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Criticism, Fiction, Publishing, The Writer's Life

Literary v. Commercial Fiction: 50 Shades of Gray Area

Last week’s blog, about the differences between literary and commercial fiction, drew opinions from many points along the writers’ spectrum. And why not? The two styles of writing are closely related and have similar goals: write well and sell books. One makes the first goal its priority, and the other adheres more to the second. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but at least provides a starting point to continue the discussion.

Is there a clear line between the two, or a gray area? Where does it lay?

Anyone who follows the publishing industry knows that the large, traditional New York publishers are primarily about sales. They are simply too big to afford to publish books that only sell 1,000 copies, so must appeal to mass market tastes. Try reading 50 Shades of Grey if you doubt that.

But perhaps the key to answering the question above is to note how the independent publishing industry responds to it. As Book Review Editor for LA Review, I deal with about 100 such publishers, many of whom make it clear through their mission statements, and more importantly through their selections of books to publish, that they are concerned with literary quality over mass sales. I could quote from dozens of similar sites, but here are some statements from lit publishers I’ve visited recently. They are passionate about what they do.

Here’s what Black Balloon Publishing’s staff has to say:

Black Balloon books are risky but not gimmicky, whimsical but never light, intelligent but not precious. We cater to writers who kick conventions curbside, who provoke without sentiment.

Foxhead Books might better be described as militant. Two excerpts from their “Manifesto”:

When not driven by obsessions with the liberal-guilt lozenge du jour, big publishing mugwumps push pulpy purple shit-lit on the public at the expense of enduring literature.

Publishers and agents judge work on completely different criteria than competent, craft-conscious artists use to produce the work. The dichotomy speaks to a clear disconnect between producers and those who exist for the purpose of distributing it.

And from Ellipsis Press:

…the “end of literary books in commercial publishing is a historical inevitability.” And so it has come to pass. The bigger houses will cease (have ceased!) to publish literary fiction. It is not profitable for them to market and produce a title that will sell to 5000 people. [But] A small and lively (and one hopes resurging) group of people care about the novel as art.

Doesn’t seem to be much gray area here. It’s nice to know there is a vibrant community of writers and publishers dedicated to identifying the line between literary and commercial fiction. Why? Because without that boundary, the only factor in determining the value of a novel is commercial success. That means the mass market gets to decide if your novel is any good—the same mass market that keeps “Survivor” on TV and thinks global warming is a hoax.

Elitist? Maybe. But some of us expect more from our fiction.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


19 thoughts on “Literary v. Commercial Fiction: 50 Shades of Gray Area

  1. I want my literary fiction to be a commercial success. I want my “popular” fiction to be beautiful.
    ” …risky but not gimmicky, whimsical but never light, intelligent but not precious.” I like that. And I like this post.

    Posted by Jon Zech | July 7, 2012, 1:00 PM
    • I totally agree, Jon.

      Posted by jetepper | July 7, 2012, 4:52 PM
    • Thanks Jon. I just came across Black Balloon this past week. There are plenty of publishers and writers out there who feel the way you and I, and they do. We’ve been marginalized to a certain degree by the big publishers–since being taken over by MBAs, they’ve sacrificed those literary qualities for the bottom line.

      Posted by jpon | July 8, 2012, 1:32 AM
  2. It’s easier for me to stay sane about this topic if I think of it as a continuum, rather than a dichotomy, and I think technology is a big factor in the trend. Technology, i.e. the printing press, gave us literature and now technology in the form of television and internet fluff threatens to take it away. Ebooks may contribute to this decline, because your choices aren’t sitting on a shelf for all to see. I heard women at work laughing about being able to read “Shades..” anywhere, on their phone, without anyone else knowing, then Saturday Night live made the same point a few days later.
    Technology can promote literature, too. Oprah exposed a lot of people to books that they would never have considered on their own. And literature lives in a multitude of on-line journals. Maybe we just need to get Oprah interested in them…..

    Posted by michellemorouse | July 7, 2012, 1:29 PM
    • Thanks Michelle. We need Oprah, and a lot more people like her to be more vocal about the level of literature and literacy (see Jeanne’s comment) in this country.

      Posted by jpon | July 8, 2012, 1:36 AM
  3. Joe, I stopped into my local Barnes and Noble last weekend and looked in vain for the shelf tag proclaiming “finely crafted literature”. However, there was a large three gondola wide section pertaining to “Teen Hybrid Romance Fiction”. I’m not sure if that referred to romance between teens and various supernatural hybrids, or liaisons between teens and said beings in the backseat of a Prius. But in either case it’s indicative of the state of your art.

