Friday, April 1, 2016

Literary vs. Commercial Fiction

On a recent episode of Books on the Nightstand the hosts, Ann and Michael, talked about the difference between literary and commercial fiction. As a librarian, this is something I think about a lot, especially since we put up several permanent fiction displays at the library, one of which is labeled "Literary Fiction." I don't know what means exactly.

When I need to fill that display, I usually look at the nearby carts of books waiting to be shelved and look at my options. Sometimes know what should go there: winners of literary awards, for instance. Or books I know to be highly regarded by publications such as the New York Times Book Review. At other times, I find myself staring at a book and wondering whether or not it is literary. At times like this I usually ask myself "Would Jenny read this?" If my coworker would read it, then it goes on the display. If not, I probably won't put it there. But obviously this method of categorization won't work for everyone.

Automat by Edward Hopper came up on an image search for
"literary fiction" because even the internet doesn't know what it is.
Now, these aren't my only guidelines when trying to determine whether or not a book is literary. If I try to read a book and need to re-read sentences to figure out what is going on, I suspect that it is literary. If it keeps getting great reviews but I think it's boring or pretentious, then I can only guess that it is too literary for me. This is a terrible methodology.

On the podcast, one definition of literary fiction the hosts gave is that it contains carefully crafted sentences and a lot of character development. I can buy the part about carefully crafted sentences. But I feel conflicted about character development. On the one hand, there is definitely genre fiction (which is, by definition, apparently not literary) that is notable for not having a lot of character development. Science fiction, for instance. On the other hand, romance - which is definitely not considered literary - is highly dependent on the internal life of characters.

What most annoys me about the whole idea of something called "literary fiction" is that it implies superiority. The BOTN hosts claim to not feel that way, and they do apparently both read commercial fiction, so I guess I believe them. But I don't know why else there would be a distinction if it weren't to set apart these books as being somehow a higher form of art. Yet by definition (theirs, anyway) an engrossing page-turner is not literary, while a book that you need to slog through is. How is it possible that the more enjoyable book can be the one considered less good?

It all begs the question: what is the value of a book? The answer is completely dependent on the reader. For some it is to learn more about the world and ourselves, or to provide food for thought. For others it is to escape or entertain. For me, it is all of those things, but usually not at the same time. My tastes and moods vary widely and although I get very different things from books like War and Peace than I do from books like Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover, to me they all have value.

How do you define literary fiction? Or do you? Do you think some books are inherently better than others, or do you agree with me that it's all subjective?


Kevin said...

I think of literary fiction as fiction you can read multiple times and get something different out of it each time. You don't read it just for plot. I love Carl Hiaasen but I don't re-read any of his books until I've forgotten most of the plot. There are whole passages of (for example) A.S. Byatt's Possession or Henry James' Portrait of a Lady that I know almost by heart but I still enjoy re-reading them. And a lot of it *is* about the characters. You wrote that the internal lives of characters is vital to romance novels. But do you really think the characters in a typical romance novel are as developed and realistic as Pierre or Andrei in War & Peace?

3goodrats said...

I think the characters in romance novels are often pretty realistic and relatable, which is why the story works. Are they as well developed as characters from War and Peace? Probably not - we're talking a 300-page book versus a 1000-page book. But it's not a competition (if it were, we could compare books all day). It's about where the focus lies: character vs. plot (which I may not have been clear about because I was trying not to go on too long.) And the focus of romance novels is way more on the characters than the plot. I also picked romance as an example because it is so maligned by people who have never read any of them. Not that I'm pointing fingers or anything :)

Kylie said...

I can relate. On the one hand, I love many classic authors and I think literary should mean more complex, more interesting, with more developed characters and layers of meaning. On the other hand, if a book has won an award, the chances are high that I won't like it, because it will be boring and lifeless. I find many sci fi or mystery novels to be way more complex, interesting, and thought-provoking. I like your method. If X coworker likes it, it must be literary fiction.