Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Commercial vs Literary Books

I heard an author speak, got to know her a little, and thought she had a delightful sense of humor, so I bought her literary book. Though it’s not what I usually read, too many people have espoused the virtues of reading outside your genre for me to ignore—so I was doing a new friend a favor in buying her book and doing the writer in me a favor by broadening my reading horizons.

When I heard the author then confess that anybody picking up her book and looking for a plot will likely be bitterly disappointed. I felt a twinge of unease—I am a plotter. I LOVE plots. In fact, characters only exist so I can move them through wonderful complex plots. But I’ve always maintained that I can learn something from any book. So I began reading my literary novel. And I learned something.

Five nights later, I’d covered sixty some pages and while being mildly amused by the characters and impressed with the author’s easy way with similes, the book had no real story. I decided to give myself a break and picked up David Baldacci’s Simple Truth and in under an hour, I was surprised to note that I’d read fifty pages!

So why? Why did Simple Truth grab me in a way the other hadn’t? The book opens with an ex-secret-service woman in a supremely pissed-off mood, trolling seedy areas of a big city looking for the most precarious, biggest dive she can find. When she entered the bar, she sat alone and ordered several drinks, which served to fuel her anger further. What she’s angry at, we don’t exactly know, but my curiosity was deeply aroused.

Our protagonist picked the most dangerous hulking badass in the place, went over, tapped him on the shoulder and when he turned around, proceeded to coldly and methodically beat the crap out of him. Her POV let us know that she’s fought men many times before, and she always won. Is she a male hater? If so, why?

After she weakened him a bit, rather than finishing him off, she threw a light kick and let him get a hold of her. In her POV, she dispassionately noted when he began to dominate the fight, slamming her body over the bar, punching her, bashing her head into the bar mirror, knocking a tooth out, and does more physical damage before she blacked out. The police arrive in time to save her life and arrest her.

While the protagonist was wining, she was almost disappointed that her target didn’t put up more of a fight, then once he takes the upper hand, there’s curiously no feelings of fear or anything from her. She’s not a particularly sympathetic character. So why did I even care if she lived or died? I can’t say that I did. What kept me turning the pages was the entire setup.

Why? Why would anybody go and deliberately get themselves beat up? Clearly she had a suicide wish, but there are better—easier ways to kill yourself. Less painful, less punitive ways to die. Apparently she wanted to, needed to, be physically punished. But why?

The woman had had been an Olympic medalist in rowing. That required great physical strength, talent, drive, and discipline. She’d been a secret service agent protecting the president. Clearly she was skilled with weapons, an observant, highly trained woman with a desire to serve her country. She was a protector. She had well-honed survival skills. She had an amazing partner she was fond of. What happened to her to make her want to die in such a physically punishing way at the hands of a degenerate? And so I read on.

With my literary story, I was mildly entertained—okay, I was mostly bored. With this commercial book I had to keep turning the pages, and two hundred and fifty pages later, I still have to keep reading ‘cause although I’ve learned more about her and her situation, I still can’t fathom a good guess as to why. And I’m a good guesser. But I’m stumped, so I keep reading and enjoying the unfolding journey.

With the literary story, I didn’t feel as if I was moving anywhere significant. There was no journey for me, and I guess that makes all the difference in the world in my enjoyment of a story. For me. I want to emphasize that this is my self analysis--no real reflection on the works, simply this reader's experience with them. To this reader, I don’t really care too terribly much about wonderful characters if they aren’t moving forward in an exciting journey that raises my curiosity or resonates with my spirit.

What about you? What does it for you in a book?



magolla said...

Great post, T!
I'm with you on this one. Literary stories bore the crap out of me! I want story that keeps me turning the pages, and am sorely disappointed when an author who I normally love fails to produce a good story.

william said...


That's one of the most depressing posts I've seen in a long time. So, you read one "literary" book and went scrambling back to what you know you like after getting "bored." One? That's a sad statement coming from anyone who reads. It indicates a mind that is totally closed to anything but predicable shocks and contrived plots. If someone said to me that they read one mass market mystery and that the whole genre isn't worth it I'd feel the same way. Your post seems to say, "I don't want to think or explore or be dazzled or amazed." The problem with the mystery community seems to be that they only read each other and that is even sadder.

William Ahearn

Debbie said...

I have to agree with William. That's hardly a fair chance. I love literary fiction because of the play with words, the characters and, yes, the stories.

Recently, I went back to reading mysteries after a long absence. It took me a long time to find one that kept me turning pages because the first ones I picked up had cookie-cutter characters in ridiculous situations. And the writing was bad. Dreadfully bad. But I knew I'd loved mysteries as a kid and kept going. Picked up my beloved Agatha Christie. Then found another author, and another.

So give it a chance. Start out with the Pulitzer Prize winners for the past few years. Go from there. You might be surprised.

Donnell said...

T. I am reading People of the Book a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. It is keeping me turning pages. However, give me a Sandra Brown or David Baldacci novel and I can't put these authors down. I need a plot as well. Literary in my opinion is a platform to display spectacular writing. It imparts a message in an entirely different venue than commercial fiction. It takes analysis and forethought; you can't just sit down and *understand* the message. Commercial fiction has an escapist quality I infinitely prefer. Thanks for your thought-provoking and controversial post.

User1 said...

To leap from one specific reading experience to a generalization that literary lacks plot, or that literary is a vehicle for wordplay is just as bad as a literary writer looking down on genre fiction as formulaic hack work. Two different things. Do you compare romance with suspense, then walk away disappointed thqat there were no butt-kickings in the first five pages?

