Posted by: Linda Proud | January 28, 2008

Literary or Commercial?

I was told today that a book I’m currently championing is written in a commercial style (i.e. language) but has a literary content. When I asked what was meant, I was told that, for this book to be commercial, the protagonist should be female and there should be ‘some bosom heaving’.

In the current issue of Myslexia (issue 36), there is an article by Lesley Lokko, author of ‘blockbusters’, in which she says, ‘there’s something about the honesty of commercial fiction that I adore. Fundamentally, commercial fiction is about two things: good storytelling and good sales.’ She goes on to say, ‘Good definitions of what constitutes “literary” and “commercial” fiction are hard to come by. Most critics waffle indecisively about the boundary between content and style, or prose and plot, and so on, citing the Booker long list as the definitive literary guide . . . but if there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on, it’s the fact that the definition is slippery and shifting, and that no one seems to know whether that’s A Good Thing. I think it’s brilliant.’

In regard to the author I’m championing (as yet unpublished) I think it is vitally necessary that publishers allow for hybrids. Otherwise they, rather like TV companies, are guilty of continually dishing up the same, and to a formula.

So, I’ve made myself sleepless tonight trying to attempt that definition. It is true that commercial fiction is more plot-driven than literary fiction. I think literary fiction suffers from the post-Jamesian idea that ‘character is plot’. Shakespeare would have said that character without plot is a body without a skeleton, but then, bless him, he was a commercial writer. (The sales of Venus and Adonis made him the richest writer ever to have lived before JK Rowling – no bosom heaving there, but much about female lust).

It is also true that the characters in commercial fiction tend to be two-dimensional, bound into their archetypes and predictable. Dickens would say, ‘so what?’, but then he was a very commercial writer.

Commercial novels do tend to have a romantic or sexual element (i.e. hot pages, which I confess to finding gripping, though I never write them myself and am glad that it is no longer true that a bodice must be ripped in every book). Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte wrote in this genre. You can see where I’m going, can’t you? Most of our literary giants were commercial writers in their time.

Who are the exceptions? James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad spring to mind: great writers of difficult reads. It’s too late in the night to go off and do some research to check my facts, but anyone interested in this subject is advised to consult Arthur Quiller-Couch’s ‘The Art of Reading’. Quiller-Couch was an Edwardian critic, the last of his kind to speak out for truth and beauty. He was supplanted at Cambridge by F R Leavis, who introduced the idea of taking literature seriously. Seriously – key word, that. An important distinction between Quiller-Couch and Leavis is that the former wrote novels himself. Leavis only wrote criticism. I’m not saying that Leavis was an evil demon, only that he was responsible for much that followed, and the situation in Eng Lit today is such that I strongly advise any would-be writer not to study it at university.

I suspect that the division between literary and commercial is datable to the mid-twentieth century and the ideas of Leavis and his contemporaries. That is, it comes after James, Joyce, Woolf and Lawrence. Before Leavis there was simply a spectrum catering to all tastes, and not the dreadfully snobbish – however morally correct – division that now holds.

Personally I would love to see a fusion of genres, to have a book which is well-plotted, a gripping read, with great character development and a theme addressing moral questions of our time. Why not? Instead I seem to be faced with a choice of the literary equivalent of a cheap box of chocolates (made with saccharine) and a healthy raw salad. What I crave is a roast dinner.

Has any modern novel satisfied me? Yes. Louis de Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Some found it insufferably tedious in its first hundred pages (before the romance kicks in), others ludicrously romantic (after the first hundred pages). I found it had a greatness to it that I hadn’t experienced before in contemporary literature, and was not surprised when watching a TV film about its success to find that its admirers encompassed the whole spectrum of British society, from workers to royalty. What was its secret? The author loved his characters, wrote beautifully, did terrific research and felt passionately about war, about Greece, about the people of Cephalonia and their sufferings. In short, heart and mind were in balance. Poor de Berniere suffered, of course, from popularity. You don’t hear much of him these days. And he never won the Booker Prize.

So let’s do for the English novel what Jamie, Hugh and Gordon are doing for English cooking: simplicity mixed with innovation, better ingredients, more passion. Healthy, organic food with incredible flavour. I could go on, and mention the division between ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ that’s infected all branches of the arts, but it is now four in the morning.



  1. I found this an interesting read. Thank you.

  2. I’m most familiar with the American viewpoint on this issue, but what you said in your first paragraph is something I hear often – that to be commercially successful these days, a novel (historical, specifically, but it may be true of other genres as well) needs a strong female lead, plus there should be “something skanky going on” (to quote a literary agent I spoke with once). I find it frustrating that despite the renaissance of historical fiction we’re seeing in the US, most of the commercial novels fit one of two “types.” Either we have female leads with a romantic element, or male action-adventure – and not much in between.On the other hand, in the US market there is such a thing as “literary commercial fiction” that’s an amalgam of both of those categories. They tend to be novels that appeal to the widest possible audiences – so they sell well. I’d put Tracy Chevalier and Sarah Dunant in this category (though here you have the “strong female leads” again) in addition to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The topic of De Bernieres’ latest novel didn’t have the widespread appeal to be as commercially successful, I don’t think. I definitely think we can use more books of the type you’re looking for – we need more variety, for one – but many of the bigger publishers seem not to be interested. It’s unfortunate.

  3. Is it lack of variety or poor marketing (lack of money to market)? I think the books are out there but they get buried for lack of notice.

  4. My book is the one that Linda refers to her in this blog. Firstly, I’d like to say a huge heartfelt thank you to her for making me feel good about the fact that my book is a hybrid between commercial and literary fiction. I received some fairly difficult feedback about my novel last week. Yes, the critic did give me a realistic view of the mainstream publishing world. He also gave me some very constructive comments about my writing style for which I am grateful. But I was left feeling bruised and confused, wondering whether I should strive for the Holy Grail and try to become a truly “literary” writer or whether I should have a go at “sexing up” my existing novel to make it more commercial. If I chose the commercial route, I was advised that my existing lead character (a sixteenth century male artist), would be “fairly obscure to your average Tesco buyer. The hero is neither a gorgeous woman with some dramatic love challenges to overcome, nor the sort of all-action Tudor James Bond who could drive a more action-oriented narrative.” I slept badly, trying to reconcile what seemed to me to be devilish choices. Should I go back to my novel and re-work it to make it more commercial? What would that look like? Yes, I suppose I could make the lead female character the heroine. And I could also revamp my quiet, sensitive artist into a dashing action hero who tears off her bodice by the end of Chapter Two (only after a fine bout of swordplay, of course). But that’s not why I wrote the book. I wrote the book because I fell in love with a portrait of a spirited looking woman in the National Gallery and became intrigued by the story behind it. A week has now passed and I’ve grown to feel proud of Linda and David’s idea of being a hybrid writer. So I am going to stay with that. I might never get to sell in Tesco but then neither do free range chickens.

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