Literary vs Popular Fiction

It’s an old argument, the territory worn almost smooth by the footprints of hundreds if not thousands of writers (and readers) who tread it with almost monotonous regularity. Literary vs Popular, Blockbuster vs Boutique, High End vs Low Brow — however you choose to frame it, you’ll always end up insulting one side or the other, if not both at the same time.  It’s a somewhat ridiculous debate anyway, and I try not to buy into it. At least not in public and not without a few glasses of red under my belt.

In general, I don’t sit on any one side. I read widely and I read for quality — quality of writing, quality of storytelling, quality of imagination — and I find good quality books all over the place, in all sorts of genres (and if you don’t think “literary” fiction is a genre, with its own tropes and conventions, you’re kidding yourself).

Sometimes, though, it’s hard not to take a side.

I recently watched a vodcast of Jennifer Byrne Presents: Bestsellers and Blockbusters on the ABC website (which originally aired 11 may 2010). The show is an offshoot of the First Tuesday Book Club which I occasionally remember to catch when it airs on TV. This episode featured Bryce Courtenay, Matthew Reilly, Lee Child and Di Morrissey in conversation with host Jennifer Byrne. To Byrne’s credit, she did not simply pit bestselling giants against literary heavyweights and watch them duke it out. Instead, four very popular writers were given the time and space to talk about their work. Make no mistake, the First Tuesday Book Club (and its offshoots) is certainly aimed at the “high brow” end of the market. Hence, I  suspect, the persistent questions from Byrne that sought to compare and contrast “popular” fiction against its “literary” sibling.

Personally, I found some of the observations and comments very interesting indeed. What I found absolutely appalling was the attitude of English thriller writer, Lee Child. Far from using the opportunity to overturn some of the misconceptions and negative attitudes that regular audiences of the show might have towards bestselling authors, Child came across as spoiled and petulant and, well, childish. Everything that literary authors accuse popular novelists of being. The worst part came near the end when Child attempted to explain what he thought was the root cause of the rift between these two types of writers. It starts around the 28:40 mark of the extended version of the vodcast, and I’ve transcribed it as follows:

LC: Last week I was in Britain and Ian McEwan’s Solar came out the same day, so there was this kind of “grudge match” thing going on — 61 Hours by Lee Child vs Solar by Ian McEwan, you know, the Good Guy vs the Bad Guy, the Smart Guy vs the Thug — and I was asked about it constantly in interviews, and I made the point, and I think this is a serious point actually, that the rivalry does not come from us — why would I care about Ian McEwan? — the rivalry comes from them, and it is not necessarily about the sales, it’s about something else, it’s about this: that they know in their heart that we could write their books but they cannot write our books. That’s what it’s about. [emphasis mine]

[JB asks if the other panellists agree; there is much nodding of heads.]

LC: And they have tried, and they sometimes say, “Oh well, you know, I don’t want to,” and I say, “Well, why wouldn’t you? You could set yourself up for life.” In the paper in Britain last week, I deliberately said — I was trying to start a fight about it — I said, “Oh, I could write a Martin Amis book. It would take me about three weeks, it would sell three thousand copies like he sells.” And that’s what it is. They know they can’t do what we do and they are jealous of that skill. [emphasis mine]

JB: But that absolutely assumes that they do want to do what you do.

LC: Well, who wouldn’t? I mean, come on, if you were a literary author starving in a garret and you had the chance to turn out a Bryce Courtenay and make yourself a multi-millionaire so your family was looked after forever, why wouldn’t you do that? Of course you would.

JB: Because I think some people feel so powerfully about their art that they wouldn’t. But maybe I’m wrong?

LC: I think you are wrong.

What a pompous, condescending thing to say. Yes, I’m quite sure that almost every writer would love to see their book sell a million copies and be translated around the world in several languages. But the key phrase in that sentence is “their book”. Not Lee Child’s book. Not Ian McEwan’s book. Their book. And that’s all the difference in the world.

And to state so flippantly that he could toss off a literary-style novel of the caliber of Amis or McEwan in a matter of weeks but chooses not to because, essentially, why would he  bother doing something so worthless … it kinda made my blood boil. It also made me sad. Performances like this — and I do not doubt for a second that it was a performance, put on for the benefit of his fanbase — do nothing but widen rifts and reinforce misconceptions, allowing literary snobs to dismiss more commercial authors as “mercenary” and “shallow” and “base”. It isn’t pretty and it isn’t necessary.

