Friday, December 13, 2013

December Roundtable: Literary vs. Commercial Fiction

Here's an abridged version of our chat (with some random tangents and irrelevancies removed!) Read through and then let us know what you think in the comments!

Alexandra: So, I got the idea for this one when we were doing the strong female characters chat. SPECIFICALLY because Matt and Leigh started talking about Fifty Shades of Grey Puke; Leigh brought it up as an example of how awful male characters like Christian Grey can be forgiven pretty much complete crap behavior, but female characters can't (or something like that, sorry if I'm misrepresenting, it was several months ago.) Matt countered with that since 50 Shades of Grey isn't literature that it is a poor example.
Alexandra: Do we think that it matters, that literature has more of an effect/bearing on things like characterization, sexism, etc.? Or is it the other way around: since books like 50shades are so wide-reaching, do they actually have more of an impact?
Leigh: OK, THAT is a super interesting question...
Leigh: See what you think about this idea...
Leigh: Is it possible that commercial fiction reflects what's going on in culture, but literary fiction perhaps reflects what we aspire to become?
Leigh: I'm not sure that works...
Leigh: I'm thinking of books like A Man in Full... (P. Roth)
Leigh: literary, not aspirational.
Chihuahua Zero: Hmm...what about sitcoms where all of the main characters are unsympathetic? Do those not translate well to fiction?
Chihuahua Zero: *literature?
Matt: Aspire ... to become? Or maybe even what we aspire to return to (think the golden age effect).
Leigh: y'all know I'm indie now, so I'm kind of on the front lines of what's "happening" in women's fiction (not literary women's fiction; fiction women are reading. A LOT.)
Leigh: I'm seeing a super disturbing trend toward abusive sexual relationships in fiction
Matt: That's not new, right? Or is it getting worse?
Leigh: Just today, there was yet another discussion of how books like Beautiful Disaster (now traditionally published) is/was targeted at YA
Leigh: See Night Owl
Alexandra: Leigh brings up SEVERAL things. Mainly, why is there even a genre called women's fiction? It's like they have to label it that so that men don't accidentally stumble upon it and actually, you know, read a book that features a woman.
Leigh: OK, I'm like super feminist, but at the same time, I DO get the concept of "women's fiction"---and I think it has a lot to do with me having a husband who reads a ton more than me.
Leigh: I DO think there are issues that concern women more than men and vice versa
Tracey: Well, have you ever tried reading some of that men's fiction? It's so confusing!
Leigh: LOLOL!!! at Tracey!!!
Matt: I like men's fiction.
Tracey: Men's fiction - totally made up
Matt: That was tongue in cheek. There's no such thing, and if there is, it has the privilege to be whatever it wants, whenever it wants.
Leigh: That's like "why don't we have a white history month".... LOLOL!
Alexandra: Also, and perhaps I'm generalizing...but I would argue that a LOT of books considered "literature" are essentially about the daily struggles/life struggles/internal struggles of MEN.
Alexandra: But those are LITERATURE.
Alexandra: Books about women are "women's fiction"
Alexandra: Like, why is a man's life literature and a woman's life only one shelf in the bookstore?
Katy: I wonder that often, Alexandra
Matt: Or, like in Franzen, for ex, why are men glorified and women trivialzed?
Leigh: Alexandra, you're reminding me of a convo hubs and I had the other day of the Top 5 Writers in American Fiction... Guess who they were? Phillip Roth, Cormack McCarthy, Thomas Pinchon, and two other male turds
Leigh: I took MAJOR exception to this list. (It was Don Delillo and Thomas Wolfe or something)
Leigh: Where are the WOMEN, I say Toni Morrison? Barbara Kingsolver, Eudora Welty
Alexandra: And who decides this top 5 bull anyway? Probably a bunch of white male dudes.
Matt: Wow.
Leigh: It was some critic's list. It probably came from Entertainment Weekly... yes, a totallly commercial publication deciding the contemporary cannon
Alexandra: I would like to send that critic a howler.
Matt: Makes sense then. That's tripe.
Alexandra: I mean it's been happening since forever. The literature we study is defined by white males.
