Sunday, August 30, 2015

Commercial fiction vs. literary fiction

One of my YouTube subscribers asked for an explanation of the differences between literary fiction and commercial fiction.

Let's start with commercial fiction.

Commercial fiction has a clearly defined plot that you could outline without too much difficulty. 

Lots of things "happen" in commercial fiction. There is plenty of conflict, and the protagonist is waging a battle against some external threat. 

The external threat might be a serial killer, a terrorist, the spy of some enemy nation, or a supernatural entity. 

The hero may rely on his wits, but he ultimately defeats the external threat by taking some action

He captures the serial killer. She kills the enemy spy. He exorcises the demon, or drives a stake through the heart of the vampire. She blasts the alien spaceship into smithereens.

Which brings us to another generalization about commercial fiction: Most, if not all, genre fiction is commercial fiction. Crime fiction, spy fiction, horror, westerns, and science fiction are all examples of commercial fiction.

This includes most of the books that you're likely to see at the grocery store or Walmart: books by well-known authors like James Patterson, Stephen King, and Zane Grey.

A common criticism of commercial fiction is that it contains characters who are stereotypes, or thinly drawn.

This isn't necessarily accurate or fair. Many of the most memorable characters in literature are found in commercial fiction. As a contemporary example, I would cite Harry Bosch, the LAPD detective who appears in Michael Connelly's crime novels.

That said, it must be acknowledged that commercial fiction is primarily focused on plot.

What about literary fiction

Literary fiction is focused on character, and the characters' internal conflicts. Where is my life going? How do I recover from the loss of my husband? Are my relationships sufficiently fulfilling?

Author Stephen King once defined literary fiction as "extraordinary people in ordinary situations".

If a novel contains what seems like an excessive amount of inner monologue, and characters discussing the fine points of their relationships, then it's a good bet that you're reading a piece of literary fiction.

The most common criticism of literary fiction is that "nothing happens". This is true, strictly speaking, if you define "happening" in commercial fiction terms. Literary fiction contains few car chases, battles to the death, and strange creatures that slither up the basement stairs.

It isn't necessarily true to say, however, that all literary fiction is "boring". When well-written, literary fiction can be as compelling to read as commercial fiction. 

One of my favorite literary novels is Stuart O'Nan's Emily, Alone. This is a novel about an elderly woman who is adjusting to life without her recently deceased husband.

Boring, right? Especially for a male reader like me, who ordinarily reads crime fiction and spy fiction.

Actually, no. Stuart O'Nan is one of those literary writers who has a particular knack for transforming the ordinary and mundane into an interesting story. I enjoyed Emily, Alone a lot more than the last Dan Brown novel I read.

However, most literary fiction--including the good kind--adapts poorly to the screen. 

To cite just one example: Richard Yates's literary novel Revolutionary Road was a book that drew me in. 

The novel dealt with the internal conflicts of a restless young couple stranded in American suburbia during the postwar period. The young couple would rather live in Paris. They find post-WWII suburban life to be hyper-conformist and constraining.

I know: boring subject matter. But it wasn't boring, in the skilled hands of Richard Yates.

Revolutionary Road was also made into a film, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. I watched the movie after reading the book, hoping that I would like the former as much as the latter.

To my surprise and disappointment, however, I found the film version of Revolutionary Road well...tedious

It wasn't because the actors did a poor job. Rather, it was because "nothing much seemed to happen".

This was because the "action" in the novel largely consisted of the characters musing about their internal conflicts, and discussing those conflicts. 

Would they stay in the suburbs, or haul stakes for Europe?

This was very difficult to translate into a film plot; and as a result, Revolutionary Road the movie was not as interesting as the novel it was based upon.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

James Michener and the "middlebrow" concept

A brief video on the novels of James Michener, and the concept of "middlebrow" literature:

Termination Man (novel serialization) Part 11

Below is the latest installment of the serialization of Termination Man. To access previous installments, please see the Serials page (or consider the option of obtaining the entire book from Amazon.)

View Termination Man on

Chapter 2 (continued)

“It wasn’t profitable enough for TP Automotive,” Kevin said.

“Is that the name of the conglomerate that bought out your employer?”

Kevin nodded and passed the joint to me. I held it without inhaling as I listened to him respond. I didn’t have to bother smoking it any further. Kevin wasn’t even looking at me: he was staring out into the steel-grey sky, in the direction of Lake Erie. We were only a few miles from the water, and its dampness permeated the air. Kevin shivered as he began to speak.

