Literary Snobs & Commercial Sellouts

By John Gilstrap

I’m getting a little panicky. Tomorrow (Saturday), I am moderating a panel at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, called Literary Snobs & Commercial Sellouts, an exploration of the truths and truisms of the prejudice we all have felt at one time or another.

I’m one of those people who takes moderating responsibilities pretty seriously, so as I gather research for the panel (two genre authors and one literary author), I’m finding this all to be much more difficult than I had expected. Defining genres is fairly easy. You’ve got your mysteries, your thrillers, you romances and on and on, each with their expected constructs. Okay, I get that. Sure, there are some exceptions to the rules and some crossover authors, but basically genre is, well, genre.

So, what the heck is literary? I talked to my agent today to bounce my thoughts around and hypothesized that perhaps “literary” could be defined as absence of genre. No, she said, that would be “mainstream.” Literary is something else. Unfortunately, she wasn’t a lot of help when it came to putting a finger on a useful definition of that other something.

Some who post on the Internet posit that while a commercial novel stresses plot, a literary novel stresses other-than-plot. Okay, then explain how Harper Lee or even J.D. Salinger can be considered “literary.”

There are lots of throw-away insulting definitions of “literary,” but those aren’t useful to me in my hour of need. Seriously, what makes the difference? Is it merely a matter of personal taste? Surely it has to be something more that merely “well-written,” because most books fall within a ring or two of that bull’s eye.

If a book fails to move me, can it still be “literary”? If a book does move me, can it be anything but? All input is desperately welcome.

18 thoughts on “Literary Snobs & Commercial Sellouts

  1. If I have to look up a word within the first 4 pages, I call it a “literary” novel.

    Seriously — I think of literary novels as having a different style, an emphasis on themes as opposed to plot points, and more freedom to explore and to use language for its own sake, than genres do.

    I know that’s not very specific, but it’s a start for me.

  2. Ohmigosh! What a fantastic name for a panel! I wish I was within shouting distance so I could attend. And the topic! I mean… don’t get me started.

    Here’s something that may help: Raymond Chandler gives deep consideration to the topic in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” from 1944. If you can get your mitts on a copy in time, read it: it speaks volumes to this subject. Failing that, here are a couple of quotes from the essay:

    “When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over the ball.”

    Good stuff, right? And this, to me, is the final word. (Chandler’s again.)

    “As for ‘literature of expression’ and ‘literature of escape’ — this is critics’ jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality: there are no dull subjects, only dull minds.”

  3. Tom Clancy once defined literary as “works of the written word that high school students are forced to read 80 years after the death of the author.”

    It’s a definition that’s always seemed to work for me.

  4. Literary means obscure, award-winning books that no one buys. 🙂

    That definition probably won’t score you any points, John, although I think there’s a trace of truth in it. So here’s a REALLY simplified definition I’ve used before: Genre generally deals with external conflict where literary deals with internal.

  5. I once had an interview with an editor at a mystery conference who’d read the first 30 pages of my manuscript, and she asked to read the rest the rest of it. Later, in a very nice and encouraging letter, she told me that my manuscript was “commercial” but that she was more of a “literary” editor. So I got an agent and yes, indeed, it became a very commercial series. But I still don’t know exactly what literary means. If I’d changed the title of the first book in the series to to “Dying to be Thin and Miserable” would that have qualified it, you think? Probably not.

  6. At the San Francisco Writers Conference they had a panel trying to define what made a ‘commercially successful’ literary book and that seemed to be almost impossible. When it came to what exactly made a ‘literary’ versus a strictly commercial book, again it was all very iffy and amorphous. I think (for what its worth) that so called literary books deal with greater themes regarding the human condition than commercial ones. They probe deeper, have themes more central to the story than plot and have a greater level of ‘artistic grace’ than the mere commercial mortal. I also think that’s a load of crap mind you…So good luck…the panel at the SFWC certainly couldn’t come up with an answer…

  7. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, (but hey, it won’t be the first time) but to me, literary fiction is any book where I can’t get past the first page. In my opinion, modern literary fiction is highly pretentious.

    I’m ducking now.

  8. Joyce may have ducked, but I’ll hang in there. I think the definition of “literary” has become so amorphous that it now is used by writers with pretensions to greatness as a way of distinguishing themselves; there’s also a critical component to feed the fire.

    I think of it much like The Empreor’s New Clothes. They’re trying to frame the discussion in such a manner than anyone who doesn’t accept the “literary” credentials of the book isn’t elevated enough to understand it. They’re writing more and more for a closed club, not unlike modern classical music composers.

    That may make me a reverse snob; I’ve been called worse.

  9. John, that sounds like an amazing panel. Is anyone taping it? Would love to hear the podcast. And what an amazing Chandler quote! I’d open with that, personally.

    I read a little bit of everything, literary to genre and back, and I have to agree that some books are called “literary” now that don’t necessarily meet the parameters in the Chandler quote. Are those books, then, simply mainstream? And what qualifies? Would a bestseller like “Water for Elephants” or “Good Grief” be considered literary? And what about genre that crosses the line? I personally think Tana French’s books are very literary, and great mysteries, too.

