How Hard Should We Make Our Readers Work?

Mike Duran - author photoGuest Blogger: Mike Duran (@CerebralGrump)

Ask ten different authors the difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction and you’ll get 10 different answers. When there is consensus, it’s usually that literary fiction is more about the writing than the story, while commercial fiction is more about the story than the writing. Graham Greene simply made the distinction between what he called “novels” and “entertainments.”

When I began shopping my first novel, I was told to avoid the term “literary.” “In today’s market,” they said, “literary is a death sentence.” Okay, so that may be a bit extreme. Nevertheless, today’s readers do seem less concerned about the writing than the entertainment. Tempo has replaced density as the mark of good books; we’d rather be pulled along than have to hunker down. Which may illuminate the biggest distinction between literary and commercial fiction: Literary fiction requires more work on the part of the reader than commercial fiction does.

In an interview on KCRW’s Bookworm program, novelist Zadie Smith put it this way:

…the problem with readers, the idea we’re given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, “I should sit here and I should be entertained.” And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true. (emphasis mine)

It’s interesting that “the more classical model” of reading, the one that requires “work,” has become “unfashionable.” As Ms. Smith suggests, nowadays we tend to approach books as we do movies — we want to be acted upon, rather than act. Among other things, the electronic age has heightened our expectations of a given media and lowered the requirements of participation. Rather than having to sit down and “work at a text,” we approach reading as a “spectator sport.”

This is not meant to suggest that all “entertainments” are necessarily bad or poorly-written. Commercial fiction can be expertly done. And thought-provoking. What should concern us, I believe, is the fact that “the more classical model” of reading, the one that places demands upon the readers, has become “unfashionable.”

At one time there was an unspoken vow between reader and writer wherein the reader pledged to work hard and the writer guaranteed to make her. Such is no longer the case. Not only do most readers not want to work harder, many writers make sure they don’t have to. I mean, why demand attention when we can offer adrenaline injections?

And isn’t that what publishers are looking for?

Our dilemma is double-edged. For the writer, the drive to be published can tempt us to short-cut literary depth in exchange for formulaic “entertainments.” If the kids want mac and cheese, we’ll forgo the vegetables just to shut them up. Of course, owning stocks in the “mac and cheese” industry may fuel our disregard. Who cares that later on down the road their dietary deficiencies become evident — they are satisfied and we get a paycheck. (Which could explain why there are far less readers than movie-goers, and theaters outnumber bookstores — we weren’t made to eat our Lima beans.) Good writing need not be a chore to read. Still, at some point, the maturing adult must learn to use her literary molars.

And that’s the opposite edge. After all, I’m trying to sell books not raise your literary IQ. But doesn’t the “call to write” come with a “sacred obligation” to respect your literary IQ? However, if today’s readers want “entertainments,” what is the harm in giving it to them? People can survive on fast food, right?

Do you think good writing necessarily demands more from a reader? How obligated should authors be to make their readers “work”? And is there any real harm in writing “entertainments”?

* * *

Mike Duran writes supernatural suspense. His latest release, “The Telling,” is about a disfigured modern-day prophet who must overcome his own despair in time to seal one of nine mythical gates of hell. You can learn more about him and his upcoming projects at mikeduran.com.

 

 

 

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  • http://nancysthompson.blogspot.com/ Nancy S. Thompson

    As a reader, all I want is to be entertained, to be taken away into another world, to experience another life for a few brief moments at a time. As a writer, I want to do just that for my reader. I’m not out to teach or impress or show somebody up, let alone make someone work hard to understand what it is I’m trying to say. I like to relax when I read. Making the reader work isn’t very relaxing. So while I respect all writers, no matter the genre or style, if as a writer I cannot keep the attention of my reader because they’re working too hard, then I’m not doing my job. No disrespect. Just one writer/reader’s opinion.

    • http://www.yourvervemagazineonline.info Paula

      I agree with Nancy, well said!

    • http://crowproductions.com Joan Cimyotte

      Having read some of the classics, I feel they did all the hard work. As a reader, I don’t want to work. I agree. We want to be entertained. It’s probably a sign of the times. We have at our fingertips so many distractions and everyday we have to deal with the realities of life. I want to entertain and I want to be taken from some of the reality.

  • http://kathrynpackerroberts.blogspot.com Kathryn Roberts

    This is something I’ve thought a great deal about. I miss the fact that what we used to read (or still read if you read the classics) were very pretty prose. Some, I admit were long reads and did make me ‘work’, but others (once I got used to the language) were not only beautifully written, but story-wise were entertaining as well.

    At this point in time, I’ll admit that I’m more interested in playing the game and getting published. That’s my ultimate goal. But it would be nice if we could do both, entertain as well as write well. There is a lot of trash (no offense) out there that is purely for entertainment purposes that I wish we could just do away with, and of which I will take no part in. But I do think that there is a new form of writing that can be clever and entertaining at the same time. Our prose may not be pretty in the same way, but for our time we are being pretty creative.

    • http://4broadminds.blogspot.com/ carol brill

      For me, “very pretty prose” may be one aspect of what makes a work literary. I also think literary fiction can have transparent prose with depth of character and plots that venture into deep waters and are not predictable.

      • Jeff Nadzam

        I agree with you regarding the higher level prose. I might add that in depth character development is also a key to a solid literary work of art.

        Right now, if someone writes a novel, it appears that it must be about werewolves, vampires or great wizards. This is tiresome, and really it is less than fulfilling.

  • LC

    Here we go — another iteration of “it’s not literature unless it makes you suffer.”

    It’s quite possible to have literary depth or beautiful writing and still have a plot, engaging characters and action. Too many “literary” writers forget this. Too many critics think the only legitimate literature is that which is mostly unreadable by anyone without an MFA. There’s unfortunately too much substance to the old cliche that literary fiction consists of five hundred pages of a hateful character locked in a room, thinking about himself.

    The origins of the novel are rooted in storytelling. Long ruminations on the nature of mankind were originally called “philosophy” and sold as such. Of course, philosophy sells even less well today than does literary fiction.

    I have more than enough difficult reading at work; I don’t need to subject myself to it voluntarily. I certainly have no cause to inflict it on a reader.

    • http://www.mikeduran.com Mike Duran

      “It’s quite possible to have literary depth or beautiful writing and still have a plot, engaging characters and action.”

      Well, uh, yeah. Not sure I’m saying anything otherwise. I think you might be guilty here of the opposite caricature, LC… portraying literary fiction as purely “Long ruminations on the nature of mankind.” Boring ruminations, I might add.

      • LC

        That may have been what you *meant* to say. However, this is what you *did* say:

        – “…we’d rather be pulled along than have to hunker down…”
        – “Rather than having to sit down and ‘work at a text,’ we approach reading as a ‘spectator sport.'”
        – “At one time there was an unspoken vow …wherein the reader pledged to work hard and the writer guaranteed to make her.”
        – “…we’ll forgo the vegetables just to shut them up…”
        – “…we weren’t made to eat our Lima beans…”
        – “…the maturing adult must learn to use her literary molars”
        – “the ‘call to write’ come[s] with a ‘sacred obligation’ to respect your literary IQ…”

        All of which clearly adds up to “it ain’t good if it doesn’t make you suffer.”

        You believe there are fewer readers than movie-goers because readers weren’t made to “eat [their] Lima beans” when they were young. I strenuously disagree. I believe we have fewer readers because people were forced to read overlong, dull, pretentious books during their formative years “because it’s good for you” and it turned them off of reading forever.

        What will save reading for future generations is the late explosion of the MG and YA markets, which have brought propulsive storytelling and memorable characters to young people without a lot of hairshirt literary pretense. No doubt you’d consider 99.5% of MG and YA books “entertainments.” So be it. In a few years, these young adults will have developed a reading habit, and a few may decide to slog through Joyce because they got through 800 pages of Harry Potter without dying.

        • http://jilldomschot.com Jill

          So using the mind and eating vegetables makes people suffer? That’s a new one to me.

        • http://www.mikeduran.com Mike Duran

          “You believe there are fewer readers than movie-goers because readers weren’t made to “eat [their] Lima beans” when they were young.”

          Nope. I believe “there are fewer readers than movie-goers” because(1) Our culture is becoming progressively dumbed down by electronic media and (2) Reading is much harder than watching something.

          “No doubt you’d consider 99.5% of MG and YA books ‘entertainments.'”

          Wrong again. I read YA, like YA, and am close friends with several YA authors. Interestingly enough, I blogged about a similar subject today in a post entitled Is YA a Genre or a Reading Level.

        • Eva

          Personally, I have to say that as a sixteen-year old who is a big reader, I only read YA fiction when I’m very bored. I love books that make me think, especially about topics I’ve never thought about before. YA fiction, although often entertaining, usually leaves no impression on me, and I soon forget it. The best books are the ones which combine both elements.

  • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

    Just entertain me. Not only do I want fast food, but I want it pureed in a blender and spoon fed to me. That’s why I only read books that start with “I’d never given much thought to how I would die–” :-P Yeah, shock me, then seduce me with candy coated blood sports.

    But seriously folks, a well-written novel can grab and hold one’s attention as well as envelop us in language that elevates our minds.
    There is a fine line between elevation and didacticism, however, so our approach is important. I’m not the reader’s parent and to act like it is to have them roll there eyes at me like I’m the creepy old guy standing behind them at McDonalds. Instead, I’m the friend who says, “Whoa dude, check this out. It’s like that Bach guy done with a heavy metal guitar.”

