointed out that authors don’t always know what genre their writing is in. “When I receive queries that claim to be literary fiction, it often turns out, after reading the synopsis, that they are for genre fiction (aka commercial fiction). The flip side has happened too. I request a supernatural thriller or dark mystery and they turn out to be much more literary than the author probably realized” (LaPolla). This quote demonstrates that the authors are not the ones who decide if their fiction is literary or not, in this circumstance, the agent is deciding how to categorize the fiction. The article “Fantasy Goes Literary” pointed out that the way a book was published, or marketed, changed what the audience thought of it. Books “that are essentially SF or fantasy are being published in a mainstream way, so that readers who do not identify with reading a particular genre don't feel alienated by a publisher's use of a genre label" (Bond). This article shows that how the book is published and marketed affects how readers understand the genre of the book, therefore showing that the publisher marketing the book is deciding how to categorize the book. The article “What makes literary fiction 'literary'?: What it is, how it's different from mainstream fiction and what its editors are looking for” focuses on asking editors what they define as literary fiction. Editor Alvarado stated, "I don't think mainstream fiction … takes as many risks with character, form, subject matter, or style as literary fiction can because [mainstream fiction's] primary concern is the marketplace" (Allen). In the end, the editors say yes or no to if a book is published and how the book is marketed. Overall, it seems the power currently lies with the publishing industry to decide what is considered literary fiction. This is not the case in self-publishing, but it would be interesting to see if any self-published books were considered literary fiction.
Currently, it seems the editors and the publishing industries have the power to decide what books are considered literary fiction. They may keep their audience in mind, but in the end, the audience has little say. I expect in the future the definition of literary fiction will continue to change as each of the genres continues to merge together as authors take new risks. Since created definitions are socially accepted constructs, in the future the definition of literary fiction will likely change. As self publishing becomes more prominent, the power of deciding may move from the publishing realm to another.
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