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.