    Perhaps today’s market demands that we write commercially and edit to fine tune the literature?

    Consider this as you ponder that– http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfAp7Xf2L_o

    • http://www.atlasmediank.com Adam Porter (@AtlasProWriter)

      PJ,

      Have you seen the 2 cellos? Similar concept but reversed…classic rock done on classical strings.

      • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

        Yeah, they’re awesome. I love their “Smells like Teen Spirit.”

    • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

      Why not just go all the way and get a feeding tube? It’ll free up B’s time to go shopping with your royalty cheques.
      Don’t be so harsh, you don’t need to use the word “old” to describe yourself in the line at MacDonalds. You’re barely over 50.

      Sometimes we need to introduce Bach via metal, in order to hook the listener to go deeper and get to the real thing. Hopefully, once the listener is past the metal phase, he or she can fully appreciate what that guitarist is loving about Bach. Like People magazine and Jane Austen, there are bound to be a few people wanting to understand Lizzie and Darcy a bit deeper, right?

      • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

        That first line *may* appear to be nasty. I was trying to say, that we can all dumb our brains down even more without trying too hard. The line about “old”, nah, that was just nasty.

        Sorry PJ.

        • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

          I laughed. Besides, I may be 48, but I have the mind and body of a 47 year old. :-P

          • http://writing-well.carrie-lewis.com/ Carrie L. Lewis

            Laughing out loud!

      • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

        There’s definitely the need for hooking the reader. Perhaps a good series is the best way. Look at the Harry Potter books, for example, if the first book was as long and written in the same manner as the last, few YA readers would have picked it up.

  • http://blessed-are-the-pure-of-heart.blogspot.com Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    The idea of literary fiction as a forced intellectual exercise is, when I think about it, an interesting variation on McLuhan’s “The Medium Is The Message”.

    When the structure of any form of communication becomes the primary focus of that communication, it neatly misses the whole point of its own existence.

    Like the famous Malaysian Concentric Bird, it flies in tighter and tighter circles until it disappears up its own backside.

    • http://Www.summerjarviswrites.com Summer

      That’s funny, although sometimes as a writer I actually enjoy noticing the method.

  • http://www.melindadyksterhouse.us Mindy Dyksterhouse

    I have a simple rating system that I use for the books I read. And I bide by this when I’m writing.

    I call this ‘The D System’
    D is for dictionary.

    While I’m reading I keep a dictionary close by. I have several dictionaries that I’ve obtained over the years. And it helps to know exactly where each one is- including that legendary English to Klingon Reference book. :-) You never know when you’ll need one.

    Before I sit down to begin reading, I grab one dictionary and keep it with me. I also have a pad of paper and a pen at rest, nearby.

    The key to doing this is to have a dictionary that is current and relevant. My English to Klingon Dictionary isn’t going to help anyone who’s reading Tom Sawyer or Little Women.

    So, A general dictionary is best.

    The easy part comes once you’ve started reading. Pause in the act when you reach a word that makes you stump. Take that pen and paper and write that word down and look it up. That’s a D-1.

    this is a habit I’ve formed over the years. It’s to a point where I don’t think about the steps or aspects of it- I just do it.

    In a way, it’s like a warning system- so many referrals to the dictionary and it’s less likely that I’d read it again.

    The worst so far for me has been a D5 – BUT In this case it was a good thing. It was a book from a well-publicized man who helps people to solve their problem. So I was learning something.

    Books meant for entertainment aren’t so luck. If I reach a D-5 – having check a dictionary for the fifth time- the book is in danger. Even if I may finish the book- chances are that I won’t pick it up again for a long time.

    Granted this may seem harsh to some. I can see this perspective. Still, having to stop reading and grab a dictionary to translate a word distracts from the story.

    Just my 2 cents

    -Mindy

    • http://blessed-are-the-pure-of-heart.blogspot.com Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

      You’ve hit the key point – too much literary fiction is a game whereby the writer tries to outwit the reader through the creation of increasingly impenetrable prose.

      Even the name of the genre – literary fiction – kowtows to thinly veiled snobbery. (No, I don’t write literary fiction, just the commercial sort…just a hack, y’see…)

      How on earth have we put ourselves into the position of owing respect to writers that hold us in genteel contempt? It’s the same attitude that taught us, and convinced us to accept as holy writ that Norman Rockwell is ‘bad’, while Jackson Pollock is ‘good’.

      • http://doubtingwriter.blogspot.com/ jeffo

        I think you’re reading too much into intent here. Perhaps there are some who are ‘trying to outwit the reader’, but I think most are just writing the way they write. And I know of several writers of commercial fiction who hold their readers in less-than-genteel contempt.

        • http://Www.summerjarviswrites.com Summer

          Good point.

      • http://www.mikeduran.com Mike Duran

        Andrew, I’d suggest you are swinging to the opposite extreme to make you’re point. Commercial fiction writers can be just as snobbish and elitist as anyone else. I also write commercial fiction, and know many writers who do, and don’t consider any of them “hacks.”

        • http://blessed-are-the-pure-of-heart.blogspot.com Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

          I’ll accept that, and I did go to an extreme. I spent a lot of my younger years in an extremely ‘arty’ environment, and there really was a tremendous contempt for ‘the great unwashed’. These folks really used that term. It did make me a bit Bolshie in that regard, and I went over the top. (And – for the record – I really like Kazuo Ishiguro!)

      • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

        My kids did a Jackson Pollock retrospective in pre-school. I don’t apologize, the guy may have been “brilliant”, but he splattered paint. Rockwell was gifted and had an eye for the character of his characters.

    • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

      I am IMPRESSED! ANyone with an English to Klingon Reference is one well read human! I like your D list.

    • http://jilldomschot.com Jill

      Or it could be as simple as the author having a wider vocabulary than you have, or a different one. How could an author possibly know your vocabulary? Personally, if I learn a few new words while reading a book, I consider the book to have been worthwhile. How else are you going to expand your vocabulary but by reading?

      • http://www.fragmentsandfriends.blogspot.com Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts

        Amen, Jill!

      • Brendan Podger

        My take on Mindy being stumped isn’t just from seeing an unknown word. Very often we can figure out meaning of an unknown word from those around it. If we know the dictionary definition it may add a bit of savour to our reading but if the unknown word in such a place where we can’t grasp what the author meant from the context, this is often a case of impenetrable or simply bad writing.

        • http://jilldomschot.com Jill

          That’s stretching a bit. If there’s no context, there’s no story. There’s always a context. Always. Some stories aren’t meant to be instantly grasped and, in fact, those are my favorite kind. I don’t begrudge others liking stories for different reasons, or for wanting stories to be more accessible, but don’t call complexity bad writing, please. This kind of reverse snobbery drives me insane.

  • Neil Ansell

    Personally I tend to think of literary fiction as fine dining, while commercial fiction is like fast food. They both serve their purpose, but personally I want my reading to bring something new to the table, to surprise me, to make me see the world in a whole new way.
    If I see a book described as a ‘page-turner’ or ‘unputdownable’ I will discount it immediately. I want something I can savour. But each to their own.

    • http://Www.summerjarviswrites.com Summer

      Love this analogy.

    • http://4broadminds.blogspot.com/ carol brill

      agree…and I have read many more literary novels that are page turners because they have that depth of character and plot

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      I agree with your analogy. Unfortunately, most people are so hooked on fast food that when you hand the fillet minion, they ask for the ketchup.

  • http://www.whispersonthejourney.wordpress.com Sarah

    What kind of extra work do you think is demanded of the reader in literary fiction? Shouldn’t there be one level on which “good” writing demands less of the reader? Where it so catches them up in the story, language, characters, and setting that they aren’t necessarily aware that “now this is an action scene” and “now this is a thoughtful scene”?
    In my personal reading habits, I think there are different books for different times and topics. I prefer to read a wide variety of styles and genres… switching back and forth between the classics and more modern, popular fiction with some non-fiction thrown in for good measure (and topics for conversation). It’s the reading equivalent of doing a hard-core, muscle-pain inducing workout one day and then my more low key Pilates workout the next.

  • Whitney

    The real unspoken vow between writer and reader should not be “the reader pledged to work hard and the writer guaranteed to make her.” Rather it should be “the reader pledged to work hard and the writer guaranteed to make it worth her while.”

    • Elissa

      Oh, yes! Make it worth my while! I don’t care if it’s literary or pure entertainment, just don’t waste my time.

  • http://Www.jcemery.Wordpress.com JC Emery

    You know, I could get high and mighty about what I think people should be reading and what really broadens the mind as opposed to what’s easy, but how pretentious is that?

    Let’s face it, folks– people don’t read like they used to. Kids and adults alike are far more likely to watch TV over reading a book. I just wants people to read, and to fall in love with reading. This outdated idea that commercial fiction is like junk food is ridiculous. What a wonderful assumption that if it’s not literary then it’s bad for you. Really?

    This entire article is asking more of the reader than what they’re able to give. Let’s get kids reading and not judge them for what they enjoy.

    • http://www.mikeduran.com Mike Duran

      JC, would you agree that there are levels of reading that we should challenge young readers with? Sure, getting them started is great. But, ideally, wouldn’t you want them to grow in their aptitude and breadth of reading experience?