Alexandra: It’s like Romantic Poetry. That's what matters about the beginning of the 19th century—the white guy poets, never mind the women who were writing novels, like Jane Austen, who was a contemporary of people like Wordsworth, Coleridge, etc. What about Mary freaking Shelley? She was MARRIED to a Romantic, wrote freaking Frankenstein as a teenager, and still doesn't make the list for whatever reason.
Matt: Mary Shelley never gets the props she deserves. I mean her EFFING monster is more well known that she is, and that's a damn shame.
Leigh: Mary Shelley was totally literary, IMO
Matt: Def.
Leigh: Yeah, she wrote about a monster, but it was very philosophical
Matt: But also commercial. There are books that can be both.
Alexandra: Mary Shelley is a genius.
Leigh: today it's commercial, but her point was way deeper
Alexandra: The thing that really gets me is that it's GENRE fiction. Frankenstein is science fiction that happens to be commercial and literary at the same time.
Matt: Yes! The terms are not mutally exclusive.
Alexandra: Every time someone says that genre fiction can't be literary fiction I'm like, um, have you read Frankenstein? A Midsummer Night's Dream? Dr. Faustus? No? Live in a cave much?
Chihuahua Zero: I think in the end, the "winners" write history. Usually, those "winners" are male, and they end up burying a lot of female artists.
Chihuahua Zero: To be honest, I don't care much about these top literature lists, both contemporary and classic.
Tracey: I think you could say the same for YA and MG fiction, though. Literary YA or MG is still considered Just For Kids. (Excluding a select few.)
Alexandra: Tracey, you're so right.
Chihuahua Zero: Isn't commerical YA/MG also considered Just For Kids?
Chihuahua Zero: By the public anyways.
Leigh: Yes! Back to YA/MG... I think this is a function of bookstore owners, actually.
Leigh: And having managed a bookstore in a past life, I totally understand.
Chihuahua Zero: The whole commerical and literary distinctions are muddled because they shift over time. Either previously commercial elements become more literary in modern times, and/or the deepness of the work is bought out by literary canon.
Leigh: Good point, CZ!
Leigh: And at the same time, this is art, guys
Leigh: You don't tell it--you're literary, you act this way
Alexandra: Leigh, EXACTLY. Except in this day and age that's exactly what we do.
Tracey: Agreed. Just because a book is commercial doesn't mean the prose is somehow lesser than
Katy: Or if you're trying to cover everything in a query letter, you say your work is "literary with a commercial slant." :)
Chihuahua Zero: A Casual Vacancy is very literary in writing, but it was hyped to the masses.
Katy: Because of the author, CZ?
Leigh: Oh! I haven't read A Casual Vacancy, but I read all about it, and it did sound very literary. At the same time, one could argue the whole HP series was literary
Alexandra: Harry Potter is both character and plot driven.
Alexandra: It has perfunctory prose and beautifully crafted prose.
Alexandra: It has subtle metaphors and heavy-handed ones.
Alexandra: Harry Potter is EVERYTHING.
Katy: Harry Potter IS everything.
Matt: YES. HP = MC2
Chihuahua Zero: Really, it can be classified as literary, but with commercial appeal. But at the same time...
Chihuahua Zero: It makes me think about "Royals". It's definitely an alternative song (literary), but it has pop appeal (commercial).
Chihuahua Zero: Like with radio pop music, there's an science and an art in creating a work that has appeal.
Chihuahua Zero: For me, something that is commercial doesn't have to sell well. It just has to be targeted that way.
Rebecca: Until I read what today's chat topic was about, I didn't even think about commercial literature vs. literary literature. It's not how I talk about when I talk books; I discuss characters, prose, enjoyment, the feels. Having looked into the topic, while it's certainly interesting, it's not something I focus on when choosing/reading books. So saying that literary lit trumps isn't fair, it depends on what you want as a reader and the story you have to tell as a writer. If a book falls more into being commercial lit, it doesn't devalue it or make it any less important. All books are amazing. Amazing books even more so. Whatever traps or labels they may fall into.
Alexandra: Rebecca wins the chat.
Matt: Rebecca does.
Leigh: I wish publishers felt like Rebecca

What do you think, dear readers? Does literary fiction have more merit than commercial fiction? Does the literary/commercial divide exclude certain groups of people (i.e. everyone who isn't a white privileged male?) Or are these distinctions a bunch of crap?


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