Hello! It’s been a while so how have you all been? Firstly, apologies for the lack of recent posts – after a busy March on the book/blog front, April has been busy on the real life/adulting front (no prizes for guessing which one was more fun…) so neither much blogging nor, indeed, much reading has been going on in my household for a few weeks.
In lieu therefore of any book reviews, I’ve thought a discussion post might be interesting and, prompted by this excellent video from Simon over at Savidge Reads, wanted to examine the literary vs commercial fiction debate that seems to be have risen it’s little head again in some corners of the book world. So, what defines a literary novel? What makes a book commercial? And, most importantly, does it matter anyway?
The short answer to that question is, of course, no.
But for some reason, every time there’s a book prize shortlist announcement or when a Writer of Great Literature announces that their new novel is set on an alien planet and could therefore be considered as sci-fi (*gasp!*), the literary vs commercial debate starts up again.
Take, for example, Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done, a novel about Lizzie Borden. The Guardian’s favourable review called it ‘an outstanding debut novel about love, death and the lifelong repercussions of unresolved grief’ but, crucially, did not categorise it as a crime novel. And it most definitely IS a crime novel – it’s about a woman who may have stoved her parents’ heads in with an axe after all. Why then is it considered somehow different to Sarah Ward’s most recent novel A Patient Fury, in which a woman may or may not have murdered her entire family? That was also favourably reviewed in The Guardian but, interesting, was described as a ‘classic police procedural’ – clearly labelling it as crime fiction. Now I’m not saying that Schmidt and Ward write in the same way – or that the two books are identical – but, given that they have similar themes and ideas, I do find it interesting that one is considered ‘literary’ whereas the other seems to be treated as more ‘commercial’.
It was the same when Nobel prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro wrote The Buried Giant. With elements of myth including dragons and ogres, the book could be – shock horror – considered a fantasy novel. Literary critics at the time of publication took great pleasure in debating whether a ‘literary’ author should be involving himself with the stuff of such a commercial genre and, most literary types agreed, it was a departure from the norm for the writer. Really? Isn’t Never Let Me Go science-fiction? Or dystopian? The Remains of the Day could most definitely be classed as historical fiction couldn’t it? And couldn’t you say that When We Were Orphans is a crime novel? Ishiguro’s been cherry-picking from genre fiction for years – it’s one of the things that, for me anyway, makes him such an interesting writer.
So is it about ‘literary merit’ then? The lasting quality of the works, the allure of the writing, the use of inventive structure and experimental form? For me, this suggests that commercial and genre fiction doesn’t have the same resonance or impact as literary fiction and I just don’t think that’s the case. I recently read and reviewed Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie, longlisted for The Women’s Prize for Fiction and considered by some to be one of the more ‘commercial’ titles on the list. I found it to be a deeply affecting and highly intelligent novel about friendship, loss, memory and old age and I’m currently forcing copies into the hands of my family and friends at every opportunity.
Plus the ‘literary merit’ argument completely ignores the fact that many of our now beloved classic authors – Jane Austen, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens to name but a few – were most definitely writing commercial fiction back in the day. Dickens’ and Collins were both paid per instalment so deliberately wrote as lengthily as possible – and anyone who claims that Austen didn’t have her eyes on the prize has clearly never read any of her letters. And all three were highly successful authors in their day so it’s not about popularity or commercial success either.
Personally I think the terms ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’ aren’t all that helpful for the majority of readers. For publishing types, they’re a useful way of distinguishing an author’s potential market and choosing how to promote that particular book. For academics and reviewers, they’re catch-all terms that can distinguish certain types of writing and style. But for readers? Well, they’re something for us to argue about I suppose!
Going back to the start of this post, I’m with Simon all the way when he says about books being accessible to everyone and that it wouldn’t do for us all to like the same things. So what if the only books you read last year were by E L James? The fact that I think Fifty Shades is suitable only for using as kindling in no way diminishes the enjoyment that many others may have gotten from the trilogy. One of my favourite contemporary novels is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History yet my Mum thought it was pretentious twaddle about a privileged elite. My best friend adores The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry but I found it so saccharine that I swear that I lost three teeth just picking it up. Having a choice in what we read and how we engage with that is one of the primary joys of being a reader. What does it matter what label a book comes with if it brings you joy?
So there you have it – literary, commercial – they’re just labels and, personally, I don’t think they should be used to define, praise or belittle anyone’s reading. Read what you want, share the book love and let me know in the comments what you think about literary and commercial fiction. I’m also thinking of making Discussion Time a more regular feature on the blog so if you enjoyed the post (or didn’t!), or if you have any bookish topics you think would be good to discuss, do let me know. And, as always, until the next time…