      • http://theotherstephenkingonwriting.blogspot.com Stephen H. King

        Mike,

        As a person who learned to hate to read early in life (had there been Wii back then you’d’a lost me just as surely), I say, emphatically, no. The ink on my Ph.D. in Education hasn’t dried yet, but I’m already tempted to go look up the studies on this. I’ll spare you (and me too) all of the academic stuff on this topic, though.

        I think that kids who learn to love to read will find challenge a’plenty all by themselves. Kids who find challenge, meanwhile, will not learn to love to read.

        My stepdaughter is a bit of a special case, but I’ll exemplify her as the extreme. When we were brought together she couldn’t read. She has an auditory processing disorder that kind of disconnects some brain functions–doesn’t directly impact reading ability, but it makes it more challenging. Every teacher up to that point (and she was middle elementary grades by then) had failed at teaching her to read through challenging exercises.

        I sat her down with World of Warcraft, a game you really can’t play to any level without being able to read the quests. She tried to do it without them, granted. After a while I convinced her of the importance of doing the quests, though, and then I weaned her off needing to ask me to read them. She started reading them herself.

        She graduated all on her own from WoW to YA books to adult work (if you can include Twilight as an adult work). She’s constantly bugging me to take her back to the bookstore for more reading. She’s quite hopefully headed to college in 2013, and I’m quite hopeful I’ll hit the lottery so as to be able to pay for it. I’m sure she’ll face reading challenges there, but I’m also sure she’s got the maturity now to handle them without giving up on reading.

        -TOSK

        • http://www.mikeduran.com Mike Duran

          Stephen, the fact that you “weaned” your stepdaughter from one growth phase to another illustrates, I think, both our need to grow and for someone more “mature” to come alongside us. While some kids may be self-motivated to grow in their reading fare, that doesn’t preclude the need for others to be challenged.

      • http://jcemery.wordpress.com/ JC Emery

        Mike,

        While I love to find a kid who wants to be challenged, more often than not, I see kids who are barely interested in reading to begin with. If you try to push these kids they’re going to lose what little interest they already have. Kids used to read because it was fun and entertaining. Now with the advent of TV and video games, they have a multitude of entertainment options available. And sadly, this does not stop with children. I work with many highly educated individuals who do not read past maybe a magazine article.

        My way of looking at things is to treat the epidemic first. Let’s make reading fun in the classroom and encourage kids to fall into a book they enjoy. Let them get hooked on reading– adults, too!– and then we can worry about whether or not they’re being challenged. With the way the school system is currently structured, we have kids read books they do not find accessible or relate-able (because they’re not) and then we talk about how they should love it. But if they don’t, why aren’t we listening to them?

        The fact of the matter is I’m far more worried about the fact that the average American barely reads at all, unless they’re forced to, than what they’re reading. And while I understand and agree with the intent of your post, I think we’re asking too much of people. Most people don’t even know the difference between literary and commercial fiction.

    • http://www.katheckenbach.com Kat Heckenbach

      This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. My daughter is 9 and *just* on grade level for reading. My son (12), on the other hand, started reading early and zoomed past his grade level in no time, reading at a high school level by the time he was ten.

      I could put the original Treasure Island in my son’s hands and he’d be able to read and understand it, no problem, but my daughter cannot, even with me reading it to her.

      It’s not that she wouldn’t be able to understand the story, though–it’s the writing style that stops her. Long, flowy, intricate sentences. But if Treasure Island were written in more short, simple sentences she would totally get it. Not necessarily a simpler vocabulary–just a less roundabout style. (Actually, SHE’S the one, more than my son, who learned to understand character motivation and such at an earlier age, so I know the understanding is there, and she’s got quite the verbal vocab for her age.)

      What I’m saying is this–if a story is rich and complex, and the characters are rich and complex, does making long, convoluted sentences make it “smarter”?

      My own writing has been called “complex” and “deceptively simple”, because I write very clearly and concisely, but the concepts in my story are deep and the plot is twisty and intricate. My book would never, however, be considered literary.

      The fact is, it’s not that kids don’t like classic stories, it’s that often times those classics feel like they are written in a different language. I grew up being forced to read Shakespeare and hated it. I LOVE his plots and characters, but trying to decipher the language drove me nuts. I was a straight-A student in all gifted classes, but my brain put up some sort of block and screamed, “Translate this, please!”

      I do NOT agree that we need to cater to the ADHD-ness of our society, but precision and efficiency aren’t bad things. Stories can still be deep and meaningful. Simplicity and clarity don’t necessarily mean shallowness of concept.

      Let me illustrate: As a former math tutor, I found a similar issue with my students. The textbooks they were using were so conceptual and convoluted–because whoever was writing them valued abstractness of thought and the ability to “derive” things. Well, guess-freakin’-what? You have to *teach* the basics and then you can start teaching concepts. I pulled out my old 1980’s textbooks and taught from those, and the kids’ grades shot up from Fs to Bs in a matter of a few weeks!

      The same holds true for reading for a lot of kids.

      What I’m saying is, a book being non-literary does not automatically make it shallow, and a person being non-literary does not automatically make them non-intellectual.

      • http://www.mikeduran.com Mike Duran

        Fantastic comment, Kat. You summarized, “a book being non-literary does not automatically make it shallow, and a person being non-literary does not automatically make them non-intellectual.” Absolutely.
        However, I think you’re invoking a caricature to make your point (as it appears not a few are doing in this thread). You said, “if a story is rich and complex, and the characters are rich and complex, does making long, convoluted sentences make it ‘smarter’?” So is that what defines literary fiction, “long, convoluted sentences”? If so, count me out.

        I think a “rich and complex” story is what counts, and that can be had in both commercial and literary circles. And definitely needn’t rely on “long, convoluted sentences.”

        • http://www.katheckenbach.com Kat Heckenbach

          Actually, the point I’m making is that *others* invoke that caricature. I *don’t* think that is what makes a book literary. I get irritated by flowery prose that has this literary feel but is actually drivel. To me, it’s the substance of the story that makes a book meaningful.

          Do I appreciate beautiful writing? Of course! Watership Down is a perfect example. But convoluted sentences, big words, high-brow attitude–those things are not what makes a book literary to me. I think a book can be written in contemporary language, in concise, easy to read sentences, and have depth.

          I said my work would never be considered literary–I meant by the literary crowd. My story *does* have depth and complexity, but many “literary” writers out there would turn up their noses at it because it’s written in plain, contemporary language.

        • http://jcemery.wordpress.com/ JC Emery

          Mike,

          I agree with your point that a rich, complex story is what matters and that can be found in both literary and commercial fiction. There is a lot of literary fiction that does not have long, convoluted sentences. However, as Kat explained, a lot of it is inaccessible to the average reader.

      • http://jcemery.wordpress.com/ JC Emery

        Kat,

        I consider myself a well educated individual and yet some of the older texts make my head spin with the language. I’ve had to read sentences a few times to understand what is being said, and even then I might need clarification. I have a visual processing disorder so the language can really hamper my understand and enjoyment of the story. I didn’t, however, ever have a problem with Shakespeare. Something about Elizabethan language doesn’t grate on my eyes and brain.

        • http://www.katheckenbach.com Kat Heckenbach

          JC, that’s awesome! I wish I could grasp Elizabethan language better. I probably ought to at least *try* reading Shakespeare again! :)

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      You’ve hit on two good points, J.C. One is that we needn’t label commercial as junk food. Perhaps fast food would be more accurate. A Twinkie is junk food, whereas a chicken salad sandwich with lettuce and tomato is fast, but not junk. Easily accessible doesn’t constitute junk– I totally agree.

      The second point was that we shouldn’t judge them but bring them in where they’re at. Bingo, that’s the key to success in today’s market (IMHO). Ivory towered critiques of the peasantry only gets one beheaded after a nice piece of haughty cake.

      • http://jcemery.wordpress.com/ JC Emery

        PJ,

        Thanks so much! I’ve thought a lot about what’s right and wrong in the American education system and I think this argument exemplifies the spirit of what’s not working in the system. Instead of meeting kids where they are, we’re trying to bring them in where we think they should be. No system is ever successful when it doesn’t consider those who it is supposed to service.

  • http://www.christianreads.blogspot.com Iola

    I have a job that requires me to have in-depth knowledge about my subject area (which requires some serious reading).

    So when I read for pleasure, I read for entertainment

    Perhaps if I worked in a job that didn’t tire my brain out so much, I would have the will and the energy to read ‘literary’ fiction to stretch my mind.

    So perhaps the reason more of us are reading ‘entertainments’ rather than ‘novels’ is that many of us work in jobs that are much more intellectually challenging than those our parents and grandparents held.

  • http://blessed-are-the-pure-of-heart.blogspot.com Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    On reflection, I think that my violently visceral aversion to literary fiction is based on my perception that it has devolved into a vessel by which disdain for ‘entertainments’ (and those who read them) can be delivered with the nobility of intellectual rigor.

    If the classical model for reading ever existed, it was the product of a culture of wealth and leisure to which nearly all aspired, yet very few had access. The exercise of that model by the lower classes was, by that reading, aping of one’s ‘betters’.

    The best way to be ‘literary’ is to use the art of writing as the medium to deliver a compelling story in clear and concise prose that is grammatically rigorous and relevant to the both genre of the book and the culture to which we offer our work.

