Monday, November 30, 2015

Literature vs. Popular Fiction


I bounce around the internet each morning after checking email. I scan a lot of articles, but rarely get by the first few paragraphs. My time is precious and there is just so much stuff out there. If I tried to read it all, I’d never have time to write.

An exception was “Literature vs genre is a battle where both sides lose” by David Mitchell, published at The Guardian blog. I don’t enjoy dissertations on writing as an art form. I’m a storyteller whose medium is the written word, so I prefer articles about how to improve my craft. But Mitchell grabbed my attention with his first sentence.

“Literary fiction is an artificial luxury brand but it doesn’t sell.”

There is an audience for literary fiction, but Mitchell points out that the demand for genre fiction dwarfs the high-tone variety. He claims, “fancy reading habits don’t make you cool any longer. The people who actually buy books, in thumpingly large numbers, are genre readers.”

I think the difference is how a writer approaches a project. If a writer starts off to tell a story, a good craftsman will focus on writing the novel properly to keep the reader engaged. If a writer starts with the goal to write a literary masterpiece, then the focus becomes assembling sentences so clever they stop the reader to admire the prose. A good storyteller never takes the reader out of a story, so fancy writing is counterproductive.

Here’s the dirty little secret of fiction writing: if it doesn’t sell, it’s soon forgotten. Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Owen Wister, Raymond Chandler, Louisa May Alcott and many other “Great Writers” understood this truism. 

“It might reasonably be said that all art at some time and in some manner becomes mass entertainment, and that if it does not it dies and is forgotten.”  Raymond Chandler

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