Thursday, January 25, 2007

Ask the Authors: Thursday

Do you believe pop fiction and literary fiction are equals or that one is better than the other? Why?

We generally call a work “pop fiction” when it is plot-oriented. We begin to think that it might be literary when it is character-oriented, and we label it absolutely as “literary” when it is language-oriented. But there is no reason that pop fiction cannot be character-oriented, and in my estimation all fiction should be language-oriented, at least to the point that the implied sound of the words does not work against the thrust of the work. So to me the best fiction is popular fiction that has literary qualities, and history is full of work that fits that description: Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn and For Whom the Bell Tolls, to name three. Write one of those, and you won’t have to worry about what to do for a day job.– Tom Morrisey

They serve different purposes, so it's really not a question of "better" or "worse." Popular fiction has as its goal entertainment, and as such must please readers in some sense--making them laugh, cry, dream, etc. It's meant to be a satisfying experience. Expectations are found in each genre, and the successful writer of popular fiction will meet or exceed those expectations. Literary fiction, on the other hand, is not about making readers feel comfortable or satisfied. Often it challenges their worldview, or forces them to face painful realities in their own lives, or leaves them pondering bigger questions than a single storyline can answer. I think the writing can be equally strong in either form, even as the writers strive after different goals. -- Liz Curtis Higgs

While so-called literary fiction may possibly stand the test of time better literarily than books labeled pop fiction, I strongly believe pop fiction has equal (if not more) value, simply because it is accessible to a broader audience. If the primary reasons Christians write fiction are to entertain and to convey a message, then isn’t a wider audience desirable, whether over the long or short term? –Deborah Raney


If you write popular fiction, you should strive for, as John D. MacDonald put it, "unobtrusive poetry" in the style. If you write literary, it wouldn't hurt to accept that plot is not a dirty word.
Then go for your vision with everything you've got. - James Scott Bell

I think they're equals in that they each entail certain challenges in their writing. I suppose I could post for days on that thought. But to keep this answer short, I'll say at best, I like to mix the auras of the two in my own writing. My women's fiction wasn't fully literary--it had too much plot for that--but there were aspects of the style of writing that tended toward the literary. In my suspense, the challenge is to keep the pages turning, keep the tension high. Not easy--at least not for me. But within that constant "stretched rubberband" of tension, I like to use some literary techniques--deeper characterization (than a typical suspense), and different turns of phrase in the writing. --Brandilyn Collins

I think the story inside each writer has to be told in as excellent a fashion as possible. I read equal amounts of both popular fiction and literary. I’ve heard readers call Anne Tyler literary, but she’s very mainstream; she just happened to win the Pulitzer. But now that I’m getting to know more literary authors I find many of them squirming out of that harness. Literary authors run screaming from any sort of labels, so even “literary” becomes a label to them. I’ve heard other writers refer to my books as literary but they aren’t literary at all. I write from a personal aesthetic, but always with elements of popular fiction such as humor, suspense, and romance. My literary friends don’t understand why anyone would refer to my books as literary, but they think the same thing about their own writing. So the question to pose first is, “What is literary writing?” --Patricia Hickman

A well written book is a well written book, and if it's done skillfully enough, it will have qualities of both "literary" and "popular." --Hannah Alexander

There is wonderful writing in both popular and literary fiction. There is wonderful storytelling in both popular and literary fiction. And there are books of both types that are sheer torture to read for one reason or another. The only thing I require as a reader is that the author hold my interest and entertain me.

Last year, I tried to read a book that was being raved about. It had won a Pulitzer or some other major prize. While the prose was evocative, the story was so boring I thought I might die from it. I don't understand why it garnered so much praise. If you write beautiful prose for the sake of showing off that you can write beautiful prose, I am not impressed. Likewise last year, I tried to read a popular award-winning novel. The story was great and I wanted to know what happened to the characters. But the author bombarded me with the f-word and behavior so gross by some characters that I finally had to give up without knowing how it ended. Too bad because all the vulgarity and foul language wasn't required to make the characters and setting realistic.

Entertain me. Make me empathize with your characters. Pull me into their lives and help me experience their feelings. That is what makes a book better than others. -- Robin Lee Hatcher

I lean toward fiction that moves me, that makes me think of issues I otherwise might not, that expands the genre, (is not predictable) and is inventive with structure and that surprises me while still being congruent with character development and plot. I like the use of language that tends to mark literary works. Someone once said the the primary purpose of fiction was to move people and the primary way to do that was through the metaphor. A good story should also entertain in such a way that a reader continues to read and finish the book and not set it aside because it was too inaccessible, too "erudite," too literary. Good literary fiction does all a story should do, well.