  • http://findingtimetowrite.wordpress.com Marina Sofia

    So was Dickens literary or entertainment? Shakespeare? Balzac? The best writing can be entertaining on one level and educational/instructive/beautiful/profound on some other level. It’s only when you have to dissect them in class that they get dry and boring.

    • http://www.mikeduran.com Mike Duran

      Marina, most of the “classic” writers were “commercial” to their time. The fact that they are difficult for contemporary readers to hang with — especially when we consider ourselves more “evolved” — is what’s interesting to me.

      • http://www.katheckenbach.com Kat Heckenbach

        Mike–do we speak the same way that those classic writers spoke? Sometimes I think asking kids (or grown-ups) to read classics would be like asking them to read book in Italian or French when they don’t speak those languages. It’s not that the stories don’t hold up, it’s that the writing style matched the way of speaking back then (which, as you said, was commercial for the time), but not the way of speaking now.

        I, personally, see “literary” being defined two ways these days: a classic style of writing on one hand and more abstract/experimental on the other. Anything that is written in a contemporary, this-is-how-people-talk-today kind of way is considered commercial.

      • http://www.peterbernfeld.com Peter Bernfeld

        Mike, it’s really simple.
        The ‘successful’ classic authors wrote for the mass market of their time. That meant using language that the mass market of their time both understood and used in their daily lives.

        If you met a person from Elizabethan England (Elizabeth 1st) you would hardly be able to speak to them, the language is different. To a lesser degree, the same is true of Dickens.

        I recently read James Fennimore Cooper. The story was good, the style and language antiquated and frankly boring. Style is a ‘fashion thing’.

        The ‘great writers’ were and are entertaining. Sometimes they make social comments and the reader ‘gets it’, other times the comment goes straight over the reader’s head.

        To misquote Mark Twain, reports of the demise of reading are greatly exaggerated. Look at the success of Harry Potter. ‘They’ said kids would not read 800 page novels. ‘They’ were wrong. I personally don’t like JKR’s writing, I don’t find it works as an ‘adult’ book but the story is good. I know many adults who do enjoy the books, so should I sneer at their apparent lack of intellectual sophistication? No, of course not. Anyway, I have no doubt that Shakespeare was criticised in his day for ‘writing for the great unwashed’.

        • http://www.mikeduran.com Mike Duran

          Peter: “I know many adults who do enjoy the [Harry Potter] books, so should I sneer at their apparent lack of intellectual sophistication?”

          MIKE: It puzzles me how “detractors” of the more “classical model of reading” tend to frame the position as contemptuous and snobbish, “sneering” at “unwashed masses” of literary Neanderthals. Really, there’s no middle ground?

          Listen, I have NOTHING against the Harry Potter series. My youngest daughter read all the books, loved them, and I applauded her for doing so. It was a great step in her intellectual journey and has been a springboard to other, more “advanced” novels. So am I wrong for applauding HP or for suggesting there’s more “advanced” novels?

  • http://girlz4godrok.blogspot.com Emii

    I was wondering just yesterday what the term ‘literary fiction’ actually meant.

    So thankyou. And it’s an interesting subject you’ve just posted on — something I’ve never even thought about, but interesting just the same! Making me wonder what my book is…

    • http://doubtingwriter.blogspot.com/ jeffo

      Note, though, what Mike said at the very top: “Ask ten different authors the difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction and you’ll get 10 different answers. ” Others suggest that literary fiction is more about character than it is about plot.

  • http://Dabneyland.com dabneyland

    I’m a mother of four juggling many tasks throughout my day. At this season in my life, the entertainment style writing is all my mommy-brain can handle. If I have to choose between The Glass Castle or The Liars Club, the former’s going to win. Beautiful writing aside–because both authors are equally talented–one clips faster along than the other.

    Just my opinion…

    • http://www.sueharrison.com Sue Harrison

      I can totally relate to that, Dabneyland! Often the seasons of our lives dictate our reading choices. Which is just fine!

      • http://www.dabneyland.com Dabney at Dabneyland.com

        I promise to switch from Ho Hos and Ding Dongs to Broccoli later when my brain cells reunite.

        • http://www.dabneyland.com Dabney at Dabneyland.com

          …and I’m not sure why I capitalized broccoli. See, mommy-brain.

    • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

      AT this ppoint of the day, I’m wrestling with Fun WIth Dick and Jane. But I’ll cry if I read “see Spot run” because I have company coming, and well, ahhhh!

  • http://doubtingwriter.blogspot.com/ jeffo

    Honestly, I sometimes feel like the thing to do is to scrap the whole genre thing completely. Split it up into fiction and non-fiction, and then just shove everything on the shelves, alphabetical by author.

  • http://solitruth.com Diana Harkness

    My writing is a mixture of literary and commercial, I hope. I read both. The best commercial fiction is also literary a la Willa Cather or Ann Patchett or Karen Russell. When I’m tired and merely want entertainment I can read Lee Childs or someone else. It’s the difference between pop music and a symphony or prose and poetry. One lays it all out simply, the other makes you think. There’s room for both. Unfortunately, I have found very little literary fiction in the Christian fiction market. In fact, the only living author I can think of is Frederick Buechner.

  • http://www.sueharrison.com Sue Harrison

    Like Diana Harkness, my writing is a mixture of literary and commercial. When I choose to write for the literary market, I know that I will have fewer readers (and make less money.) But I enjoy the challenge.

    I don’t think we should worry about the damage commercial fiction does to the reading public. Rather, it’s the other way around. If no one were writing commercial fiction, the number of people reading books would be greatly reduced, and reading of any kind exercises the brain, sharpens the senses and can introduce new ideas and carry the reader to new places.

    Literary or commercial, “There is no frigate like a book.” A literary poet wrote that. Let’s see. Um, Emily something….

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      Yay! Herein lies the point. What’s keeping TV/Video gaming/texters buying books?

  • http://deborahserravalle.wordpress.com Deborah Serravalle

    I suggest genre sub-classifications are a necessary requirement designed more for agents, publishers and bookstores, than for readers. Literary/Commercial/Mainstream fiction means less to a reader desiring a well-written story.

    If my friend recommends a fabulous novel I don’t stop to ask what genre it is, rather I want the title and author’s name.

    • http://www.josephjpote.com Joe Pote

      You are so right, Deborah!

      All the sub-genre’s are more for the literary snobs than for lovers of reading.

      I recently had a friend ask me to make a wine selection at dinner, referring to me as a connoisseur. I gladly made the selection, but corrected him on his reference.

      I’m not a connoisseur, nor do I want to be. I just like wine!

  • http://Www.summerjarviswrites.com Summer

    I’ve been thinking about this lately, but not in this way. I suppose there are different types of readers. As a writer, why not write both? We don’t have to choose. We might enjoy reading both types of books, too. It doesn’t matter so much whether people should be willing to work harder while they are reading. We can’t change that. But we can write for different audiences and see how the books sell.

    • http://www.fragmentsandfriends.blogspot.com Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts

      Good point, Summer.

  • http://www.cgblake.wordpress.com CG Blake

    Mike,
    Your post raises thought-provoking points about the habits of today’s reader and the state of the publishing industry. The “dumbing down” of novels is related to the competition publishers face from other forms of entertainment ranging from movies to video games. Consumers don’t want to be bored and they don’t want to work to be entertained. For me the work I put in must be equal to the reward. Reading a novel by Jonathan Franzen or Michael Chabon is a deeply intense and cerebral experience and a highly rewarding one. Suzanne Collins, not so much, but her work is entertaining. Ultimately I believe writers should read widely across all genres but high-quality literary fiction is getting harder to find. Thanks for a great post. Mike.

  • http://theotherstephenkingonwriting.blogspot.com Stephen H. King

    Very interesting post. You’ve actually got two conflicts running along; one is the age-old “literary” vs. “commercial” fiction (tastes great! no, less filling!) thread, but overlaying that is the question of the overarching purpose of writing (well, reading, but then that ties in to the purpose of writing).

    Other people have already pointed out that writing doesn’t have to be dense and difficult to read to be “literary fiction” (though, admittedly, that seems to help) so I’ll leave that debate alone.

    What’s the purpose of reading? I’m in the same boat as just about every other poster here. I’m in it to be entertained. I’m on a classics kick right now in my own reading, and my “library” *ahem* has a short reading stack that includes Dostoyevsky and Twain. War and Peace, I’ve made it through a chapter, ish, of. Meanwhile, I’m over halfway through Roughing It. I’m not sure I agree that there’s anything to be gained intellectually at my age by slogging through something that’s not a kick to read, and even if I did, I doubt I’d do it anyway.

    Which brings me to my readers. I can’t make ‘em do anything. Yes, I’m thrilled when one accuses me of making it so they couldn’t put the book down, but that wasn’t really my choice, was it? I’m thrilled when a reader finishes a book and recommends it to a friend and/or asks when my next one is coming out, and I’m disappointed when the opposite happens.

    So that last paragraph all said, if I assume that most of my readers expect the same out of a book that I do, why would I write for a different group?

    To put it succinctly, why would I write something that I wouldn’t read?

    -TOSK

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      One word– Yup!

    • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

      Exactly! I struggled for a bit after a very nice editor (no, really. I mean it, she’s a very very nice lady)suggested I try a certain improvement. My voice died on that page. I went back and re-wrote it.
      I couldn’t read it in her voice. I wasn’t happy until I took what she said and made it mine.
      I want to write what I’d want to read!