“They brought in a team of what they called ‘efficiency experts,’” Kevin began. “People who had never even worked in a factory before. They were from one of the big consulting firms like—McKinney and Company—or something like that.”

I didn’t bother to tell him that the correct name of the consulting firm was McKinsey & Company. Ben the Welder wouldn’t have that sort of knowledge at his mental fingertips.

“And what did the efficiency experts do?” I asked, prompting him to continue.

“They created a spreadsheet that told them how many workers should be at each station, and how much production should flow through each workstation in a shift. Then they proceeded to cut our manpower and increase our production quotas.”


“And then we started having all sorts of quality problems. Some of us who had been around for a while complained to the new management team. We knew damn well that this would never have happened under Joe Mentzel. But they wouldn’t listen. One of the new suits asked me point-blank if I had an MBA. And I said of course I didn’t—would I be working on a production line if I had some fancy degree? But I also pointed out that the hot-shot MBA who recalculated our manpower and our production quotas had probably never spent a single hour working on a production line.”

“Sounds like a productive conversation,” I said, smiling at my impromptu pun in spite of myself.

Kevin looked at me. “You get the picture, right? I walked out of that office of theirs, seeing that they weren’t even remotely interested in listening to reason.”

“What did you do then?”

Kevin shrugged. “I went back to the production line. What else could I do?”

“And you think they want to fire you just because of that?”

“No,” he said. “Not just because to that. Things changed again, after Eileen Cosgrove—one of my coworkers—got hurt.”

*       *       *
Serial to be continued. Visit the Serials page for links to more of Termination Man, or purchase the entire book from

Friday, August 28, 2015

Millennial malaise and the vicissitudes of history

The above article is more or less a laundry list of all the challenges that today’s young people face.

No, my purpose here is not to dismiss the entire story as the whining of an entitled, mollycoddled generation. To be sure, today’s young people do face economic challenges.

But that has quite often been the case.

Consider the challenges that young people faced at the following junctures during the past 100 years:

  • 1917-18: Young men could be drafted for service in WWI
  • 1929-39: Young people enjoyed very few employment opportunities during the Great Depression.
  • 1941-1945: If you were a young man, you were probably at war (WWII) during most of this period.
  • 1951-3: Young men were drafted for service during the Korean War
  • 1965-1973: Young men were drafted for service during the Vietnam War
  • 1972-1984: More than a decade of very anemic economic growth: recession, oil crises, stagflation. The unemployment rate in 1982 was 9.7%.
  • 1990-1992: The post-Gulf War recession. (I was a college graduate during this period. It was not a good time to be looking for a job.)

Now for the other side of the coin: Has there ever been a particularly promising time to be a young person starting out in the world?

Sure. If you graduated from college between 1995 and 2005, you enjoyed far more opportunities than the cohorts who graduated before or after this period.

The boom of the mid- to late-1980s was an auspicious time to be in the job market as a young person.

There were also many economic opportunities for the young during the 1950s—especially if you were a (probably male) veteran who had managed to survive World War II with your body and mind intact.

But as you can see, where you happen to show up in history is (and always has been) the luck of the draw.

Today’s young people certainly face a poor job market. But if you talk to fiftysomethings who graduated during the 1970s or very early 1980s, they will tell you a similar story.

What happens today has usually happened before, in one form or another.

For writers: why you hate the bestsellers

Are you a writer (aspiring or otherwise) who claims to "hate" the bestsellers? Do you feel nothing but contempt for the likes of James Patterson and Stephen King? Do you wonder why the rest of the world fails to share your refined literary tastes?

Perhaps I can explain. And since I'm a writer myself, I'm going to do that by telling you a story – – a true one from my own past.

When I was a callow lad of fifteen, I decided that I was going to become a rock 'n' roll guitarist. So I did what all suburban kids with such pipe dreams do: I took guitar lessons.

This was 1983, and AC/DC's album, Back in Black, had just gone quadruple platinum, or something like that. I was a big fan of AC/DC myself. (Yes, I was quite predictable. But I was fifteen, I'll remind you again.)

I expected that my guitar instructor would share my enthusiasm for AC/DC. After all, he was a long-haired, chain-smoking guitarist who would have looked right at home on the cover of an AC/DC album.

But when I asked my guitar instructor what he thought of the Australian heavy metal band, his answer nearly shocked my 15-year-old soul:

"I probably hate AC/DC more than any other popular rock band right now," he said simply. 