There is no One Way to write a book. People write and read for many different reasons, and none  of them is intrinsically more valuable. Some readers love the experience of total immersion, and prefer to find themselves lost between the covers, lost in the author’s world. Others read to savour the art of language and worldplay, happy to remain fully conscious and aware of their interaction with the writer and text. Who has the audacity to say that either way is better, more valuable, more valid?

The book industry has so many outside pressures on it these days, so much competition from alternative sources of entertainment and edification. The last thing it needs are writers — from both sides of various fences — squabbling amongst each other like proverbial pigeons.

26 thoughts on “Literary vs Popular Fiction

  1. I quite like Lee Childs books, and he is a talented writer. But he is, I feel fairly sure, full of crap. If he think it would only take him 3 weeks, let him try, and send it out for review under a false name, and see if anyone thinks it is anything worthwhile. It says rather more about Childs understanding of literary fiction than the fiction itself.

    1. He certainly didn’t come across well at all. The bit I transcribed wasn’t the only condescending or pompous comment he made. I’ve never read any of his books, but I’m sure he writes them well and is able to deliver exactly what his readers want. He wouldn’t be able to sell so many if he didn’t.

      A pity he wasn’t able to defend his work and his genre without slagging off the work of others.

  2. There were certainly some very defensive comments from the authors.

    Mind you I thought Jennifer Byrne’s suggestion that the difference between popular and literary work was that literary work is written without thought of the audience somewhat… bizarre!

    1. I’m not sure she phrased that very well. Wasn’t she was remarking on the way the authors on the show were describing the book as object – that it didn’t exist *as a book* until a reader picked it up and read it, that before that moment it was simply a hunk of dead tree? Byrne was arguing that most “literary” authors would feel they had written a book whether or not anyone every read it. (Of course there were no “literary” authors on the show to talk about this.)

      I think it is maybe a matter of emphasis. The four authors on the show (well, three of them; Di Morrissey really didn’t say all that much) repeatedly talked about how they constantly keep the reader in mind, that they want to control the reader experience as much as possible by, essentially, making their books as smooth and quick to read as is humanly possible, not requiring the reader to ever miss a beat or stop and have to think about anything.

      Other writers – and perhaps this is how Byrne sees literary authors – write for themselves first, an audience second, and feel that the work is formed with various concerns, not just how easily it will be able to be digested by the widest possible range of readers. It’s not necessarily that they write “without thought of the audience” but they they have other thoughts in their mind as well in regards to how the novel should be written, what they want to achieve, and so on. Mind you, I’ve heard a lot of genre writers talk this way as well.

      And that’s the problem. Once you start pigeonholing writers, it’s hard not to start insulting them and the readers who love their work. (It was really, really hard to write the above paragraphs and I still think they cause mild offense where I do not intend it.)

      1. I think the most sensible thing anyone said in the show was “write the book you want to read”. ‘Literary authors’ presumably like literary fiction, sf writers enjoy sf, etc. Once you’ve done that, all you can do is hope that it’s marketed so that it reaches other people who want to read it. I suspect that all successful writers (and many less successful, of course), started out that way, even the ones who ended up writing only what their publishers demanded.

        The point about lit fic authors doing less of the work involved was amusing, and also comes down to what the reader wants. Yes, if you want to have to think about what you’re reading, you pick a book by an author whose work is thought-provoking; if you want one that merely confirms your world-view, you’ll choose accordingly. Of course, if you’re reading a Matthew Reilly book and want something other than pace and action (characterisation, for example), you’ll have to do *that* work yourself (I’ve met Matthew, and like him, but IMHO, his books read like novelisations of video games. FWIW, I liked the Lee Child novel and short story I’ve read, but I didn’t have any great urge to read any more – and have even less after hearing him rant).

        1. Very well said, Stephen. I probably wouldn’t have picked up a Lee Child book because I’m just not interested in the subject matter but now I don’t think I could even try to read one without a sour taste in my mouth.

      2. It’s interesting, coming from an academic background, where the norm seems to be the opposite; that popular writers and readers see the creative process as a one-way street, whereas academic and “literary” writers are more likely to see the reader as co-producer of the text, to hear that reversed.