  10. Tana French for me is what ‘literary’ commercial books are all about – her two books have terrific mysteries, indepth characterization as well as fabulous, evocative writing – but I note that on DorothyL there were plenty of detractors re: her work…so I guess it’s all a question of personal taste. I do think though it is often the authors and publishers who place the ‘literary’ tag on their work – as if it’s some kind of seal of quality/snob approval when often it’s just the kiss of death for sales:)

  11. Hmmm.
    Salman Rushdie’s books: Literary. I hardly understood a word, and think those folks were trying to kill him out of embarrassed confusion more than anything.

    Kite Runner: Literary, boring at times but quite good. I wouldn’t read it a second time, but it was worth one look over.

    World Without End: Ken Follett writes thrillers, but this was historical fiction, romance, crime, war, medieval, medicine, monastary, cathedral and bridge architecture,and ancient English. I couldn’t tell if it was literary, romance, history, or medical journal…but it was good.

    Being a guy who reads and writes about stuff getting blown up and people doing nasty things to nasty people I don’t do a lot of literary but those above would fit my definition of what it was if anyone asked.

  12. To my mind, what sets a contemporary novel apart as “literary” are those that are pushing at the boundaries of language and of form. They are not “just” telling a story. In fact, sometimes they’re not even telling a story. Rather, they are playing with all available tools in order to push the artform forward. The resulting work is meant to be interesting, thought-provoking. Not everyone wants that every time they pick up a book.

    Now, clearly, that’s not what’s happening at all levels, and some people who would do so just aren’t that great at pushing said boundaries and end up, instead, with a steaming bag of poo.

    It’s like music, right? Some of us like free jazz. And some of us like classic rock. And some of us like both, but on different days. Is one better than the other? No. But they’re doing different things for different reasons with a medium that, on the surface of things, might look the same.

  13. I tend to think of Literary as being more didactic, either in meaning to teach a lesson, a theme, or to somehow exist to teach “better focus on the writing.” I guess I just always figured commercial fiction–while sometimes very well written–focuses more on the STORY, whereas Literary fiction–while often having a great story–focuses more on either the beauty of the prose or the message the writer intends that prose to send.

    Doubt that helps either, but that’s my stab at it.

  14. I think determining a literary classification requires a multi-faceted analysis, not just an either or.

    BTW literary is not the equivalent of literature. All books are literature, just a fancy name for written work, similar to the use of ‘classical’ for any orchestral music. Inaccurate.

    Genres have specific expected elements, which literary works do not have. That’s not enough to say something is literary, but it’s a point of difference.

    So look at content. Usually serious, less likely humourous. That might relate to the thematic focus mentioned. So, now we have serious topic non-genre with themes.

    Commercial sometimes? equals popular culture. I’m not across literary enough to know if that’s a point of difference or perhaps a marginal one. Can there be commercial literary fiction? If it means: makes money, yes, I’d say there can.

    Can literary fiction address a specific historical period? Since all story is set in a point in time, if it’s not future, it’s obviously historical, whether near or distant. Nothing is exactly contemporaneous to the book. So I don’t think historical period is a useful feature one way or the other.

    Can there be romance? Definitely, just not the central focus, but as in character relationships, something that is important in most stories.

    I really liked the point about extending the art form. Testing ideas, techniques, structures, etc. Hmmm. I’m thinking Book Thief. Loved it. Thinking Tim Winton. Not in love. But the point about not falling into current patterns and norms is part of the equation.

    Hope those thoughts help. Please blog about the outcome of the panel and let us know what you all come up with.

  15. I like what John D. MacDonald said was one of the things he wanted in a story: a bit of “unobtrusive poetry” in the style. JDM certainly had that.

    Literary is “obtrusive” in the poetry. It is as much about the sound and the effect of words on you as anything else.

    Now, most readers want a ripping good story, which is why literary doesn’t sell as well as commercial. What makes for the snobbery, where it exists, is that some “aht and beautaeh” types just can’t fathom why people don’t “get it.” As Spillane said, “Those big shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.”

  16. So, okay: another quote is in order. This one from my fellow Canuck, neo noir author John McFetridge. (He’d likely cringe at the description, but whatever.)

    He and I tend to have this discussion — between us and in public — all the time. I guess it comes partly of being Canadian, because these lines of division are much more firmly drawn in my country and we see it — and bear the brunt of it — when we’re in mixed company.

    In any case, a few weeks ago, McFetridge said this (see if it resonates for you in this conversation):

    “Some people want to make money serving food and so they open a franchise, a McDonalds or an Olive Garden and they make money. Other people want to be a chef and open a small, gourmet restaurant. I’ve eaten at both kinds of restaurants and in the right mood they’re both fine. But sometimes people get them mixed up. That’s what bugs me. Sometimes mystery writers write ‘real books,’ like chefs prepare gourmet meals, but because it’s labeled ‘Mystery’ some people automatically think it’s fast food. (My biggest example here is Elmore Leonard — a writer every bit as good as Hemingway and Raymond Carver, but no one noticed till smarty-pants Martin Amis pointed it out).”

    Fuel for the fire?

Comments are closed.