Then, apparently having decided that some explanation was in order, he elaborated. "The problem is that AC/DC songs are ridiculously simplistic." 

Then he added: "If I wasn't a guitar player myself, I would probably like a lot more bands than I currently do."

I never became much of a guitarist, but I learned enough of the nuts and bolts to gain an appreciation for what my instructor was saying.
Musically speaking, there isn't much to an AC/DC song. Most AC/DC songs rely on a small number of chords, and their solos are not particularly complex.

But that is missing the point. Few rock bands write songs for other rock musicians (or aspiring rock musicians). And if they do, they seldom  achieve megastar status.

When I asked my guitar instructor which music he did like, he informed me that his favorite rock act was Jeff Beck. 

That doesn't surprise me, in retrospect. A lot of guitar players like Jeff Beck. (This was especially true during the early 1980s.) Jeff Beck is to guitar playing what Saul Bellow is to the literary world.

The analogies between Beck and Bellow don't end there. Both men have strong followings among their fellow artists.

Saul Bellow's novels are mostly read by other writers, and readers with extremely refined literary tastes. Stephen King writes for the masses. Saul Bellow wrote for the literati. (When I was a freshman in college, I asked my English Lit professor who his favorite writer was. He predictably replied: "Saul Bellow".)

So what is the takeaway here? Am I saying that you should deliberately "dumb down" your writing? 

No, I'm not saying that. 

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that all artists, be they guitarists or writers, can fall prey to the pernicious habit of navel-gazing. 

Artists also fall into the trap of trying too hard to impress other artists in their field. (This is probably an even bigger problem.)

Art should, in the final analysis, be produced to appeal to the wider masses, not to claustrophobic and self-referential artistic communities.

When you sit down to write a story, you would do well to write for your non-writer friends, rather than your writer friends.

You may still decide that you simply can't bring yourself to like James Patterson or Stephen King. (I doubt that my guitar instructor ever learned to appreciate AC/DC.) 

But you will take an important step toward finding a wider readership. 

As a writer, you should be a storyteller first, and an "artist" second.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

12 Hours of Halloween (novel serialization) Part 11

Below is another installment of the online serialization of 12 Hours of Halloween. To access previous installments, please see the Serials page (or get the entire book from Amazon nowIt's dirt cheap!)

Chapter 3

At 3:10 p.m. I met up with Leah and Bobby at the western edge of the school grounds, where Shayton Road bisected Ohio Pike. The latter road would, if followed west, take the traveler into the posh old-money eastern suburbs of Cincinnati, and after that, into the city itself.

Shayton Road was a two-lane highway that cut through farmland, pockets of residential housing, and endless acres of woods. This was the route that the three of us followed home everyday.

And more recently, Shayton Road had become the road of the ghost boy, if that was indeed what he was.

On the way to our rendezvous point, I spied Matt Stefano smoking cigarettes in a distant copse of trees past St. Patrick’s all-purpose athletic field and baseball diamond. I didn't believe that he had seen me. At any rate, he was otherwise occupied and I seemed to be off the hook for now.

When I arrived at the edge of Shayton Road, Bobby and Leah were already waiting for me. Before they saw me, I watched them interact: Bobby said something funny or sarcastic (which I could not hear), and Leah playfully punched him on the shoulder.

This sort of interaction between them would have passed unnoticed by me two years earlier. But things were different now, and I felt a little pang of jealousy, followed by stabbing feelings of guilt. Bobby was my friend, right? Right—of course he was. But I nevertheless wished that he had gone on by himself, and left me alone with Leah.  

“Hey, Schaeffer!” Bobby called out, having seen me. I hoped that he wouldn't mention my earlier humiliation at the hands of Matt Stefano. Not with Leah around.

“Yo,” I said perfunctorily.

“You look kind of down in the dumps,” Leah said, beaming. How had it gone unnoticed by me all those years when we were just kids, playing kickball and riding bikes around our neighborhood—how vivacious and lovely Leah would become?

“I’m okay,” I said.

“Jeff had a rough day,” Bobby began, until I cut him off with a sharp glance.

“What?” Leah inquired.

“Nothing,” Bobby said quickly, understanding dawning on his face.

“That’s right,” I said. “Nothing.”

“Hey,” Bobby added. “Every day at school is a rough day for Schaeffer here because he’s not exactly the smartest kid in the school, you know?”