        Regarding Childs’ argument that if literary writers could write a bestseller “why wouldn’t they?”, the same argument might be applied to him; if he could write a McEwanesque literary classic, “why wouldn’t you”, just to make a point. Surely that argument works both ways.

        1. Yes, the argument certainly can be reversed, and his reply to that is simply that he wouldn’t bother to write a “literary” novel (even though it would only take three weeks!) because it would only sell 3000 copies and thus, by implication, wouldn’t be worth his time.

          But he does seem to be craving the attention and validation that he says literary novelists receive at the expense of popular authors – or at least that’s how he came across – so, yes, why wouldn’t he throw away those three pesky weeks just to prove the point that he can do what “they” do but chooses not to?

          It’s a pity Byrne didn’t put this to him more directly.

  3. That’s one of the things that always annoyed me about stand up comedy – a lot of the arguments that went on about it in The Age’s comedy festival blog treated it as a disposable form of entertainment with no intrinsic value beyond fleeting amusement, and often demanded that the comedians stopped being shocking just for the sake of it and constrict themselves to nice jokes that everyone can enjoy. I guess people would have a similar attitude towards books if all they’d ever read was Mills & Boon and Ralph magazine and they’d never heard of Kurt Vonnegut Jnr or Oscar Wilde or Somerset Maugham, and they’d feel the same way about paintings if they’d only ever seen still lifes of fruit bowls and paintings of cartoon kittens and velvet Elvii and had never experienced Goya or Van Gogh or Picasso.

    At least it’s recognised that novels and paintings have the capacity to be a ‘highbrow’ art form, stand up comedy isn’t even recognised as an artform at all.

    There *are* highbrow comedy snobs but they’re verrrrry lonely.

    1. It’s a problem I was just discussing over the weekend with friends. The great divide that is forming between “art” and “entertainment” – as though art can never be entertaining and entertainment can never be artful. If something makes you think, it can’t possibly also be *entertaining* you. In the same way that a really, really intelligent and well-written spec fic novel might be described by the literatti as “transcending the genre” (meaning if it’s that good, it can’t possibly be “just” spec fic), I suspect a really highbrow stand-up comedian would be re-classified as a “performance artist”. So instead of acknowledging stand-up as an artform, with varying styles and levels of quality within it, the good parts are appropriated and treated as a separate artform. Leaving only the “less-than-great” within the formal definition of “stand up comedy” and thus making it easy to eject entirely from the sphere of “Art”.

      It’s the kind of situation that disenfranchises a whole lot of people and prevents them from enjoying and participating in art culture – because they think it’s too scary or too cerebral or too boring. It’s really, really sad. I think we need to separate the measurement of “quality” from the classification of “form”, but it’s a difficult exercise.

      Again, I don’t think I’ve really phrased any of this particularly well. As I said, it’s difficult.

      1. I’ve recently found it interesting discussing Cat Valente’s Palimpsest with other people who’ve read it. A comment I’ve often gotten is that people who didn’t really like the novel nevertheless found it “well written” and “enjoyed the writing”. Which is interesting, because at the same time, they didn’t enjoy it. Clearly there are different kinds of enjoyment operating there.

        Perhaps what is lacking is our methods of expressing “pleasure” or “enjoyment” in what we read. Maybe we need better words.

        1. I don’t know. I think it’s perfectly valid to decide upon a finishing a book that you didn’t really like it *overall*, but still concede there were elements that you did enjoy while reading it. You might really have enjoyed the style of the writing or found the poetics to be a pleasure to read, for example, but felt the narrative lacked a unifying thread, or that the ending wasn’t satisfying.

          If this were the case, a reader might be justified in acknowledging that the prose was well written, although perhaps the story itself left something to be desired.

          I’m not necessarily talking about Palimpsest here; although I’m not necessarily not talking about it, either. 😉

  4. Perhaps Childs was simply acting like a dickhead in order to generate a bit of controversy. Would it lead to more sales of his latest novel? Probably. Okay, he looks like an idiot in the process, but it seems to me that money is his hightest motivator.
    As for writing an Amis book. I’d like to see him try.

    1. I’ve not doubt whatsoever that his appearance was absolutely a performance. The man knows how to market himself and his work, and he knows his fanbase. His whole performance was about catering to those who read his books and share his feelings about “literary” authors and their work. It was a big “stuff you all” and his fans would have lapped it up. “You tell them, Lee. We don’t need those smart-arses and their wanky books.”