That said, pop fiction can do all those things too. It can move people, be inventive in structure, make us think about things we otherwise might not and be congruent without being predictable or is predictable (think Sue Grafton) and yet creative within the confines of the structure the reader has come to expect for that author or genre. It may be more entertaining than thought provoking, perhaps; but if we trust the power of story to "come along beside us" as a pebble/parable does, then pop fiction can change people and move people and bring insights without ever being in our face and can provoke thinking in ways different than a literary work can.

Truth is, sometimes I can't tell the difference, which probably says more about me than the authors. When I read Lisa Sampson or Melody Carlson's adult works or B.J. Hoff or Linda Hall and their deft use of language and metaphor, are they literary (even though they might be mysteries or historical novels) or are they pop (because they are accessible to readers) the way the Yada Yada Sisterhood is pop? (But then, the Yada Yada girls are pretty inventive, too!) I read Cormack McCarthy's latest, The Road, which I'm sure is considered literary and yet it was so accessible to readers it could easily be called pop. It'll be nominated for another National Book Award while I doubt Sue Grafton's work ever will. That might distinguish between literary and pop right there...

I guess I want a good read, one to hold me, move me, inspire me, make me think, even laugh, transport me then bring me back so I can take what I read into my everyday life and use it to bring meaning to my own life and to those around me. That can happen with pop or literary, can't it? And I'm not sure either is better than the other. If we're true to the story, that's what matters. We can aspire to tell the story either literary or pop. I guess I do aspire to write both. I'd better get back to it right now. --Jane Kirkpatrick

There's no easy answer to this. It seems to me that the differences aren't entirely due to the "style" of the novel, but also cast by the perspective of the reader--and the publisher. I see a number of novels labeled as 'literary" that really aren't, and conversely see literary novels that are deemed more general (which usually, though not always, translates to better sales for them). It's become a kind of trend for publishers to define more and more of their releases as "literary," when in reality they're genre or general. The mistake of equating literary fiction with excellence and popular fiction with mediocrity has led to some gross misunderstandings about both. In truth, there are mediocre and inferior offerings in both "commercial" fiction and literary. Literary isn't just another word for excellence. Nor does "popular" or "general" mean inferior. Just read a sampling of both from ABA--and CBA--and you quickly find that each has its "stars" and each has its failures.

Better to concentrate on working toward excellence in whatever we write and forget the labels. Jodi Picoult has written some really good, insightful articles on this very subject, by the way. -BJ Hoff

Because there are different kinds of readers in the world, both pop and literary fiction are valid and necessary. I can’t see that it makes a difference which category a book falls into, as long as it touches the reader’s mind and heart. I personally enjoy both pop and literary fiction, and choose a book depending on what kind of “reading experience” I’m in the mood for. -Ann Tatlock

I think they're different, that's all. One isn't any better than the other, they're just different styles of writing. We need both, I personally like to read both. As, I think, do many readers. But whatever kind of fiction you choose to write, it has to be done with an eye toward excellence and quality. There's great literary and commercial fiction out there, and there's really awful stuff in both categories. Let's just do everything we can to ensure we're adding to the quality of whatever we are called to write. --Karen Ball

I think they're equals, but I don't think they always need to be compared. They both serve their (different) purposes and serve them well. I think at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, Does this book have compelling characters, an interesting plot, a respectable writing style, etc. All the basics of writing fiction apply to both genres. There are certainly bad examples of both. -- Rene Gutteridge

Give me a story that takes me out of my world and gives me characters to care for. If a book can do that, I don't care what label it wears. --Angela Hunt

8 Comments:

At 11:44 PM, Anonymous Nicole said...

"I lean toward fiction that moves me, that makes me think of issues I otherwise might not, that expands the genre, (is not predictable) and is inventive with structure and that surprises me while still being congruent with character development and plot."

Oh, that Jane could be a publisher . . .

 
At 11:53 AM, Anonymous Nick said...

I've done a few workshops on this topic at writer's conferences and they're usually well attended. I point out that this isn't unique to the Christian world. In the secular world you have Anne Tyler as a literary writer and Danielle Steel as a writer of commericial fiction. And John Updike on one hand and John Grisham on the other. The commercial (or "pop") fiction authors do sell better. Usually much better.

It's also not unique to writing. I think if you talk to Christian or non-Christian visual artists or musicians or movie directors, they all face the same thing. Popular art, music, and movies do better than more artistic works.

Ironically, many of the CBA fiction editors I know tend to read more literary fiction in their private life, but are cautious about taking literary novels to their publishing committee. The pool of potential readers in our market who prefer more literary fiction seems much smaller than those who prefer popular fiction. It poses a quandry for those authors. If they have a harder time being published in the CBA world, where do they go?

 
At 3:28 PM, Blogger Jon Brisbin said...