  • Lanny

    What an interesting post and proposition! Basically, I don’t think the reader should be forced to work too much. For example, when I read “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I had to really work! Same way with Irving’s “Son of the Circus,” and almost anything by Faulkner. The reader’s considerable effort is usually worth it, however. But compare that with novels (“entertainments”) by authors such as Stephen King, Jodi Picoult, Ray Bradbury, and Lawrence Block–very entertaining, indeed, almost without exception! Then you have authors like Philip Roth,John Steinbeck, and John Irving (when he stays contemporary). These are successful both as literary and commercial fiction. The King of straddling both elements of writing, in my opinion–Ernest Hemingway. I challenge anyone to demonstrate that most of Papa’s work is not both literary, entertaining, and highly commercial. And perhaps that should be our main goal–achieving both.

  • Bill May

    A good writer should grab the emotional reins of the reader and guide them through the story.

    Every turn, trot, or gallop, should be determined solely by the author.

    The only time a reader should have to work, is if the writer requires them to perform some type of physical labor (carrying much needed medical supplies up a rocky cliff).

  • http://www.perrincothranconrad.com Perrin Conrad

    Great literature, in my opinion, makes us think, makes us want to discuss, dissect, and read again. But it also entertains. It doesn’t solely entertain without challenging the reader. That being said, there are nerds like me who are entertained by wrestling with a good work of fiction as if I am back in college literature classes. The vast majority of book-buying public just wants an escape, doesn’t want to work. If a writer wants his/her legacy to be selling x number of paperbacks, then entertainment is all one need deliver. But a writer who aspires to leave a meaningful footprint on the earth should not toss more challenging aspects of the craft to the wind for the sake of entertainment. Is the goal of the writer to be wildly popular and achieve great financial success, or to have their work studied in college classrooms 50 years from now? In a perfect world, some of us would like to meet both goals. I do think there is a sweet spot where both goals are met. It’s still a unicorn to me, at this point!

    • http://www.mikeduran.com Mike Duran

      Great comment, Perrin. Like you, I enjoy wrestling with films and fiction and feel the author or director respects me more by assuming I will do so.

  • Robert Powers

    I have a mixed view on this.

    I like those “easy reads” sometimes. I do. However, after a string of those types of books, I grow weary and my reading diet becomes bland to my taste.

    Then, I may happen across a literary piece that actually invokes deeper thought – awareness. Sometimes I get so caught up, that I become rapt even by the flow of the words. For some reason, these moments revitalize my drive to write better.

    A few things for us to remember.
    1. What we write will be around long after we aren’t.
    2. We are what we eat… err, I mean read. I think we, as writers, need a healthy diet of both. For us, reading isn’t all about entertaining ourselves. Not saying we shouldn’t be entertained. For us, because at some point, we had a notion to be writers, reading is also study. That’s why the good authors are avid readers. They read to learn, to absorb and to assimilate. That is the burden we carry.
    3. Don’t be so caught up in the portraying the forest that we over look the stunning beauty of the tree.

    – RKP

  • Stephanie M.

    I see so many reviews where people are “challenged” by books- either in their way of thinking or feeling or whatever. It sounds exhausting. I want comfort from my books, escape, and that’s what I write. I’m glad books are written to challenge, we need them, but it’s not my style.

  • http://joannempotter.blogspot.com JoAnne Potter

    OK–I get what you are saying, but as a reader, why should I waste any hours of my precious, never-to-return, life on fluff that gives back nothing lasting? And, as a writer, why should I contribute to doing that disservice to anyone else?

    • Stephanie M.

      I don’t look at is as getting nothing from “fluff” books (which I don’t believe anyway), I look at it as books that do nothing but take, take, take. If I’m going to invest what little emotional energy I have in something it’s going to family.

      • http://joannempotter.blogspot.com JoAnne Potter

        Hmmm. To me, the books that ‘take’ are the ones who steal my time and have given nothing back. The books that make me think are worth the time I’ve spent on them and when I am done, I will have more to give because they have added to my life. Is that what you mean?

        • Stephanie M.

          I’m referring to books that require a heavy emotional investment on my part and then fail to give anything back. For example, if I invest the hours necessary to get through a paragraph of Henry James, I don’t feel any richer for knowing the sky was blue that day.

          • http://joannempotter.blogspot.com JoAnne Potter

            Right you are. And James is perfect example.

  • Josh C.

    For good or ill, I don’t make a distinction between “literary” novels and everything else. If it’s written, it’s literary. There are books with stories, and books with no story.

    If a reader has to work through my story, I don’t think I did my job well. It’s not the writing or language that I want them to pay attention to. Big concepts don’t need big words or fancy style (Hemingway vs Faulkner?). It’s the story, the characters and their struggle, that I want my readers to care about. Highness of language should be incidental, not the point. Words are what we call things, nothing else. It’s finding the right word at the right time that’s the trick. Fiction writers should write to entertain. It’s when they (I?) try to impress that things go wrong. If it ain’t coming naturally, it ain’t going to read that way, either.

  • http://dianeyuhas.com Diane Yuhas

    Frankly, there’s room for both. In a society that thrives on choice, an either/or attitude will almost always result in neither. When I’m tired, I just want to passively drink in pure entertainment. I don’t want to think hard. The rest of the time, I prefer to read books that challenge and make me think. These books I read very slowly, a chapter or two at a time, savoring the words on the lines and in between.

  • http://www.atlasmediank.com Adam Porter (@AtlasProWriter)

    Literary or commercial…it’s all entertainment. Just different strokes for different folks. This reminds me of the “debate” about Kinkade’s painting. Is it art or isn’t it? Depends on who you ask.

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      I think the literary fiction model is considered by some as a mind expanding educational exercise whereas they see commercial fiction as the lowest denominator. I don’t agree with this assessment, but I can hear my English teacher saying it in my head. For her, reading wasn’t about entertainment. My guess is that it was about teaching us pain management techniques by forcing us to read tedium.

      • http://www.atlasmediank.com Adam Porter (@AtlasProWriter)

        I hear ya, PJ. I remember the days in undergrad comp class reading simple short stories from various “viewpoints.” My fair-to-partyly creepy comp teacher seemed to prefer feminist and freudian viewpoints, where everything was mined for unintended nuance.

        I am definitely an unrepentant “word guy,” but I also read for entertainment. When I write, I focus on painting a picture that, by necessity, involves the reader’s imagination. When they weave themselves in my story we have both won.

  • http://www.fragmentsandfriends.blogspot.com Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with “entertainments” in themselves. It saddens me, though, to think of the demise of good literature as a result of our culture’s need for instant gratification. I love reading novels that make me work. I even like watching movies and television shows that that make me think. There should be room for both entertainment and serious, complex, thought-provoking writing. Unfortunately, it does seem that readers don’t want to work that hard. I have even experienced this with a couple of members of my critique group. One of my two WIP is a psychological mystery. Faced with a couple of plants and a bit of strange behavior on the part of a character who had JUST BEEN INTRODUCED, they wanted to know immediately why he was acting the way he was (“He seems irritated all the time. Why is he irritated all the time? Why doesn’t he like jelly?). I was glad that they noticed these things and were curious about the answers, as I hope readers would be, but they wanted me to have the narrator explain there and then what was going on inside of this character. Besides the fact that the scene was told from another character’s pov, so it wouldn’t have been appropriate to plop the readers into the new character’s feelings, if my narrator explains everything along the way, there will be no mystery. Fortunately, other members of the critique group got this. Still, it disturbed me that there are writers who feel that the reader should be told everything immediately, writers who don’t understand the concept of carefully placing stones in the mosaic that will become a whole picture–eventually. Patience seems to be a thing of the past.

    • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

      Patience? LOL, like, cn u typ fastr?

      • http://www.fragmentsandfriends.blogspot.com Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts

        Exactly! And I guess flash fiction is the new novel. Or maybe Twitter fiction is:
        # murder@bk 8 people went 2 dinner. L8tr, 6 went home. 1 went 2 the morgue. The other went 2 jail.

    • http://www.atlasmediank.com Adam Porter (@AtlasProWriter)

      To me, “telling” a story is nearly always bad. Even with a single POV character sharing the story, you can still “show” rather than tell. One of my favorite experiences while reading is when the writer surprises me.

      A close second is when the writer crafts a necessary description in such a way as to allow me to fill in the blanks. Thus, for example, the “statuesque bottle blonde with pouty lips and dimples” could be described as: “She was visceral, not beautiful. The kind of woman that makes men walk into walls and wreck sports cars.”

      Open to extrapolation but not interpretation.

      • http://www.fragmentsandfriends.blogspot.com Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts

        I agree entirely, Adam.

        And your description “the kind of woman…wreck sports cars” is excellent. I much prefer it to the pouty blonde kind.

  • http://www.josephjpote.com Joe Pote

    Mike, I love your thought-provoking questions!

    I usually have at least three books going at any given time, one novel, one non-fiction, and one inspirational.

    I expect different things from each. From the novel I expect simply entertainment with minimal thought, but am pleasantly surprised if it also causes me to gain a new perspective on life.

    The non-fiction and the inspirational, I expect to have to think and expect to gain a life-changing new perspective…and am disappointed if that doesn’t happen.

  • http://www.pointdeception.com Jim Gilliam

    Let’s face it folks, we have evolved into an instant gratification society. Nothing is designed to be repaired it is designed to be replaced! More’s the pity.

