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.