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January, 2008

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Literary Fictions Part I
What does "literary" and "mainstream" mean, anyway?
By  Jennifer Edelson

ome people turn up their noses at commercial, or mass-market fiction, and any author who writes it. 

Forget the mega-bucks commercial fiction rakes in, or the billions it entertains; if a book is predictable or plot driven, it's a rotten egg.

These people are literary elitists. And to a literary elitist, mass market — or paperback —  equals mentally challenged.

There are also plenty of folks who won't read a book unless, "it's about something." Ask them to think beyond plot, or to muddle through an underlying philosophy, and well... don't get me started. To these selective people, if the prose is too big or the story too realistic, the book is too "literary" (err, boring). See, if you have to reflect, it isn't entertainment.

So is it better to write really well about nothing much? Or tell a fairly superficial, but super entertaining, story?

Having just come back from Japan, where everything, and I mean everything, is trimmed, clipped, served, wrapped, worn and built to aesthetic, but also functional, perfection, I have to ask; is writing really that black and white? Why can't a novel be entertaining and well written, deep and fast-paced, pretty, philosophical and mainstream? And why draw such an indelible line between form and function?

And just what does "literary" and "mainstream," mean anyway?

Clearly, at the root of all this snootiness are assumptions about what makes "literature" literature and vise versa. I had no clue. But after some in-depth analysis (read, a brief search of the Internet and several minutes of soul searching) I've come up with a short list of several supposed distinctions. Some make sense; some would make a good baloney sandwich.

Allow me to break it down for you:

Literary fiction

  • Takes a more complex view of life, and often presents internal (sometimes moral) conflict that requires some level of philosophical reflection from both the writer and the reader.
  • Emphasizes characterization, and offers the reader more multi-dimensional personalities.
  • Is more interested in exploring humanity and its central themes. To this end, literature is more likely to strive at broadening a reader's relationship with life and universal human experience.
  • Tends to be introspective and slower paced.
  • Often makes use of passive voice, descriptive prose, metaphor and symbolism to set the stage and tell the story.
  • Uses language and words that are figurative, symbolic, evocative, and poetic to provoke the reader's response and manipulation emotion.
  • Is concerned with writing style and unique forms of narrative.
  • Doesn't always have a resolution (i.e. no happy ending).

Commercial, or mainstream fiction

  • Is typically plot-driven and focused on an event, or series of events, more so than character.
  • Has an obvious plot/theme and often relies on stereotypical characters and archetypal situations (good versus evil, in-love versus lonely) to tell a story.
  • Often contains satisfying characters that are easy to identify with.
  • Predictably typecasts the world and humanity.
  • Is more likely to challenge its characters with unlikely, or extraordinary problems, or place them in unlikely situations that have clever but fairly predictable solutions.
  • Utilizes a faster paced, traditional narrative — narrative that goes from point A to B, chapters without paragraph breaks, etc. 
  • Tends to be much more strategic, or purposeful, and thus more structured.
  • Contains escapist qualities (like an action movie).
  • Uses less complex language.
  • Typically concludes with a happy, or at least resolved, ending.
  • Usually draws a bigger audience, and as such, make a bigger profit than literary fiction.

According to Jerry Jackson Jr, assistant editor at Writer's Digest, "One of the easiest ways to determine whether your work is literary or commercial is to ask yourself, 'Will my book be assigned reading in college English classes, or will it be sold in grocery stores?'"

Ahem... are we saying that one is necessarily better than the other? Arbitrarily assigning worthiness based on class distinctions?

And what determines whether a book is grocery store bound or college English worthy?

Personally, I've spent as many good nights with King and Grisham (if not learned more from them), as I have with Nabokov and Bronte. And I'm not saying they don't have thematic and stylistic differences, but I do submit that these writers are equally talented, and that one is no less engrossing and creative than the other. In different words, they're all worthy reads, and I'd be ecstatic to write even half as well as any of them.

In my opinion, the quote below, reprinted from Writers Weekly sums the issue up best:

"Literary fiction is character driven and connotes a certain attention to the writing itself. Commercial or genre fiction is plot driven and while there is excellent writing in commercial or genre fiction, that's not its selling point. It's a big argument really. A lot of literary writers use plots, a lot of commercial writers can write one heckuva gorgeous sentence. Basically . . . it's in the eye of the beholder/reader/critic."
— M.J. Rose, Author of The Halo Effect.

Whether unique or boilerplate, fast or slow paced, profound or superficial, what matters is that a writer fleshes out, develops and records his idea in some way that does the reader a service.

If it resonates, whether way deep down or on some level akin to going on vacation, in my opinion, whether its won a Pulitzer prize or a place at the checkout isle, it's good, and thus "worthy" writing.
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Jennifer Edelson is a former practicing Minnesota attorney, now regular IN columnst, freelance writer and legal writing professor. Her writing has appeared on all the finest refrigerators in the Twin Cities. Jennifer can be emailed at:

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