    I grew up reading: Jack London (Call of the Wild), Robert Service (collected works of poetry), Kenneth Roberts (Northwest Passage), Joseph Conrad (Lord Jim), Richard Dana (Two Years Before the Mast), and a whole host of others. These are some of the books that populate my personal library and are pulled off the shelves and revisited from time-to-time.

    While I do read pulp fiction, ala James Patterson (in collaboration with — this week!) these (Dime Novels) are read and donated the the local VA Hospital etc. They do not clutter my bookshelves and are not revisited. One read is more than enough.

    All of the authors I’ve listed are dead, yet they are still being read. Oprah’s Book Club reviewed Moby Dick a while back. A hundred years from now, who do you think will remember, much less care, about James Patterson’s Alex Cross series. But for the here and now, Patterson is laughing all the way to the bank. In contrast, the French author Honore de Balzac was the greatest writer of his time “in terms of sheer literary production; the most ambitious in scope; the most amorous in his personal life; the most bizarre in his peccadillos; the highest paid writer of his day . . .” William Cane: Write Like the Masters, Writers Digest Books (2009) Cane’s proposition is that our own contemporary writing will be enriched by emulating the masters. I agree.

  • http://www.colindsmith.com/blog Colin Smith

    The danger I see in this whole debate (and I see it happening in my head as I read Mike’s article and the thoughtful comments) is that we become conflicted/confused/discouraged as both writers and readers. Commercial writers think they need to be more literary to be taken seriously and not be lumped with the “fast food” crowd. “Literary” writers think they need to be more commercial to sell more books and avoid being considered dull and boring. Commercial readers feel guilty for stuffing their heads with “junk” and think they need to struggle through something “deeper” to be a better person. “Literary” readers feel like they’re out-of-touch because they read little-known books by old/obscure/forgotten authors.

    Why does reading–the thing we all care deeply about–have to do this to us? We have our preferences, and no-one should be made to feel guilty for preferring “literary” over commercial (or vice-versa). All we can ask is for each to *try* the other. The “literary” folks shouldn’t be made to feel as if picking up a Jack Reacher novel is a “guilty pleasure”–like the classical pianist who kicks back with Justin Bieber. And the commercial folks shouldn’t feel as if they have to try some Tolstoy to feel “smart” and a “real reader/writer.”

    Let someone who loves “literary” try some commercial. If they like it, great. If they don’t, no biggie. Likewise, let the commercial folks try some “literary.” If they love it, great. If not, no biggie. Neither is better than the other. It’s more about preference.

    The bad reader/writer, in my estimation, is not the one who only reads/writes “junk,” but the one who thinks their choice is the only one worth reading.

    As for the content of each, both “literary” and commercial can deal with big and deep topics. There are some pretty deep subjects in the Harry Potter series, as is evidenced by the countless discussions that series has spawned over the years within a very wide age group. It’s not that you have to write a certain type of literature to write deeply and meaningfully. The challenge is writing with depth and thought within your chosen style. And it’s not the style that restricts or enables the author–it’s his or her own talent, and that alone.

    Just my 2c. :)

  • http://www.dianadart.com Diana Dart

    For me, as a reader AND a writer, it’s all about the story. Not the plot line or the word choices, but the story. How do the characters change, evolve, learn? Where are the scars and how deep do they run? How do their reactions, etc affect their relationships, both horizontal and vertical? I really don’t pay attention to the literary/commercial label – if the novel has characters I can love or love to hate, I’m in.

    Sure, it’s work. But all relationships are work. And I want characters I can build relationships with, albeit imaginary ones ;)

    Quick question. If readers can draw themes and lessons from “commercial work,” prompting discussions and even driving them to “work” after the last page is flipped (research, ponder), would that be considered literary? Or some sort of mutant/hybrid? Or maybe these are just pseudo-readers?

  • http://girlseeksplace.wordpress.com Brianna

    Good writing absolutely demands more from the reader. In a time when a book can be published in just a few hours, what incentive do we have to work hard and produce quality books? People want instant gratification and they don’t want to do an ounce of work to get that gratification.

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  • http://chariseolson.com/ Charise

    For me, my reading is broad. I do like to challenge myself. But I like some fluff too. It has to be good though. I’m not reading something I don’t like anymore. But that doesn’t mean I dislike what is difficult. I do think there is good fluff and bad…non fluff? It’s like the beach- there are times when it’s nice to wade in the shallows and others when a good exerting swim is the thing. Or food– On a recent trip to San Francisco I paid over over 150 for a meal. For another meal, I bought a plastic cup of crab with packaged crackers and tobasco. Both were perfect.

  • http://www.patrickecraig.com Patrick Craig

    Mike,
    Excellent, thought-provoking post. I read recently that Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of over 50,000 words, while the average literate person today only uses about 5000. And when we get into the “texting” culture,that number goes down even more. I believe that good literature and entertainment do not have to be separated. Great language can make a reader work, but if the character and plot are gripping, then the reader will follow. At least I do.

    • http://Www.jenniferdyer.net Jennifer Dyer

      I’ve heard that too. It’s humbling when I read older English literature and realize how stunted my vocabulary is sometimes. I worry if I use those big words I will lose people. Silly…
      Mike’s blogs always provoke my brain. :-)

  • http://writing-well.carrie-lewis.com/ Carrie L. Lewis

    Mr. Duran,

    Bravo! I could not agree with you more.

    I have nothing against entertainment, but even the best written novels geared toward entertainment often leave me feeling like I’ve just had a full meal of cake. Temporarily satisfied, but completely unfed and no better at the end of the read than I was at the beginning.

    That’s not the type of novel I most enjoy.

    Nor is it the type of novel I hope to write.

  • http://einefeistyberg.wordpress.com Cherry Odelberg

    Very few people want to “work” for me.

    I feel that every detail in life is important – has purpose.
    Therefore, even the most entertaining writing should have content and the most content rich or educational manuscripts should be entertaining.

    Most people have to wean themselves from fast food in order to develop a taste for nutritional fare (I also agree that “food should taste good”). So, it follows that a person probably has to fast from TV and movies to get a taste for books.

    These behavior changes are not something you can force on others; but, how and where to place the salt licks? That is the question.

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      That was an en-deer-ing way to put it, Cherry.

    • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

      Right here. With a side of deep fried potato and a VAT of Diet Coke.

    • http://www.fragmentsandfriends.blogspot.com Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts

      Absolutely, Cherry. Just because people have been brought up on fast food doesn’t mean they can’t come to enjoy chateaubriand. I also agree that literary doesn’t have to mean boring and entertaining doesn’t have to equal mindless. Excellent insights.

  • http://vonildawrites.wordpress.com Voni Harris

    As a homeschool mom who adores the Charlotte Mason ideas about classical education, I am desperate not to write what she calls twaddle. However, being modern doesn’t mean a novel in question is not meaningful, deep, elevating. In other words, we don’t have to bore our readers with purple prose, nor jerk them around a rickety roller coaster. A nice, solidly-built roller coaster (characters plus action) is a ton of fun, is it not?

    Blessings,
    Voni

  • http://Www.jenniferdyer.net Jennifer Dyer

    Thanks for another thought-provoker, Mike.

  • http://jilldomschot.com Jill

    I’m so sick of the cult of stupid–the sort of anti-snobbery snobbery that can’t stomach words with more than two syllables. I don’t eat fast food, I don’t feed my kids mac n’ cheese, and I don’t read just for entertainment. I like books that I don’t understand on a first read. I like to think about what I’m reading. I like koans. I like puzzles. And I have a very average IQ, so this has nothing to do with me flaunting intelligence and being snobbish. I simply want more from my books than escape, fluff, and entertainment. Leave it to Mike Duran to bring up a subject that gets me riled up.

  • http://rebeccaannjordan.com Becca

    Thank you for the thought-provoking post! Unfortunately it appears that few people seem to be grasping the concept you’ve laid down – reading has changed. We want our entertainment to be immediate, formulaic. What I call “The Avengers Paradox.” Yes, there are plenty of good characters in the Avengers. Maybe some of the jokes are a little forced or corny (I think the audience laughed the hardest when the Hulk did what he does best and smashed Loki’s face in), maybe it all ends up like we expected it to, but alright, it’s got characters that make you start watching and just plot enough to keep you keep watching.

    The problem I have with it is that it’s part-explosion movie, part-alien invasion movie. After all, that’s what Hollywood does best. Everyone loves explosions. No matter now many explosions we see we still crave more. Cheap thrills. People will pay good money to see superheroes in the foreground of explosions.

    I’m not saying you shouldn’t watch it just because it’s entertaining. But there’s nothing new or innovative about it, and how is that helping you grow? Helping you expand your brain, being excited to be challenged and work at reading – these are things I look forward to when I read.

    As a writer, I come up against this all the time. In poetry critiques people don’t like my work because “I don’t get it” is the immediate answer after a cursory read. I’m not trying to confuse them or even show off my vocabulary. But I constantly feel as though I have to compromise my own writing style because nobody is willing to put two brain cells together.

    Alright, that was a bit harsh.

    My point is, I think it’s awfully sad that writers feel like they have to streamline their novels to be more immediate and formulaic – if it doesn’t fit the hero vs. enemies with explosions in the background system, then it’s trashed. We lose a lot of uniqueness that way, and we are going to miss a lot of very different (perhaps slower paced, perhaps more introspective, whatever) novels because readers aren’t willing to put effort into it.

