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”?
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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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