I suggest reading widely within literary, and you will find that it is its own genra, with its own conventions, and like any genre, soem writers are better than others.

Jose Saramago, for instance, who wrote the novel "Blindness" (soon a major motion picture) follows literary conventions, but created something like urban speculative sci-fi, in which a mysterious illness slowly blinds the entire population except for one woman. It is viceral, well paced (and yes slightly slower than what Baldacci might do with the same plot), and offers brilliant insight into how quickly the veneer of civilization can drop away under the right curcumstances....a theme shared in my opinion with the main character in the Baldacci novel you cite, which by the way, I adored.

I don't read romance because I am not particularly engaged by it, but I don't dismiss it as a lesser form, or as somehow not worthy of anyone's time...as writers we should be particularly careful NOT to create universals from singular experiences or polls of ourselves lest we find our own work on the receiving side of same.

Donnell said...

Interesting comments, User 1, it is again in perception. I think Literary work does involve plot, you have to reach deeper to find it. It is filled with subtext and hidden messages and that's what tenured English professors make their livings doing, dissecting what they think the author was *trying* to say.

Commercial fiction on the other hand has a plot that is easily recognizable, some meanings as old as time. But again it boils down to how they tell the story.

Literary or commercial, can the author hold the reader spellbound.

I've seen the previews to Blindness and I will tell you it's one film I will never see. Writing first and foremost is about feeling. And I feel when I watch those previews but not in a good way. It leaves me with a sense of hopelessness and even if it has some redeeming message in the end, I don't want to address an entire civilization going blind to understand the author's message. Nor is it a book I would rush out to buy. The great thing about books is subjectivity.

william said...

Having just spent a good deal of time reading Raymond Chandler's novels and watching the films made from them, I have to quibble with this notion that a clear plot separates one thing from another. Chandler -- an Edgar winner, by the way -- wrote plots so confusing that even he couldn't follow them as in the case of 'who killed the chauffeur?' in The Big Sleep. Chandler dismissed Dorothy Sayers' belief that the mystery could never be literature because its intention are escapist. These days Chandler is considered literature or literary and for good reason: he's an incredible stylist and story teller. Most of the mysteries i read these days are so badly written and told so poorly that for the most part I've stopped reading them. The good stuff will more than likely survive and that's what becomes literature.


Donnell said...

William, this isn't my blog so I will make one last comment and then leave it to Theresa should she desire to comment. I agree there are literary masterpieces out there that I adore. Taylor Caldwell is my all time favorite author. But you state the good stuff survives and that's why it's out there? An author who comes to mind is Franz Kafka and the Trial. His sentence structure was ambiguous, his work incomplete and yet it is required reading today in some high school and college curriculum. The man suffered from physical illness as well as depression and today we hail him as a genius. I've yet to understand and I suffered through the Trial twice to see what I was missing. As I stated it's subjective but you do raise valid points.

User1 said...

Donnell -- I think you hit a homerun with this statement:

Literary or commercial, can the author hold the reader spellbound.

Amen. It can be reduced to an even lower common denominator...can the author hold the reader spellbound. Irrespective of genre :)

Blindness is likely to be an incredibly dark film; it was a dark book. I tend towards liking the incredibly dark, but I also get where it can be completely offputting, so maybe my example wasn't such a good one.

Didn't log in before commenting so I ended up as User1 -- didn't mean for that to happen.

Best, Deb Courtney

Liz L. said...

I,too, prefer commercial over literary. It has nothing to do with the quality of the writing (okay, sometimes it does), but it is simply my own personal taste. I find myself skimming all the great descriptive paragraphs to get to the action, if there's any. I also agree with William when he said you can't judge all literary books after reading only one, but, unfortunately, most of us do.

Thank God, there are enough books of all types for all of us to curl up with. Give me a Cussler or a James Lee Burke any day.

Theresa said...

I am in Crested Butte on vacation and can't remember my password, but hopefully this will work. I in NO way intended to convey any sweeping judgments about the genres, simply my own personal preferences. I HAVE read several (4ish) literary works in the past several years and continue to try this genre through the years because as Frank said, obviously many people enjoy those stories and I'd like to understand what they see in it. Okay, also, I don't like to be left out (grin).
Some of my very best friends adore literary works that I find boring--but that's all it is is a personal preference. And from a writers perspective, I wrote that blog because I wanted to understand why it was that I didn't appreciate the literary works my friends RAVED about. The whole blog was an attempt to dissect why the literary works don't work for me--and it was intended to be nothing more than that.
Obviously my tone didn't convey the attitude I had intended, either that, or people who enjoy literary works feel somewhat persecuted --like romance author readers that are sensitive about their genre preferences and feel like they have to hide the fact that they enjoy romance stories. As Frank commented on his blog--I feel personal reading preferences are . . . personal. Live and let live. I'm just happy that people are reading. I couldn't really care what they are reading.

Donnell said...

Welcome back, T. We missed you!

Donnell said...

For anyone who wonders who Frank is LOL or what Theresa is talking about Author Frank Dorchak linked his blog to ours because he had difficulty posting. Here is his response if you care to read.


Tiffany James said...


I am so thankful that there is such an amazing, diverse pool of writing available - for all of us with differing tastes, but also for me. Just as when I'm listening to music, my tastes change with my mood! Suffice it to say my tastes change frequently... :0)

Tiffany James