Sunday, October 16, 2011

Literary vs. Bestselling Fiction

One thing that I have noticed over these past few years is the snark coming from both sides of the literary (Bestsellers are hackneyed drivel that I can't bear to read) vs. bestseller (Literary fiction is suckitudunous fiction) divide. I will confess that I was in the literary fiction sucks camp for awhile, but after contemplation on the subject I've changed my stance. It's interesting because both sides are right and both sides are wrong.

Bestselling fiction tends to be short, sweet, and to the point. Literary fiction tends to let the story unfold with a bit more exposition and exploration of words and expressions. Bestselling fiction focuses more on what is said and literary fiction on how it is said. Where the reader's interest lays determines which kind they will prefer.

People read and think differently. Some people need more words in an explanation. Some people need fewer words in an explanation. Some people would prefer a picture to a verbal explanation. And because of that, they're preference in reading will lean more towards one than the other. Here are a couple of examples from my personal experience to illustrate this point.

Years ago I worked in a research lab. Among my other duties was data collection and analysis. I would take the data and draw these beautiful graphs for the research papers which my boss was writing. To me, it was obvious what the graphs meant. I had everything labeled. There were no ambiguities in the presentation. I would take them in and lay them on the edge of my boss's desk while she was working. I would not get to the door, before she was calling after me: "Diana, get back here and explain these to me." Needless to say she wasn't a "math" person. She wasn't stupid either as she went to an Ivy League Medical School.

More recently in a discussion with my brother, he interrupted me and went tearing off on a tangent. I stopped him with, "You know what I meant." He stopped, thought about it for a minute, then said, "No, I don't know what you meant." See, he needed more words in my explanation. I think one of the reasons we get frustrated with each other when having a conversation is because I think he's too long-winded and apparently, I don't explain things well enough for him. Even though it is my job as his sister to tell him when he says something stupid, he really isn't. He's actually quite brilliant when it comes to law and politics.

So three different people, three different ways of taking in information. Intelligence has nothing to do with it. It's personal preference and inclination.

I have come to the following conclusions:

If you want to write bestselling fiction, then get beta-readers and editors who prefer reading bestselling fiction. They're going to tell you where the story lags, where it's too fast, where they got lost, and all the other marks of bestselling fiction.

If you want to write literary fiction, then get beta-readers who prefer reading literary fiction. They'll tell you where the writing is "hackneyed", where there is a preponderance of purple prose, what needs more explanation, and all the other characteristics of literary fiction.

What brought this one was a post by K C Shaw linking to this blog post by Harry Connolly about the cancellation of his series Twenty Palaces. Specifically the section where he talks about the reviews he got from readers who bought his books. Based on those reviews, I would guess that there weren't many people who prefer reading bestsellers in the review and editing chain for his books. If there had been, then they would have caught those things and he could have edited the stories into a bestseller.

His blog post is heartbreaking to read, and I think it could have been prevented with editing and review from people who prefer reading bestsellers.

ETA: Many of the traditionally published fantasy novels tend to be more literary in style than bestselling. While technically they aren't literary novels, in style they fit more in the literary camp than the bestselling camp.


  1. Okay, let's see if breaking this up makes this possible

  2. You know, I've been trying to come up with a better term than "bestselling" because that really says more about their performance than how they're actually written. Certainly it's possible to write in the style of, say, James Patterson and have that be something other than a bestseller. (Then again I guess it's also possible to try to write in the style of James Joyce and have it panned by literati types). "Popular" doesn't seem much better, and "pulp" feels like it's got connotations that don't quite carry over.

    I would honestly say I think most fantasy novels fall more into the pulp camp. The shorts tend way toward literary, and I'll give you Le Guin, Tolkien, Beagle, Mieville, Peake, and maybe Gaiman on the outside, but I think if you compare that against Piers Anthony, Terry Goodkind, Terry Pratchet, Terry Brooks, R. A. Salvatore, George R. R. Martin, Steve Erikson, David Eddings, J. K. Rowling, Robert Howard, Michael Moorcock, Phillip Pullman, Robin Hobb, Tracy Hickman, Jim Butcher, Patrick Rothfuss, Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, Kevin Hearne, Christopher Paolini, Naomi Novik, Laurel K. Hamilton, etc, I think it shakes out more toward the side of pulpy adventure. I welcome argument about where any of those people belong in that equation :)

  3. I think part of the reason it feels like it might skew toward there being more literary type books out there is that I think they tend to get more reviews and more press. Honestly I don't think I've ever seen a magazine have anything to say about Xanth, but damned if I don't know a lot of people who've read it.

