Throwdown: Commercial vs. Literary Fiction

Yesterday, I read this article, which was posted on Twitter.
I should state at the forefront of this post that I am not a great reader either of Jodi Picoult or the New York Times, but the conflict between the two certainly caught my attention. And not for the reasons of race or gender bias that Picoult alleges. (Plenty has already been posted about this.) I am interested in her comments on the NYT‘s disparagement of commercial fiction. Specifically, Picoult says, “The NYT has long made it clear that they value literary fiction and disdain commercial fiction – and they disparage it regardless of race or gender of the author.” Well, pardon my French, but quelle surprise! It is the fashion to disparage commercial fiction. It ain’t just the Times.
Before I completed Charlotte Collins, I attempted a piece of literary fiction. And in the process of (mostly) completing that work over the course of ten years, I thought a great deal about what constitutes literature. I debated it with friends, I read articles, I agonized over the question.
And here is my general feeling on the subject, not that it is going to shake the foundations of the publishing world. I believe that to be a truly great work of literary fiction, a book has to be edifying, artistic, understandable and *gasp*–to a certain extent–commercial.
Let me explain.
Edifying: I am not a proponent of l’art pour l’art. To me, a work of literature has to say something. It cannot be just a thing of beauty. After reading a book, I should have a broader or deeper understanding of something.

Artistic: While I don’t go for the concept of form over function, a book should be beautifully written. Otherwise, why bother reading it?
Understandable: Here is where I begin to butt heads with the traditional views, unspoken though they may be, of great literature. To be truly great, the book has to be understandable. If it takes an English professor or commentary to make a literary work understandable, did the author really do a good job of communicating his or her message to the reader? I’m sorry, but I don’t think so. Writing is communication. Period. If what I have on the page is not comprehensible on some level to all my readers, than I have failed at my goal. This is not to say that all people have to understand everything about the book or that writers ought to dumb down their work to suit the masses; I merely believe that a book should be accessible on some level to all readers.
Commercial: In order to read it, someone has to buy it. That’s what commercial means. Readers must be willing to pay money–or at least pay gas money to go to the library–to procure it. In order for someone to want to to buy a book, it has to speak to them, call to them, on some level. If the only inducement to read a book is to appear smart to someone else, which I am convinced is the reason for a great number of literary purchases, then is that reader actually in a conversation with the author? Is any communication happening at all? Has the writer succeeded in anything other than looking like a pretentious windbag?
Writers write so that readers will read. If only a small percentage of pretentious people read and even fewer actually understand my book, then why did I even bother writing it? My message did not get out.

And let’s examine commercial fiction. Even the word commercial is enough to turn people off. But look at Victor Hugo. I don’t think there’s any writer who was as commercial as Hugo. Except maybe Charles Dickens, George Eliot, William Thackery, and Joseph Conrad. These writers serialized their novels and poems, which had the effect of making them cheaper, and thus available to more readers of all income and intelligence levels. As a result, they had commercial success. They got paid more money, and their work was accessible to people from all walks of life. Commercial success. And these commercial works are studied as literature today.

So what is the point of this ranting blog? My point is that setting out to write a work of great literary import that will impress the learned of society is missing the mark. In my view, a work of literature is nothing but foul wind unless it is also somewhat commercially successful.

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