    Posted by socalsoxman | July 7, 2012, 1:52 PM
    • You didn’t look hard enough, Rog. High-end lit is usually right behind the greeting cards, music CDs, sporting goods, toys and coffee shop. Can’t understand why you couldn’t find it…

      Posted by jpon | July 8, 2012, 1:41 AM
  4. While I agree with the intent of both of the sites mentioned in the article, to a certain extent I found the excerpts from their mission statements a bit pretentious, especially the second one.

    Surely good fiction can be a little more accessible than that?

    Interesting aside (at least I think it’s interesting): I’d heard that Canadian icon, Robertson Davies, was inaccessible, and yet I’m reading one of his books now, and have no problem with accessibility; in fact, I’m enjoying it. Some of the techniques he’s using are a little old-fashioned (but probably okay for his times), but it’s almost as though he’s using them tongue in cheek.

    Let’s hope that small presses can survive by publishing quality writing.

    Posted by Sheryl Dunn | July 7, 2012, 3:18 PM
    • Yes, Sheryl, the Foxhead Books manifesto (they really call it that) is a bit extreme, and I think it’s presented that way to express the publishers’ displeasure with traditional publishing companies, as well as to establish their own irreverence. It’s pretentious, but I think it says what a lot of other people and companies would like to say to the big New York publishers.

      Posted by jpon | July 8, 2012, 1:45 AM
  5. I have been thinking hard about this question since your post last week. I think there is a key factor at play that has to be considered. One of the first things that crossed my mind was the literacy level in the US. I took some time to do a little research and found this pdf: http://nces.ed.gov/Pubs2007/2007480.pdf. It is the “Literacy in Everyday Life, Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy.” If you look at Figure 2-2 you will see that clearly 43% of the adult population is at a basic or below basic reading level. Another 43% is considered intermediate. Intermediate readers can identify metaphors in poetry but are not able to take process them much further than that. It is my contention that part of the conflict between literary works and commercial works is that a good 86% of the population is not able to read and enjoy complex novels. The dumbing down of the publication industry correlates with the dumbing down of the educational system. As writers, we need to get serious about literacy in the US if we want to have an audience for our works.

    Posted by jetepper | July 7, 2012, 4:51 PM
    • Those figures are staggering and frightening, Jeanne. I was familiar with the literacy problem in Detroit. My wife works for United Way. They report that more than half the adults in the city are functionally illiterate, meaning they can’t understand simple things like a bus schedule or the nutrition info on a box of cereal. But I never knew the problem was so widespread. The biggest problem that I see is that so much of our society doesn’t care about that. Corporate decision makers are fine with illiteracy as long as they can sell their products to people–whether the consumers understand what they’re buying is immaterial to the bottom line. In fact, an uninformed consumer is probably an easier target. Based on the figures you referenced, writing for the mass market is an exercise in futility. Writers are expected to spend years learning and honing their craft, and then have to dumb it down so consumers can understand it.

      Posted by jpon | July 8, 2012, 1:51 AM
  6. What follows just riffs on JETEPPER’s good remarks:

    Another interesting post that is though-provoking and rich. It’s hard to say exactly what is happening in publishing/reading, but I can’t escape the feeling that there really is such a thing as what Frederic Jameson calls “late capitalism” and that we are IN it. I’m the daughter of Republicans, but the loss of the “middle” — be it the middle class, or the middlepoint between literary and pulp fiction — seems to point to extreme commodification of any kind of cultural work. Add to that the degradation of literacy, and you’ve got a situation that begs for writing that is “easy.” We’ve talked about this on on my blog in conjunction with the HUNGER GAMES, but I do think it’s a real issue.

    I worry about the vanishing ability of most people in the US to read and understand complicated texts. I think it’s extremely dangerous.

    That said, I think in some ways 50 SHADES has become the whipping boy (ha!), in a way that’s quite unfair. It IS better written than TWILIGHT even at its worst (the last volume of SHADES is pretty bad). The fetishizing of that book because it involves BDSM, is I think symptomatic of the ways in which we deflect the real issues — literacy, power, and thought — towards worrying about sex and bad writing.

    There is more about all this — Oprah, ebooks, the possibilities of the internet, access, contact — but I can’t quite wrap my brain around it.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbe Hammer | July 7, 2012, 11:30 PM
    • I’ll have to check out Jameson’s concept of “late capitalism.” Sounds similar to the conditions late in the reigns of many former empires, where wealth and power become corrupted in the hands of an oligarchy. But the “capitalism” part intrigues me. Our system has worked because capitalism, by nature, encourages innovation in the name of self-improvement or advancement–that’s what Adam Smith and the founders of our country had in mind. But today’s capitalism seems to have replaced self-improvement with self-preservation and isolation. That no-so-subtle difference leads to the conditions that brought down societies from ancient Rome to the monarchies of pre-WWI Europe. When the people see they could be better off, and believe their system and government restrict them from their chance at a better life, upheaval is imminent. If the middle class in America ever starts to think that way, we could see some radical changes.