These “answers” to the question illustrate the problem: no one these days wants to take a stand for anything. Is this question really so murky an area, which such complex nuances, that no satisfactory answer can be arrived at? Just back away and mumble something to the effect that “it depends”? So the fact that, no matter how hard our teachers try to get people to read once they’ve left grade school, they’re too busy making money (got some) and babies (got 5) and chasing their tails (haven’t got to bed before 12:00 so far this week) to sit down and read a challenging book every once in a while (I still read over a dozen novels last year; that may not be great, but it’s better than some) doesn’t have anything to do with it? So when that literary writer, that purveyor of high-concept, inaccessible metaphors comes along and tries to fashion something that, to him, seems beautiful, and people don’t like it because they’ve never come across any metaphor that complicated before because they haven’t, since the sixth grade, picked up a novel with words in it they didn’t know, then the Jolly Roger goes up and the popular fiction Man ‘O War turns hard to port and gives a full broadside.

Popular fiction seeks to meet people where they’re at. Literary fiction expects people to come to it. Which is better has direct correlation to which has inherently more capacity for reflecting the essence of Him who created Art because He loves beauty: literary fiction is better.

I don’t think it’s helpful to anyone to dance around the issue that most people don’t read enough to stay literate. But if they’re happy with where they are intellectually and in their judgement and (non-)consumption of artistic works, then no one, including myself, is suggesting they go out of their way. That they’re not literate enough to like-appreciate-desire art for art’s sake is the result of their own prioritization in life and that’s an issue between them and God, not between them and the writer trying to do the best he knows how.

There’s no line in the sand between popular and literary fiction. There’s a gradually up-sloping curve of increasingly ambitious use of language and metaphor; a deepening of meaning that withstands ever higher levels of scrutiny. The more art a person consumes, the higher their expectations get for the next period of consumption. Somewhere along the way, some readers stop slogging upward. So what? Art is for enjoyment like the sunset is for enjoyment. If you’re happy with what you’ve got, then fine.

But don’t you dare begrudge those who want more. Those whose appetite for Art increases beyond their ability to feed it. Those who devour ever more complicated sentences with great alacrity. And if you *do* want to hold them back, protect them from the evil, arrogant, literary bourgeois, don’t be surprised when they turn on you.

It’s just as arrogant to begrudge a fellow pilgrim the enjoyment of his sunset as it is to begrudge another of his apathy.

 
At 3:48 PM, Anonymous skeeter said...

From a readers' point of view--I lead and choose the books for our church's book club. We stick to books written by Christians with Christian content. I've developed three criteria for a good read for us--1) the experience of the book "takes an axe to the frozen sea inside," making us more tender and attentive to God and others and everything else. (This is something someone famous famously said, wish I could remember who.) 2) The story gives moments where the grime is scrubbed off the world and the reader sees afresh, maybe only a little thing maybe a big thing. This could be something embedded in the author's way of seeing the world. (someone else said this too--again, I forget!) 3) The book will give us lots to talk (and joyously argue) about. Truth to tell, the books that do all three the best are often books marketed as literary. (Peace Like a River, Hannah Coulter, Best Christian Short Stories, Pilgrim's Progress, Touches the Sky, for example.)

 
At 4:55 PM, Anonymous Nicole said...

Jon, this is the "thing". You insist that literary fiction is better because it has "inherently more capacity for reflecting the essence of Him who created Art because He loves beauty: literary fiction is better." And, so, you are the judge and jury of what good "literary fiction" is? Or someone else is that judge? Or the consensus of those who read primarily "literary fiction" are the judges? Or you profess to know that those who write literary fiction are gifted to do so by the Lord, and He prefers their work to another who wrote what He directed them to write to minister to those who needed to read the story in a manner they could grasp?
Education is a plus to anyone. But professing that Art rises above God-given talents which don't measure up to someone else's definition of what real talent contains is arrogance.
God asks his people to be obedient. He knows not all of them are capable of what others will consider grandiose. All He asks is that they do what He tells them to do to the best of their abilities.
You like literary novels? Wonderful. You're you. What gives someone else what they need, enjoy, or desire isn't up to you to determine or to decide which is better.

 
At 8:50 PM, Blogger Dan Edelen said...

The best books are always those that are both popular and literary. It's a false dichotomy to push "either/or."

We run the risk of lacking intellectual stimulation if we only aim for the popular, while we veer toward heartlessness if we're solely literary.

 
At 5:26 PM, Blogger relevantgirl said...

I so appreciate everyone's perspective, and the resonant theme seems to be WRITE A GOOD STORY. I've put down literary fiction that dragged. I've put down popular fiction that dragged. I've been bored by both. And I've been thrilled by both. The key to me is an amazing, well-told story with multi-dimensional, non-stereotypical characters reacting to a surprising situation.

 
At 3:34 PM, Blogger Quilldancer said...

How is it that my story ended up linked to your blog through Zimbio? And why do peole keep using my stuff without at least the courtesy of mentioning it?

I know I posted on public domain. I know that it is accredited to me, but it is somewhere I didn't leave it, and I would think a bit of courtesy might me in order.

But then, courtesy is in short supply in the entire world anymore, and most especially on Zimbio.

 

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