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.
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.