Leah made a face at him. “Look who’s talking. Okay. Fine—whatever. I have the feeling that there’s something the two of you aren’t telling me; but if you want to have boy secrets, be my guest. Come on, let’s get going. I’ve got a lot of homework to do.”

“Only you, Leah Carter, would rush home to do your homework,” Bobby teased.

*      *      *

Serial be continued....

To read more, visit the Serials page, or get the complete book at

*       *      *

Want even more horror fiction? Check out my highly rated novel, Eleven Miles of Night.

Einstein and Zionism

Einstein was committed to the notion of a Jewish nation as a cultural construct.

At the same time, however, Einstein was both a pacifist and an internationalist.

He therefore was at odds with the concept of a more militaristic, nationalistic Zionism that emerged following World War II.

In 1952 Israel's President Wiseman died. The prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, offered the now vacant office of the presidency to Einstein.

Einstein, however, declined the offer, citing his philosophical differences regarding the nature of the new Jewish state.

Einstein is of course today remembered for his work in physics. Few people realize that he might also have been remembered as a former president of the state of Israel.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Horror recommendations from Stephen King

Stephen King’s fiction recommendations (he frequently touts books that he likes) have been mixed in the past—at least in my experience. Publishers often ask King to give blurbs and endorsements; and that tends to skew things.

That all said, I learned about the work of the late William Gay (a Southern Gothic writer) through King’s mention of him. Gay doesn't have a large body of work; but everything that I’ve read from him has met my expectations, and then some.

Stephen King, for all his faults, legitimately cares about the integrity of fiction. I don't believe that he would allow his name to be associated with a real turkey of a novel.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Termination Man (novel serialization) Part 10

Below is the latest installment of the serialization of Termination Man. To access previous installments, please see the Serials page (or consider the option of obtaining the entire book from Amazon.)

View Termination Man on

Chapter 2 (continued)

“For nine years I was a production line operator at this fuel pump company. Great Lakes Fuel Systems. It was originally a family-owned company. Great place to work. The president of the company, Joe Mentzel, was the grandson of the original founder. He was an old German named Klaus Mentzel. Good man.”

“Joe or Klaus?”

“Both of them. Of course I never knew the old man. Klaus Mentzel founded the company back in like 1952 or 1953. Been dead for years. His grandson, Joe, though, he was a prince to work for. Cared about his employees. Knew each one of us by name. He used to walk the factory floor, stopping here and there to ask questions. Yeah, he cared about the bottom line. He also cared about making sure that Great Lakes Fuel Systems was the sort of company where people would want to work.”

“I sense a ‘but’ coming here.” 

“You got that right. One day Joe Mentzel has a stroke. He’s sixty-four years old and he has to retire, all of a sudden like. His only child is a married daughter who lives in another state. So he has to sell the company to this big conglomerate. At least that's what he ended up doing.”

I nodded. I couldn’t tell Kevin that I knew all about the “big conglomerate” that had purchased the family-run business where he had worked for most of a decade.

“And how are things going under the conglomerate?”

Kevin took a deep hit on the joint, then laughed as he exhaled, coughing halfway through.

“You alright, man?” I asked.

He waved me away. “I’m fine, I’m fine.” He righted himself and smoked some more Citral. “Things have totally changed under the conglomerate.”

How have they changed?”

“Well, on the very first day that the new ownership became official, the new management called us into a meeting. They told us outright that the company that the Mentzels had run for sixty years was a thing of the past.”

“They said that?”

“In so many words. They said that now Great Lakes Fuel Systems was a part of a much larger company, one that was responsible to stockholders. So that meant that margins would have to improve.”

“Wasn’t the company profitable under the Mentzels?”

I knew the answer to this question, needless to say. GLFS had been a moderately profitable operation when it was a family-run concern. The company couldn’t have stayed in business since the Eisenhower years if it had been losing money, after all.

But there is a difference between profitability at the family-run company level, and profitability at the publicly traded, Fortune 500 level. Under independent management, the company is the company. Under Fortune 500 management, the company is the balance sheet. Fortune 500 managers earn their six- and seven-figure salaries based on their abilities to maximize share prices and shareholder earnings. They have to measure profitability against every other company in their industries—including companies that pay workers a dollar an hour in Mexico or China. “Good enough” becomes no longer good enough. That is just the nature of global big business in the twenty-first century. Don’t like it? Then don’t work for a big company—or for a smaller company that has been acquired by one.

