Sunday, February 21, 2010

Literary v Commercial

As I prepared to pitch my recently-completed novel (Consequence is the working title) to agents at the SF Writer's Conference last weekend, one of the murkiest questions I had to clarify was whether I'd written a work of literary fiction or ... something else.

I never thought much about this before. That is, I had an opinion -- I thought I was writing literary fiction -- but never really questioned whether that was actually so, or why. Why did I think my fiction fit that category? Well. Um... Because it clearly isn't genre mystery, thriller, romance, or police procedural? Because it includes at least a couple of big words in every chapter? Because I have a degree in English Literature, from a top university? As my grandmother might have said, "Feh!" None of these seemed especially convincing, maybe not even marginally credible, once it was time to tell a well-read publishing-industry expert & perfect stranger, in sixty seconds or less, about the product of my every spare moment gleaned from the past [number redacted] years of my rather inconsequential life.

What to do? I Googled, of course. And discovered, unsurprisingly, that this question has vexed plenty of authors, agents, and editors before me. What is literary fiction? How does it differ from "commercial" fiction (leaving the more clearly demarcated genres aside)?

In fact, the question was the topic of lunch conversation on the first day of the SFWC, when I met agent & entertainment attorney Paul S. Levine, whose bracingly no-nonsense answer to the confusion was that the difference is a red herring. It doesn't matter at all, said Mr. Levine. Guy walks into a bookstore. It's all in the "Fiction" section, alphabetized by author. Case closed.

A number of others at SFWC said roughly the same thing (Caitlin Alexander, a senior editor at Random House: "It's fairly arbitrary"). The "I know it when I see it" defense seems to be popular. Plot first (commercial) vs. character/voice first (literary) is another well-used set of markers. But it gets vague very quickly. My novel is about characters grappling with the moral and political themes that drive the plot forward ... but it certainly has a plot, and tension, and conflict, and even a bit of romance. In the end there's blood, triumph, tragedy, and even a big 'splosion. So what is it?

The most coherent musings on the question I've seen were contributed to the intertubes by Nathan Bransford, an agent with Curtis Brown, who blogged on the topic of What Makes Literary Fiction Literary following the 2007 SFWC. I won't steal his well-articulated thunder, but he boils his distinction down to this: "In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface." This is more-or-less the Plot vs. Character line, but Bransford gives his answer some nicely knitted nuance. Check him out.

In the end what seemed most helpful to thinking out my own answer was to consider the attributes of books I like best.

While page-turning plot is as gripping to me as to anyone, I have often noticed that if a book offers a lot of plot and a lot more than plot, and if I want to get a lot more than relief of plot tension out of it, I have to read it twice. That is, plot can distract me from what I most care about in a book. Or, alternately, I devour plot like candy, which is terrific for a while, but if I want something from a book that lasts beyond the sugarplot rush I have to go back and mine the work's deeper strands after resolving the plot-tension by reading through to the end. These are the best kinds of books for me: the ones that pull me along with heart firmly lodged in throat, only to leave me wanting to go right back to Page 1 and start again.

I want to read about characters grappling with real issues. With questions that matter. This doesn't have to be arcane or intellectual. Cormac McCarthy's The Road, to take a commerical-literary hybrid, has pretty superficial plot concerns. Getting to the coast. Avoiding the cannibals. Eating (but not eating other people, thank you very much). But what matters in that exquisitely spare and mercilessly taut novel is that a man is spending everything he has and is to save his son. There was no question as I read The Road that this character was on a quest, that his drive was moral and primal, that completing his mission was as substantial an undertaking as anything a human being might be called upon to achieve.

I've read for diversion before, and enjoyed it. But even in my adolescence, when I gulped down science fiction by the shelf-foot, what stayed with me longest, what compelled re-reading, were stories that addressed a moral dimension. Those are the books I remember, and the ones that seem worth caring about.

So to spin Nathan Bransford's distinction: perhaps commercial fiction describes what it's like to navigate a world; whereas literary fiction reveals what it's like to be.

When it came time for me to pitch agents at the SFWC last Sunday morning, I told them something like this: "I thought I was writing literary fiction, maybe it's commercial crossover, but after hearing the categories blur at this conference I think I'll let the agents and editors duke it out."

What do you think?


  1. Steve, great blog - sounds like the conference helped to clarify just how unclear the publishing world is these days. So how was your pitch received?

  2. Thanks, David. I had a pretty good batting average, there are a number of agents with whom I spoke who asked for further exchange (in most cases, pages of my manuscript that they'd read to get a better idea of what it is and whether they might be willing to represent it/me) ... that's how it tends to work at these conferences, they're about making initial contact that one follows up on later.

  3. Maybe it's from my D.C. years, but I sniff a policy strategy here...I think your book has a compelling plot line. So my strategy would be to say, "Commercial." And then if the folks who want to read/publish/sell commercial fiction read it and say it's "too" literary and belongs in the literary fiction realm, they might pass it along (thus getting two readings or skimmings) saying something like, "It's got a suspense, but it's too literary for us." Might lead to more mileage for whatever you are giving them.

  4. Reminds me of the question of whether one is a lyric or a narrative poet. I intend to write lyric poetry but many readers (as if I had "many" readers) see me as a narrative poet who only gives them half the story. Work the rest out for yourself. (Lynn Emanuel: "God what a horror: getting Raoul into the elevator.") Then there's the question of whether one is a "formal" poet. To some, a formal poet is anyone who writes in meter, as I usually do. To me, a "formal" poet is someone who writes in what are now called "received forms" - the villanelle, the pantoum, forms I can't even spell, much less would want to essay. Such forms are generally "received" from other cultures, other tongues. On the other hand, for my money, there's no such thing as an "informal" poet, unless we're speaking sartorially.