      Problem is, the show doesn’t have Child’s readership as its audience. The show is unashamedly about Capital-L-Literature, with an occasional nod to all those other books gracing the shelves of readers worldwide. So the audience for this show are simply getting *their* misconceptions reinforced. “Oh look, a blockbuster author who only cares about the money and just doesn’t understand real art. What a surprise.”

      It’s a damn shame. This was a chance to make that audience sit up and think, “Wow, these people may be popular novelists but I can see that they actually do care about their books, that they work very hard on them, are passionate about them as books (not cash cows), and are very good at writing them. I still may not go out and read a book by Lee Child, because the subject matter doesn’t interest me, but maybe I’ll think twice the next time I write off an author just because they’re very, very popular.”

      Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. And so the rift widens.

  5. He seems like a classy sort, this Lee Child.

    It’s a shame he just didn’t stop and identify the different kinds of writing that are out there, and how each serves a different audience, and that writing itself, much as it is an art, only takes a little bit of self awareness in your work to change your form and tone and pitch to write any kind of genre.

    Also, it’s a shame no one said that Ian McEwan is probably selling more than him, what with movies being made of his already successful books and such.

    1. Heh. It’s funny. He made the quip about Martin Amis only selling 3000 copies, and Matthew Reilly did comment on the fact that Ian McEwan wasn’t used as the example as he’d been the topic of the apparent media grudge-match. Lee Child said that was because he and McEwan share the same publisher, the implication being that it would be impolite or bad form to pick on a stablemate (as opposed to another writer – pfft).

      I did wonder, though, was that it actually because McEwan could probably hold his own in the sales/income pissing contest these days.

      1. Nick Mamatas compares their sales figures at

        Granted that McEwan may be considered to have had a good head start (about 20 years) on publicity, plus extra sales generated by the movie, his top ten bestselling titles outsold Child’s – and this in the US, where you wouldn’t normally expect British lit fic to make the bestseller list. I also wonder whether Child will fare quite as well when it comes to keeping his books in print as McEwan has done.

        (For the record, I’ve never read a McEwan novel either, but Child has piqued my curiosity.)

        This brings to mind two possibly apocryphal anecdotes about bestselling authors. Jeffrey Archer is said to have driven all around London in an attempt to find a bookshop where his new novel was the No 1 hardcover bestseller, rather than No 2 after the new Terry Pratchett. And Bryce Courtenay is reputed to have asked his publisher not to sell his books to indie bookstores since he did an incognito tour of Sydney’s bookshops to see how his new book was displayed: on not seeing a copy in one shop, he reportedly asked a staff member where he could find it and was told “we don’t bother stocking that sort of crap here.”

        1. I’m sure the Courtenay story would have to be apocryphal. Courtenay has always come across to me as far too good a marketeer to dismiss any possible sales channel for his books on grounds of a personal insult (or much else, for that matter). The exchange itself might have happened, but I doubt the blanket request the stop selling to indie stores … except maybe that one indie store with the rude staff member … except they didn’t stock the books anyway, so what would have been the point?

          Sounds like one of those “so good you want it to be true” stories. 😉

      2. i suspect that the marketing thing is just a marketing, presenting yourself kind of thing, even if its unconscious. you get up on the stage, you do your thing, you get off and not worry about it–mcewan makes a good target because he’s a different genre, and he and child probably don’t keep the same friends, or hang in the same pub.

        though who knows. maybe they do and it’s a good laugh for the pair of them.

  6. Tony Martin is a legend. I too watched Child make a complete ass off himself. I only wish i could write a review as well as Tony did!! He atriculated everything i was thinking!

  7. Hi there Kirstyn! I really enjoyed reading this, as I usually only come across the people on the other side who have the bad attitudes! I’m finishing a Master’s degree in Creative and Professional Writing soon and want to devote the critical portion of my dissertation to something about literary fiction vs. popular fiction. That as itself is too broad a topic for a 3000 word paper, so I’m trying to narrow it down by coming up with questions about the issue that could do with some answers. Any suggestions? – Lorin

    1. Hi Lorin! I’m not sure what advice I could give without knowing anything about your MA topic. Probably the best thing to do is sit down with your supervisor and discuss possible angles for the dissertation that fits in with the creative part of it. I’d be happy to offer my point of view on the literary vs popular fiction dichotomy if you have any specific questions down the track.

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