*       *       *
Serial to be continued. Visit the Serials page for links to more of Termination Man, or purchase the entire book from

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Zombie fiction clich├ęs

Or to put it another way: Is it still possible to write original zombie fiction? (Hint: The answer may surprise you.)

When the Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968, the concept of the zombocalypse was relatively original. The undead had certainly appeared in film and fiction before; but the notion of them taking over society was a new idea, indeed.

Almost 50 years later, no one can claim that the idea of zombies taking over the world is an original concept. There have been multiple installments of George A. Romero's zombie movies (many of them not very good, I should add). There have also been dozens and dozens of imitators, many of them even worse.

And yet, AMC was able to release The Walking Dead as recently as 2010 and find a wide audience. 

In fact, The Walking Dead has become one of the most popular and acclaimed series on television. Even more significantly, it has gained an audience beyond people who describe themselves as "horror fans".

How can this be? There is, as noted above, almost nothing original about the premise employed here. 

The mechanics of the zombie outbreak laid out in The Walking Dead are nothing that audiences and readers had not seen before 2010. In The Walking Dead, the zombie outbreak is attributed to a virus. Long before The Walking Dead debuted, a virus had already become the standard cause for the zombocalypse. A shadowy and sinister role for the US government and/or the defense industry had also become standard. And these elements, once again, all make appearances in The Walking Dead.

The lack of originality regarding zombies doesn't end there. The zombies in The Walking Dead behave exactly as you would expect zombies to behave, assuming that you've absorbed all the Romero movies, and all of the other books and films previously produced within this particular horror subgenre. 

The zombies in The Walking Dead are driven by an irresistible urge to consume living human flesh. The only way to kill a zombie is to shoot it in the head. 

Oh, and if one of The Walking Dead zombies bites you, then you'll turn into a zombie, too. Who would have guessed?

In short, the writers and producers of The Walking Dead made almost no innovations where the nature of zombies is concerned. They pretty much applied the boilerplate that had already been established by numerous other writers and filmmakers.

Yet The Walking Dead fully deserves its popularity. What is the show's "secret"? 

The secret is a simple one, in a way--but also revolutionary, in a genre littered with clunkers like George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead (2007).

The writers and producers of The Walking Dead realized at the outset that it was no longer possible to create a completely original zombie, or an original zombie outbreak. 

They therefore applied all of the existing conventions, and turned their attention elsewhere: They focused on telling compelling stories, peopled by compelling characters, all within the already established framework of the apocalyptic zombie outbreak.

This is why The Walking Dead grabs viewers, including viewers who ordinarily "don't like horror". No one watches The Walking Dead because the story premise is so original; it plainly isn't. Premise-wise, what we have here is old hat. 

People tune in to The Walking Dead because they have become invested in the characters and their individual storylines. Viewers love Rick; they love Daryl; they love Maggie. They care what happens to them.

And in this regard, The Walking Dead stands above most of its zombie genre competitors by meeting one gold standard: The Walking Dead would be a fairly decent and watchable show even if there were no zombies, because the characters are so vividly drawn, and the subplots are so multilayered and believable. 

This is what makes The Walking Dead "different". And this is the technique that you can use as a writer when working in any well-trodden genre with many set elements and conventions. 

Sometimes it is simply impossible to create an entirely new, never-imagined-before premise inside a genre.

So what does the writer (or filmmaker) do? Hook the reader (or viewer) with characters and stories that appeal to them even in absence of the standard genre elements.

Which brings us to the status of genre fiction in the literary universe. It is no secret that genre fiction receives little respect among general readers. 

This isn't because most people are inherently opposed to reading about zombies, serial killers, and spaceships. The problem is that too many genre writers get so caught up in the zombies, serial killers, and spaceships that they forget the fundamentals of good storytelling and strong character development.

Let's now return to our opening question: Is it still possible to write original zombie fiction?

If you define "original" as completely original zombies, then the answer is: probably not. 

But complete originality of the background premise should not be your goal, as it is probably unrealistic. 

(Novelists in the romance genre understand this principle. There is no truly original boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back novel. All romance writers rely on the same basic structure.) 

The proper goal, for the zombie fiction writer, is to write an original story, with original and well-developed characters, that would stand on its own legs even if it contained no flesh-eating zombies. 

(Note: I'm not suggesting that you should write a zombie novel without zombies. I'm suggesting that a strong zombie novel (or film) doesn't rely only on zombies.)

This strategy worked well for The Walking Dead  If your goal is to launch another zombie novel into an already crowded marketplace, this strategy will serve your purposes, also.