Newspaper article International New York Times

Where Do You Draw the Line between Commercial and Literary Fiction?

Newspaper article International New York Times

Where Do You Draw the Line between Commercial and Literary Fiction?

Article excerpt

Maybe commercial fiction is really great, or maybe it's great the way a Dorito is great.

Maybe commercial fiction is really great, or maybe it's great the way a Dorito is great.

A few years back an asteroid collided into Jupiter, leaving an impact that appeared to be about equivalent in size to the Earth -- and looked like a small dark spot on Jupiter. I think of that alien asteroid as analogous to literature, dropping pretty undisastrously into a vast planet of other words. The crash is in many ways a minor and random event, but it's also, to a certain kind of earthling, the size of a world.

But what gets to count as literature and what as the rest of the planet? Are we really supposed to rely on that crowd of editors and critics variously empowered to decide what is literary and what is commercial? (Not that being "literary" is such a blessing, seeing as commercial fiction is widely read and well remunerated while the spoils of being literary are, mostly, being called "literary.")

Isn't that literary-designating crowd broadly afflicted with pettiness, self-seriousness, social-class blinkers, an unsober love of language and erratic insightfulness? Sure. That great work gets overlooked and superfluous work gets deemed great is a given.

But if we toss out the problematically doled "literary" altogether and are left only with the market as an assigner of value, then we're forced to conclude that the poetry of John Ashbery, say, is considerably worse -- aloof to "real" people, too dedicated to a turn of phrase, show-offy, choose your false populist sentiment -- than "9 Celebrities You Won't Believe Looked Like This in High School."

To make the distinction between literary and commercial both meaningful and slightly less capricious, I prefer to use functional definitions for commercial and literary fiction.

Fiction that aims to, and often does, reach a wide audience and make a lot of money is, in effect, Commercial Fiction.

Fiction that, one argues, has a value that exceeds its commercial appeal would be Literary Fiction.

And maybe Commercial Fiction is really great, or maybe it's great the way a Dorito is great, but Commercial Fiction is in some way consonant with the market. …

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