    That doesn’t mean that I approve of boring, overly flowery prose or description-dense writing. I don’t think we have to choose between the two. Because good writing – yes, even literary fiction – can and should be entertaining. We should be excited to read something that provokes thought or discussion, even if it’s not an action sequence that we’re reading. We shouldn’t have to choose between two polar opposites. The best books will marry both quality and entertainment.

  • Leah C. Morgan

    I never encountered the term literary nor its reputation until I attempted to penetrate the publishing realm. I simply read. I grew up in the most humble of lifestyles without television and with the language of the King James. Pondering, mentally digesting language has always been linked to my pleasure of reading.

    There was no snobbery in my preferences. I was too uninformed to feel pride for enjoying Charles Dickens over what was often adored by the masses. I found a book lacking in entertainment value when my mind was not engaged, and was drawn to literature not like a martyr to self flagellation, but like a craving soul to self indulgence.

    I am moved to tears, to laughter, to reformation, and yes, even to relaxation when my mind is massaged by truth and beauty as opposed to manipulated by technique.

    I’m saddened and feel a bit out of touch to discover that lima beans and good reads are lumped together into a category labeled unappetizing.

    I happen to love lima beans. And I found the post palatable too.

    • http://einefeistyberg.wordpress.com Cherry Odelberg

      I am clapping my hands AND stomping my feet.
      But, I am not fond of lima beans. Can we just substitute a good salad?

    • http://www.josephjpote.com Joe Pote

      Leah, I’d say you must have grown up in my house, but I’m rpetty sure I would have remembered you if you did!

      No television. Lots of King James literature. Walls covered with bookshelves containing books of all varieties.

      Books were never something to suffer through, but to steal moments to indulge in!

  • http://davidatodd.com David Todd

    I’m not sure I agree with premise that literary fiction makes the reader work while commercial fiction entertains them. No one could confuse The Hunt for Red October with literary fiction, yet Clancy includes a scene that reveals who the American double agent is in the Kremlin. The reader who wants to be entertained won’t see it, the reader who wants to understand will. I remember reading it and coming to a place where the CIA discussed extracting the agent, Cardinal. I realized “Oh, we’ve seen that guy before.” I went back, found the chapter, re-read it, confirmed I was correct, and was much enriched as a result.

    No one is going to confuse the sagas of James Michener or Herman Wouk for commercial fiction. Yet they have no major plot twists that require you go back and re-read portions of the book to find out what you missed. The threads that tie the story together all appear in the tapestry, pleasurably so.

    I like books that make me think. I hope the books I write make others think.

  • Peggy Dover

    I believe there is an audience for both types of writing and everything in-between. There always has been. I grew up choosing to read meaty literature from a young age and still enjoy thought-provoking material. For me, exercising my brain IS entertainment. Reading formulaic novels is like walking on a treadmill. I prefer navigating rocks, picking blackberries and identifying birdsong along the way.

  • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

    I wonder if this is accepting my comments yet?

  • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

    Holy cow!

    Alrighty then….
    I liken words to music. Sometimes we need, NEED a little Beach Boys “Barbara Ann” and sometimes we need “Promontory” from Last of the Mohicans.
    Isn’t it all in the eye of the beholder?

    • http://www.fragmentsandfriends.blogspot.com Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts

      Excellent analogy, Jennifer. And yes, that’s what makes for a balanced person. My musical tastes include Bach and little ditties from The Monkees (yes, I know I’m dating myself). The same with literature. While I may delight in slowly digesting Tolkien’s Silmarillion, I also enjoy spending time galaxy hopping with a good Star Wars novel. The problem arises when people think pop novels and literary novels are like Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort–only one can survive.

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      But I’m never in the mood for Vanilla Ice…just sayin’.

      • http://www.josephjpote.com Joe Pote

        After reading this, I’m in the mood for vanilla ice cream… ;-)

        • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

          Good call, my man!

        • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

          With strawberries…

  • H,G, Ferguson

    A symptom of “commercial” fiction or mindset is the “hit the ground running” mantra, where the reader too often feels like a paratrooper arriving in the middle of field surrounded by enemy soldiers. I much prefer the “slow build” as in SILVERADO where we actually begin to CARE about the people before the shooting starts. It makes the shooting later SO much better when we care. “Commercial” fiction to me stresses pace over all, much to its detriment. “Literary” can also swing the other way, with words such as perspicuity, vicissitudes and eschew, all of which possess a “literary” ring but fail utterly to communicate anything meaningful today. Writers should strike a balance here as much as possible between these extremes. And that’s the rub!

  • http://www.powerfulfilmsandbooks.com Emily Hunter

    Writing to me is a lot like sales and branding – it should be as easy as possible for the reader to ‘buy’ it. There definitely is a propensity toward easier to read books and works, but there are some who gain the specific enjoyment from having raised their personal reading bar. I want to get the fun as easily as I can – because if I wanted to be serious about reading the book, I would spend more time in real life. :)

  • http://www.kristenjoywilks.com/blog Kristen Joy Wilks

    I think there is also an understanding and trust between the reader and writer. If a writer is making the reader work for the story…then that story better be worth the effort. That story should have surprised and twists and turns and great epic moments and depths of emotion and breathtaking action as well as beautifully flowing text. If the author delivers and I can trust them to do so, I am willing to work, but too many times a literary novel will just give me a character sketch some lovely description and a thoughtful but slight ending. Blah! I read one that had this whole slow buildup toward the finding of a locket (which was the climax) and then…the locket was not found and everyone went about their daily lives unchanged. Lovely writing, that took me absolutely nowhere. I don’t call that talent. I love to read, but I need to be able to trust that a writer who dishes out a difficult text will follow through with something amazing.

  • http://www.josephjpote.com Joe Pote

    I’m astounded at the amount of discussion on a topic for which we cannot seem to agree exactly what we are discussing…

    Must be a bunch of writers… ;-)

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      Oh yeah!

      By the way, here is an example of Literary Fiction–

      He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself. (The Great Gatsby)

      And my pick for Commercial Fiction:

      I saw down automatically, watching [Edward] with caution. He was still smiling. It was hard to believe that someone so beautiful could be real. I was afraid that he might disappear in a sudden puff of smoke, and I would wake up. (Twilight)

      • http://www.josephjpote.com Joe Pote

        Thanks for the examples, PJ! That’s actually quite helpful.

        I’ve read The Great Gatsby (though not since high school) and have not read Twilight.

        However, I must say, that of the two, Twilight requires less effort and concentration to read, while still saying what is necessary.

        It reminds me of another “trick” I’ve learned over the past year or so. My sentences and paragraphs are all shorter now than they were a few years ago.

        I make a point of trying never to cram more than one idea into a single sentence. Similarly, my paragraphs now represent sub-topics more than topics.

        Why?

        Because it improves communication for most modern readers.

        Modern readers aren’t less intelligent than past generations. They just have different expectations.

        My role, as a writer, is to communicate as clearly as possible to my intended audience.

      • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

        Suddenly I want to toss something. And not a caber,either.

      • http://girlz4godrok.blogspot.com Emii

        I’m thinking I need to pick up some literary fiction!

    • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

      Very true!!

  • http://authorheatherhart.blogspot.com/ Heather

    A good writer will write to his/her target audience. If I have to work to understand what is being written I will get far less out of a book. We were doing a Bible study through a book last year and everyone quit because the book was too hard to understand. If you want to reach your audience, you have to make it easy to read and understand. If you’re writing a text book for an advanced theology course, then please feel free to make your readers work, otherwise, everyone will get more out of it if you keep it simple.

  • Cindy

    Sometimes I want entertainment, sometimes I want prose. Why can’t we all just get along? :-)

  • Elissa

    I’m a little thrown by the idea that a reader should have to “work” at reading. Perhaps the issue is my interpretation of the word “work”.

    Struggling to understand a writer’s sentences is work that would put many people off reading entirely. That seems to be the gist of some of the comments here. It certainly isn’t something in which I have much interest (though I have read and loved Shakespeare anyway).

    Of course, all new readers have to work at reading– they are still learning the skill of recognizing and interpreting written language. But once readers are past the learning stage, must they still read books that are “work”? Should they be condemned if they prefer pablum over something something they must chew a while before it can be swallowed? Conversely, should they be labeled an elitist snob if they don’t want their peas pre-smashed?

    A fallacy I keep seeing in the literary vs. commercial debate is the concept that literary = difficult, and commercial = fluff, when neither is completely true. I don’t think there actually is a clear line between literary and commercial fiction, though people always try to draw one. Much fiction labeled commercial has beautiful language and layered depths, while there is more than one example of literary fiction that is (to quote my sister-in-law) “Words, words, words, and none of them say anything.”

    I think there is more than enough room in the world for every type of fiction, and people should read whatever pleases them. Of course I agree that people “should” read all genres and writing styles, but that would only happen in a perfect world. That would fall under the genre of “fantasy”.

  • http://joylenenowellbutler.com joylene

    I read Chaucer, but that’s probably not a good example because it’s old English. I did get a workout. In fact, I was bruised for days afterward. Haha. Okay, seriously, one of my favourite novels is War and Peace. Some say that isn’t literary because it’s too easy to read. I say blaspheme. It’s a wonderful story and it certainly entertained me. I went through the gammit of emotions. And I can still to this day tell you exactly what happened. Martha Engber’s novel The Wind Thief is considered literary, and yet, I didn’t feel overworked. I read it the second time because her prose were so wonderful I wanted to digest them.