    I'm also making the following statement without much more evidence than anecdote, but I'm tempted to say "literary" fiction has kind of a longer shelf life, and will tend to slowly build sales and hold them solidly, where pulp books will I think tend to have big flashes of popularity, followed by occasional swells of revival, but I don't think for example a lot of people look at their kids and go "you know what's a really good series you absolutely need to read to be a fully literate person? The babysitters club". (I don't say that to pick on the babysitter's club so much as to comment on the methods of transmission.) With the fantasy example: How many people have read Tolkien vs. Fritz Leiber? Leiber's really quite good and genuinely influential, but a lot of the people who would dig Leiber right now are reading Martin, Erikson, and Salvatore- ie. what's currently popular.

    (I'd say in Science Fiction this is even more true. You get people who become a sort of canon, full of big ideas and gravitas, when really there was also a lot of ray guns and space princesses and being the king of mars that was arguably more popular at the time)

  4. The link in the post is in fact pretty depressing :( though as I understand it not a completely uncommon story, and honestly something that makes me pretty leery about series in general (writing them I mean, I'll read them, though generally I do try to wait until they're finished or at least until I can't otherwise avoid my friends spoiling them for me).

    I don't know if it sounded so much like his editors weren't bestseller fiction types. I mean, they were pushing it as a del ray urban fantasy. I mean, his editor also works on Timothy Zahn star wars novels and apparently Terry Brooks as well (though to be fair, her credits also include Octavia Butler and William Gibson, who are more on the literary spectrum). I guess my point is that I think she seems like someone who probably knew what she was doing, but maybe thought she was aiming more at a Star Wars/ Sword of Shanara readership than what looks like an Anita Hamilton one and both groups kind of failed to migrate over to it. It sounds from the interview like he was just outside the comfort zone for a lot of his readers, and they weren't the type who were willing to step outside, you know?

    Just some kind of brain splatter.

  5. I've thought about just deleting this post, because this is one of those occasions when I can not verbalize the pattern I see so clearly in my head.

    I'm not talking about differences in plot or genre or what the story is about. I'm talking about the difference between how the story is told. It's the difference between "here're your graphs" and "get back here and explain this to me."

    Donald Maass did a great job in analyzing and characterizing the qualities of the breakout novel or the bestselling novel. Most fantasy doesn't fit those characteristics. I know this because my bookshelves are lined with books published by both Delrey and Ace which I tossed aside because they didn't. I dearly wish they would hire a few editors who can see the difference.

    My point is and it came from his stated desire to write a bestselling novel, is that if you want to write a bestselling novel, then find beta-readers who prefer reading bestselling novels. If you want to write like Tolkien, find someone who has read Lord of the Rings more than once.

    Sigh. I give up.

  6. Hah, I'm sorry :) I didn't mean to put you in a funk there. I kind of went off in all directions, and I missed one of the things I actually did want to say, which is yes, Jesus, yes, I'm with you 100% on finding beta readers for your novel who enjoy the type of novel you are attempting to write.

    I haven't actually read Writing the Breakout Novel. I'm applying my google-fu to finding out what its characteristics are, but mostly I'm just getting recommendations to buy the hard copy of the book. What actually makes a bestselling novel?

  7. Oh good. I really struggle with putting my thoughts into words so that people understand me. It can be frustrating.

    Mass's insights apply to whatever type of fiction one wants to write whether it is romance or fantasy or thrillers. He touches on all aspects of the novel, theme, premise, characters, plot, etc. I'll see if I can sum up what he says, but it is better to read the book.

    Basically, the page turner (I think that works better) novel has a sympathetic, larger than life character in a story where the stakes are high and the conflict is complex.

    There is tension on every page, no time outs while we take a tour of the world and marvel at all the sights.

    The fictional world is different from the usual world that most people inhabit and plausible. If it is set in the real world, then it is in a corner of it that most people don't see like: an air traffic control tower, a bounty hunters office, a witch's coven, etc.

    The characters are memorable like Scarlett O-Hara, Obi wan Kenobi, Sybil Trelawney, Indiana Jones, Dirk Pitt, Jack Ryan, Nancy Drew, Huckleberry Finn, Hamlet, Gatsby, etc.

    From the beginning of the story, the reader knows what kind of ride they are on as it relates to plot.

    There's a lot more to it than this, but that is the gist of it.