“Literary” versus Fiction that Sells

I have said it before and I’ll say it again: I hate it when “literary” folks bash popularized works of fiction and the writers of popular fiction.

What is popular fiction? I would call it fiction that sells. There are works that are deemed literary that might fall in to that category. Cormac McCarthy sells a lot of books, for instance. But mostly it is genre stuff: King and Crichton and Clancy novels, courtroom thrillers, books about boy wizards, books about psychotic married couples and so forth.

I read a post by James Scott Bell, the awesome writing coach, about this lingering snobbery toward popular writing by the literary snobs. The snobs hate how much we like King and Rowling and Koontz. They think its a sign that people are dumbing down the literary world and ruining the publishing industry. They think it is ruining the art and turning it into entrepreneurship.

But since when was writing not entrepreneurial? Writers have always had to promote themselves, whether to a publisher or a newspaper or an agent or whatever. What writer has ever not wanted readers or to be paid? The starving artist who just sits around and creates experimental work for himself is a rare thing — romanticized far more than it is realistic, or even all that artsy —  and making work for yourself doesn’t mean it is better than work created for other people.

For that matter, who says it can’t go both ways anyway? As if creating works people will like cannot also mean creating art for yourself?

When asked why he chose to write horror, Stephen King remarked, “Who said I had a choice?”

When I was studying writing and literature at college, I met a snob or two. In one critique group, while everyone else was writing essays exploring their mostly mundane personal lives, I was writing action scenes for stories about teens with supernatural powers. In a previous critique group, my stories were considered the best in the class, and suddenly students were talking my stuff down. Ultimately, it came down to the “literary” thing.

Now I still learned a lot from the class, but nevertheless, it rubbed me the wrong way then, and it still does.

I love the sort of stories I write. They are the sort of stories I love to read too. Sure, I read some literary stuff at times, but sci-fi and fantasy are what I love. And when people talk that sort of writing down, it rubs me the wrong way.

Just because something is popular does not decrease its merit. Just because a book isn’t a slow-paced character study does not mean it does not have something to say about humanity. Just because a story is entertaining does not mean it is no longer art.

In fact, I would prefer to find that place where the stories I love to write are also entertaining to an audience who loves to read them, and if I can not starve along the way, I tell you what, I am all for it.

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5 thoughts on ““Literary” versus Fiction that Sells

  1. I know plenty of literary writers who see popular fiction as the sell-out option. If they ever want to take a break from “real art” and make some quick cash, they can just start writing thrillers or sci-fi or fantasy, something popular and commercial. However, these genres take skill and effort, and devaluing them disguises the impressive amount of work that goes into writing these popular books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, thrillers may require a different set of skills, but they are hardly a quick write and make a bunch of money. Otherwise we would all do it and be making millions. They are art as well and mastering them takes a lot of skill, like all aspects of writing.

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  2. Well said! Food for thought.
    I agree with college courses and boosting literary writing as opposed to genre writing. Possibly a large reason for me to not finish the creative writing degree.
    Thanks for the insight.

    Like

    • It was a similar deterrent for me as well. It is a sad experience for many. I have heard many similar stories. If literary is what someone likes to write then great, but don’t hold everyone else to the same preference. Other genres take a lot of skill as well. Personally, I think that great writing does not necessarily make a great storyteller. Bestsellers usually sell because they have high stakes and great storytelling.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Writing Entertainingly (Edgar Rice Burroughs on telling interesting stories) | Mr. Writerly

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