    I want to forget I’m working when I read a novel. I want to be so far into the story that it takes a major earthquake to pull me out.

    • http://www.josephjpote.com Joe Pote

      “I want to be so far into the story that it takes a major earthquake to pull me out.”

      Ah! A like-minded reader!

      My wife doesn’t seem to enjoy my focused reading quite as much as I do, though… ;-)

  • http://talesfromtheredhead@blogspot.com Jennifer Major

    Ia anyone else having their comments vaporize like a red shirted Star Fleet cadet?

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      Nuh uh. Maybe it’s flagging your URL since it’s formated for an email and not a website? I dunno. Glad you keep trying. I’d copy (Cnt-C) my post before I submitted it in case, so I wouldn’t have to write it all over again.

  • Kate RizzettiHttp

    The line is arbitrary and subjective. It moves with cultural norms and sales figures. It’s just another label people use to understand different types of work. Case in point – I took 4years to writr my novel The Yearning & deliberately kept the pace fast, the plot interesting and the writing injected with poetry. Publishers loved the book, but wouldn’t take it on because they felt it was too literary. My thought was if this work is literary the I have grave concerns for our literary culture. Instead one publisher commissioned me to write ‘commercial’ fiction for a new imprint they are releasing this year. I have stuck to the same principles as my novel – fast plot with lots of spice & recognizable characters. I have just taken all the poetry out of it.
    It strikes my the food analogy is the best one. Sadly our culture is moving away from beauty & surprise to a diet that is more uniform & predictable. There rich & satisfying still exists, but it’s audience is shrinking. Commercial fiction, by curreny standards, delivers the expected and predictable – sugar coated for taste. Personally I prefer the adventure inherent in writing that surprises, amuses, intrigues – and I rarely need to work hard to enjoy it.

  • http://www.melaniemarttila.ca Melanie Marttila

    Excellent post and very thought provoking. I read for edutainment :) I read critically as a writer, and because of my educational background (MA in English Lit. and Creative Writing). I also love a good story and good writing craft.
    I write the same way. I’d like to trust that I’m not in the minority and that there are more people out there who really like to read and like to be stimulated by what they read. Otherwise, I’m never getting published … I’ll never stop trying :)

    • http://merceyvalley.blogspot.com/ Mercey Valley

      Ditto. PS~ It was an excellent post!

  • http://www.rasavary.com R.A.Savary

    I guess I’m not in the mood for pussy-footin’ around, tonight. No matter where we are in the literary world we all have our hoops to jump through. If you’re an agent or a publisher, and you continue to put out books that are really quick, easy reads, eventually you’ll get a reputation for having no depth, just like the authors who are pumping out the stuff you want. Right now, I’ve got nothing to lose by saying this. People become their own worst enemy when they go for the quick easy bucks – and lots of them – instead of the slow, hard won dollar. Every industry around has started out with a good idea by demanding someone give them a fair deal, and then ruined it for themselves by doing less and demanding more. This is very evident in the self-publishing industry, and I intend to make it work to my advantage. In simple terms, if it pushes me to work harder, so much the better; when, not if I am published, my book will be so special it’ll be the hottest thing since The Harry Potter Series, The Dark Tower Series, and The Odd Series all rolled into one!

  • http://merceyvalley.blogspot.com/ Mercey Valley

    I am SO relieved not to have an Engish lesson or a grammar tutorial every time I pick up a book, and yet some reads feel like just that. Can’t I just pick up a book and have my escapist side actually escape?
    Yes!
    Hmmm… Writers are in luck. In an age of instant gratification, we don’t need to be literary every time, and can produce life lessons in entertaining ways, sneaking in subtle food for thought. If the plot fits…
    Bring it on.

  • http://www.lilcornerofjoy.blogspot.com Sigal Tzoore

    Wow. Seems like people have strong feelings about this subject.

    I think about literary versus commercial fiction a lot too. And not just as a writer. My reading habits have also changed with the new trends in fiction writing. Novels have less descriptions, more action. Some of them really do read like a movie, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean that they are so sharp and direct that I can SEE them as I read.
    Then, I go back to a novel I loved as a kid, like Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, and I find that I have a hard time reading it. So many descriptions! So little action!

    Seems to me that as a child I had more patience for reading than I do now. I didn’t read more, but I read deeper, and I was willing to linger on the text. Today, I’m a little embarrassed to say, I often read for the action.

    Because I’m sad at losing my childhood reading skills, I’ve decided lately to embark on a reading project: I’m finally going to read War and Peace. I used to love Russian Literature as a kid, and maybe now’s the time to go back to it.

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  • http://www.sulcicollective.blogspot.com marc nash

    I write “difficult” fiction. Challenging fiction. Fiction that pushes at limits of language and narrative form, you know like the literary modernists did. And yes it is not mass market. It probably isn’t even commercial, at least not in the relatively tiny market of the UK. But there will always be a number of readers who crave more intellectually challenging work. Work that resolutely dedicates itself to engaging with the world rather than escaping from it (why do people who crave escapism books never ask themselves what is it about life that impels them to escape from it?). There are those readers who like to be offered interesting ideas, new ways of seeing the world (new to them, it’s hard to be truly revolutionary), like to dialogue with the book beyond the span of reading it.

    In some ways it’s a false debate. The two markets are not really in competition with each other. Of course there are crossover readers who happily read both. But I do not feel threatened by the commercial success of vampires. Unless such books drive publishers to the wall so that literary fiction ceases to exist at all. But then I guess the market will have spoken.

  • http://www.hawk-and-handsaw.blogspot.com Jessica

    I grew up reading the classics. And I can’t say I ever found them to be ‘work’ (with the exception of Shakespeare and Chaucer until I really learned the language they were writing in – and yes, for a 12 year old Shakespearean English counts as a different language, damn it!). The books that I think of as ‘work’, and yes they were often the ones that I valued more, weren’t work because of any higher writing level or anything like that. They were work because they stretched my mind, challenged my world view, and made me think things I had never considered before.

    I can’t say I much care one way or another about ‘literary’ vs ‘commercial’ writing. I am a story teller. I write to share my stories. I am a writer. Words are my art form and yes it is important that I use them with all the care art demands. But my focus isn’t to tell stories, or to craft art. My focus is to stretch minds. That defines the value of a novel for me.

  • http://www.nedavid.com N.E.David

    This has been one of the best debates I have read online for some time. Thank you, Mike Duran, for kicking it off.
    For me, the answer lies in engaging the reader, either through plot or prose. If the reader is not ‘interested’ in the work, then nothing will be achieved by either the reader or the writer. We have to have reasons to read.
    I tried to read ‘The English Patient’ because of its ‘literary’ reputation but I could not force myself beyond page 50 as it said nothing to me. I tried to read ‘The Finkler Question’ because it won a prize. I got to within 20 pages of the end and then thought the hell with it and put it away because I wasn’t made to care about the characters and what might happen to them. But I simply could not stop until I had devoured every word of ‘The Sound And The Fury’ (William Faulkner), a notoriously ‘difficult’ book, because I was utterly taken in by the form, the prose and the plot. Not to evryone’s taste, I agree, but it worked for me. So,
    “It’s quite possible to have literary depth or beautiful writing and still have a plot, engaging characters and action.”
    Absolutely!
    And here’s another thing. ‘Beautiful writing’ doesn’t have to be purple prose or unduly poetic. Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road) is a case in point. His style is so smooth and easy to read that you don’t even notice it – and yet by the end of the book he has delivered something so whole and complete that it has beauty in itself. It is surely the sign of a great (literary) writer when they can tell us something about human nature and the world we live in and we don’t even know that they’re doing it.
    To answer Mike’s questions:
    Does good writing necessarily demand more? Not at all – Yates shows us that.
    Is there any harm in ‘entertainments’? Certainly not! I’ve been known to write a few myself …

  • Megan B.

    I don’t know if I want my writing to make the reader “work.” But I do want the reader to think about it after they close the book. Maybe “work” is just too harsh-sounding a way of saying “makes you think.” And certainly commercial fiction can do that. :)

  • http://jessdoesstuff.blogspot.com Jessica Peter

    I read for a story. I want characters I care about wrapped up in a plot I equally care about. I want it to take me somewhere, so I can be fully immersed in their world.

    I look for well-written books, but if the focus is more on the words themselves than what they are telling me, I’m not interested.

    So I generally read commercial fiction, rather than literary fiction, because I find quite a few literary novels focus too much on the words at the expense of the story. That’s not to say all of them do! There are certainly some literary works (especially the classics) that I adore.

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  • http://www.edensharp.com Eden Sharp

    Debates about literary vs genre fiction always veer toward the black and white. Steak and salad is ‘fast food’ but is not lacking in nutrition. The idea continually trotted out that the writer who wishes to be commercial must decide to ‘short cut literary depth in exchange for formulaic “entertainments”’is an old and tired misnomer which we need to move on from.

    Good writing is about demonstrating craft and the precision required in thriller writing for instance, is not for the unskilled hack nor does it necessarily lack literary references or dare to tackle profound themes. Good genre writing is the same as good literary writing, just good writing period. As Lee Child once said, ‘is a novel still a novel if no one reads it?’ Human culture is about story-telling, what we are really talking about here is a good story well told vs. Fifty Shades of Garbage.

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