I just attended a very lively program hosted by Watchung Booksellers, a cozy independent local bookstore just a short walk from my home in Montclair. The theme: commercial versus literary fiction. It promised to be a hot topic and attracted an overflow crowd, all the more impressive because it was a snowbound Friday night.
Five authors with very different backgrounds — all of whom write novels (actually, there was a memoir among them as well) — debated that ever-entrancing, ever-maddening issue: is literary fiction a dead end when it comes to the marketplace? Being pegged a “literary” writer — one for whom ideas and style are key preoccupations — can give a writer a satisfying ego boost and put him or her in rarefied company, but it can also lead to certain decisions by a publisher that may affect how widely a writer is read.
One the other hand, being pegged as a genre writer — someone who writes one type of book — psychological thrillers or romances, for example — can be limiting and frustrating for a writer as well. While slotting word by genre is useful from a publisher’s point of view in terms of marketing and sales, it can keep an author from growing. By effectively preventing a writer author from breaking out of a narrowly defined, sometimes formulaic “category” — genre exile can be as much of a strait jacket as the “literary fiction” label.
Most authors eager to develop their craft want to spread their writing wings and fly; they don’t want to be type cast and pinned down to one narrow category. But in the end, I wonder whether there’s any real answer to the whole literary vs. commercial debate. Was Shakespeare literary or commercial in his day? How about Dickens? Or Hemingway? Somehow all these authors managed to defy definition and category, didn’t they? Are things today more fluid or more rigid because of pressures from the marketplace? Any fuel to add to the fire?