      Posted by jpon | July 8, 2012, 2:09 AM
  7. “It’s nice to know there is a vibrant community of writers and publishers dedicated to identifying the line between literary and commercial fiction. Why? Because without that boundary, the only factor in determining the value of a novel is commercial success.”

    I disagree. A community dedicated to identifying (drawing?) the line between literary and commercial fiction is a bad sign for literature as a whole. Instead of reinforcing the differences between the two, perhaps we as writers should be looking for ways to draw ideas from the opposing camp. Genre writers understand something fundamental that literary writers often miss: readers want a story. If they can’t find one on the shelves of beautifully-written literary novels, they will get it elsewhere.

    Yes, write well. Yes, call it art if that floats your boat. But tell the damn story.

    Posted by Averil Dean | July 8, 2012, 2:27 PM
    • I understand what you’re saying, Averil, but I’m not sure anyone’s trying to set up shop as the literature Gestapo. If anything, the reality is the reverse—the world of commercial fiction has essentially shut out literary fiction only because it doesn’t sell. What bothers many writers of lit fiction is that the commercial world’s publishing junta keeps real literary works sidelined, then tries to claim that what they peddle is of literary quality.

      We live in a capitalist, therefore commercial society. Even writers of literary fiction must participate in it, not just to be successful, but to merely survive. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to raise the level of the literary discussion, which, according to the figures in Jeanne’s response, is abysmal. If the numbers are true, then most readers can’t understand a subtle plot twist, and can’t infer a character’s motivation from her actions. They have to be lectured, like children—which is exactly what I see in many commercial books.

      What my blog attempts to illustrate is the lit community’s reaction to the commercial world’s frequent refusal to consider any writing outside the parameters of “what’s hot” or what will appeal to the tastes of less sophisticated readers—the lowest common denominator if you will.

      But some of us don’t care for one-size-fits-all fiction. We want challenge in our fiction. We want great writing. Yes, we want story too (although it may not always be in contemporary form). And we want, make that insist, on a place at the literary table in this country. If, as with science fiction, romance and other genres, it means drawing a line across the page, then maybe we need to do that.

      Posted by jpon | July 8, 2012, 6:57 PM
      • I get you. My comment sounded a bit Gestapo-ish itself, which was not my intention. I simply think there are things to be learned by all writers, from all writers, and if the goal of the larger writing community is to produce better work and increase readership in the general population, then to my mind the line across the page serves no purpose other than to make literary work seem inaccessible and genre work seem low-market.

        I read literary fiction because I love language and am constantly trying to cultivate a more lyrical voice. I read genre fiction because I want a good story. (And I couldn’t agree more that there are some godawful stories getting published; what else is new?) It’s become increasingly difficult to find both qualities in a single work, which frustrates me as a reader. I don’t want ‘either-or’.

        Posted by Averil Dean | July 9, 2012, 3:52 AM
      • Glad you didn’t take my response the wrong way either. After posting it I thought it might sound too reactionary. You’re definitely right about writers helping writers no matter what genre they work in. In fact, one of my writers’ groups includes a mix of genre and literary people: we have horror, sci-fi, steampunk, literary, and a woman who writes man-on-man erotic romance (and who is the most successful of the group, with two published novels). It’s really the bean counters who have that overwhelming need to categorize and marginalize, which is perhaps why some indie publishers respond to the market they way they do.

        Posted by jpon | July 9, 2012, 10:26 AM
  8. An astute commentary. Though I cannot help but have an immediately “elitist” reaction to commercial preferences, a part of me thinks it is better for someone to read something, even say “Twilight” or “50 Shades” than nothing at all. The problem, however, is that these two works are not only representative of BAD writing (contextually, grammatically, and aesthetically) but also normalize misogynistic, unhealthy behaviour in romantic and sexual relationships. I only wish that popular erotica and love stories would concern itself with the equality of genders, rather than domination and submission. Especially because the target audience for these books is often young girls.

    Posted by Beverly Penn | July 10, 2012, 2:30 PM
  9. That’s an interesting observation about the content of mass market books (and TV, music and movies as well) and one that’s sure to spark debate. On a case-by-case basis, one could say that those entertainment offerings are free speech, but when so many companies are promulgating that type of fare to the near exclusion of more traditional values (and doing it just to make a buck), then do we need to look at it from a societal standpoint? Another gray area, I think. Where do we draw the line and who gets to draw it? Most of the public has left the decision in the hands of the corporate marketers, whose interests, I assure you, are not the public good but private gain.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Posted by jpon | July 10, 2012, 3:22 PM

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