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Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the relative merits commercial and literary fiction. Specifically, I’ve been struggling with how to characterize the writing I like to read and write. Science fiction and fantasy is generally categorized as commercial genre fiction, but most of the books I love most fall somewhere in between these two broad (and ill defined) categories.
Commercial fiction at its best is a wild, enjoyable romp through an incredible plot with easily accessible characters and prose. Commercial fiction sells well because of this focus on an plot and accessibility. Reading it should feel like watching the most exciting movie you’ve ever watched, the one that makes you forget the theater or your living room until the heart pounding finale. Bad commercial fiction, however, is a lot like watching a collage of b-rate Hollywood explosions, over the top, melodramatic love scenes, and dialog recycled from TV commercials.
Literary fiction, by contrast, generally focuses on complex and dynamic characters and artful prose. Literary critics love the poetry of language, the shifting motives of mysterious characters, the deeper questions of human experience. When done well, literary fiction feels like standing on the Acropolis staring at the Parthenon, so moved you barely notice the sun set, the moon rise, and the distant tides come in. Done poorly, however, its nothing more than self referential art for art’s sake, the pedantic ramblings of an author convinced of their superiority to their entire audience.
Ultimately the fiction I love to read and try to write is a healthy hybrid of the two. It takes the excitement and accessibility of commercial fiction and tempers it with dynamic characters and an understanding of language. It assumes the audience is capable of understanding complexity while simultaneously appeals to as wide an audience as possible. It understands that art is ultimately a dialog between artist and the masses, not just artists and their peers. Finally, if it leans in one direction, it errs on the side of commercial accessibility in deference to the readers.
It is this balancing act between commercial fiction and literary fiction that draws me to an author and it is also one of the things that drive me to write. My goal, put simply, is to write the novels that I’ve been looking for on the shelf.