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Literary vs. Pop Fic

Monday, December 10, 2007

For as long as there has been printed literature, there’s been an ongoing debate on the merits of Literature versus Popular Fiction. The definitions of what each is are very murky. What was considered Pop Fic during its own time period (Shakespeare, Austen, the Brontës, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, etc.) is studied as classic Literature in high-school and college classrooms across the country. Is that to say that a century from now, Grisham, King, Rowling, Grafton, Patterson, and Steele will be studied as classic literature of the 20th/21st centuries? Who knows. What I do know is that it’s time for the entire Literary vs. Pop Fic debate to end.

In 2003, as I drew close to finishing my undergrad degree, I was in quite a quandary. I wanted to go to graduate school to pursue a Master’s in Creative Writing. The problem was the only programs I knew anything about all focused on writing Literary fiction . . . the same mindset that led me to dropping out of LSU, where I had been majoring in CW. I even sent out some tentative queries to the heads of a few programs that looked most promising—and after a few e-mail exchanges, when they learned that not only did I write romance, but inspirational romance, I was basically told I would never be a good enough writer to get into their programs. Which was okay with me, because I didn’t want their narrow ideas of what creative writing is to corrupt my writing and my unique voice (which I had been developing through attending writing conferences and being a member of ACRW—now ACFW).

Then, one day, I was reading an article about graduate CW programs across the country and saw a quote from Dr. Lee McClain, program director of the Master of Arts in Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill University. Within six months, I was starting the program.

But even in the wonderfully supportive environment at Seton Hill, where I would sit in workshops and have my inspirational romance critiqued by horror, sci-fi, mystery, and other genre writers, the debate between what the difference in Literary and Pop Fic really is continued to rage. Many of my classmates had the same experience I did with being soundly rejected by traditional CW graduate programs across the country as not “good enough.”

So what are the differences? Well, according to most CW programs, Literary fiction is all about the art, about the language, about the expression of ideas. Pop Fic is about writing something to fit a formula in an effort to make money. Or, in other words, Literary fiction is high-brow and read by people who wish to improve themselves, while Pop Fic is low-brow and read by people who only want to indulge in the base desire for entertainment. According to Pop Fic writers, the difference is that we focus on story, on plot, on craft, while those writing Literary fiction don’t care about any of those three things and just write a bunch of angsty, navel-gazing drivel. Shall the twain ever meet?

In the January 2008 edition of The Writer magazine, there are several pieces on this debate.

In “Loot vs. literature: Genre and literary fiction,” Chuck Leddy points out that “most of the authors on today’s bestseller lists are writers of genre fiction.” He feels that this debate between Literary vs. Pop Fic has created an “elitist” perception of fiction. He also believes that the reading public is “schizophrenic” when it comes to choosing what we read:

. . . The major awards, the Pulitzers, the Nobels, the National Book Awards, have traditionally gone to literary authors like Updike, Roth, etc., authors who are regarded as artists, as opposed to genre “hacks” who regularly entertain millions of readers. As a literary culture, we are, alas, schizophrenic. If a novel sells millions of copies, it’s often considered inferior. “Art” is the preserve of the enlightened few.”

Leddy goes on to point out what I have—that authors considered “hacks” in their own time are now considered great artists, because they were great storytellers whether or not they were writing genre fiction.

The schizophrenia that has fostered the false dichotomy between art and commerce should end. Commercial success isn’t a curse, nor obscurity a perverse badge of honor.

About twenty pages later, there’s another article, this one by Joshua Henkin entitled “Letter to a (naïve) MFA student” in which he tries to debunk many of the long-held (but false) beliefs that students entering and graduating from most traditional MFA programs hold. And he should know, he teaches in the MFA programs at Sarah Lawrence and Brooklyn colleges.

The reluctance [to focus on plot] appears in various guises, but it comes down to the same thing: a belief, sometimes articulated, sometimes not, that storytelling is what hack writers do—it’s the territory of Grisham and Crichton—and that to think about plot is beneath them, because they write literary fiction. Meanwhile, the Grishams and Crichtons of the world are laughing all the way to the bank. . . . It would behoove [MFA students] to take seriously what writers of genre fiction know to take seriously: the need to tell a story.

I, personally, am of the opinion (as are many of the alumni of the SHU WPF program) that literary fiction is a genre . . . that it, like all genres, falls under the massive umbrella of “fiction”—that no writers have the right to say what they write is any better than any other type of fiction.

What the authors of the articles in The Writer failed to mention, which I have been thinking about for a while now, is that there has become such a divide between Pop Fic and Literary, we’ve lost sight of what we can teach each other. I’ve heard people at conferences (Pop Fic/genre conferences) say that they’re afraid their writing may be too literary. But I think this is an area where Pop Fic can improve.

At genre-focused conferences, we hear so much about craft—about paying attention to showing vs. telling, preferring active verbs, limiting the amount of description we use, not to use superfluous or over-blown language, etc. The problem with this is that we’re homogenizing what’s being put out. Sure, there are great stories being published, but are we guilty of de-literarizing popular fiction and widening the gap? Are we dumbing down Pop Fic as the literati have been accusing us of for generations? I do know that we are losing authors’ unique voices in the rush to focus so much on craft and making sure that every new author coming up through the ranks applies every single rule that’s ever been made about writing Pop Fic to their own work . . . to the detriment of genre fiction.

So many Pop Fic authors (especially unpublished, or whose work hasn’t sold well) complain about the lack of craft of authors who are on the bestseller lists. They didn’t follow the rules. They head-hop. Their character development is poor. They use passive verb forms all over the place. They include tons of backstory. They have flashbacks (gasp!). They tell what’s going on, or what happened earlier. And yet they’re on the bestseller list. Why?

Because they told a good story with their own unique writing style. Would Charles Dickens be considered the gold-standard for 19th century literature if he’d followed all of those rules? No, of course not. His writing would be just like ever other author’s writing. It’s because of the way he wrote his stories that they have stood the test of time. He didn’t try to emulate anyone else. He just wrote. Same with Jane Austen. Same with Henry James. Same with every other author we had to study in literature classes.

Does that mean we scrap the rules and just write however we want? No, again. Knowing the rules of POV, showing vs. telling, plotting, and the other elements of craft can only strengthen our skills and abilities to tell a good story. But we should never allow those rules to constrain our voices, to rob the unique way we have of saying something.

So let’s start closing the gap. Yes, study craft. Learn the rules. Build your writing skill . . . but don’t lose your voice by doing so. Study classic literature as well as modern Literary fiction, just as aspiring artists study Michelangelo and Monet and O’Keefe and Warhol. Don’t eschew description or poetic language as “too literary” for your Pop Fic piece. And don’t ignore good storytelling and developing a strong plot for your Literary work. We’re all part of the same family of fiction, and we need to start learning from each other.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Monday, December 10, 2007 3:52 pm

    Very timely words. I used to get The Writer, but dropped my subscription a couple years ago because of the focus on literary fiction. That’s not what I write, and many of the articles were borderline offensive at the time. I may give it another try next year when money isn’t such a concern.

    It is very possible to mold the two together. Dickens and Austen were once considered Popular Fiction. I think any fiction author should take the best of whatever is out there, literary or otherwise, and combine it all to come up with their own unique voice and style. I’m pretty sure I’ve found my voice, and I’m going to do everything in my power to hang onto it, but at the same time I won’t stop learning whatever I can from what I read.

    And I won’t stop loving Grisham! So what if he breaks the rules? He tells a great story with wonderful characters. That’s what it’s really all about anyway.

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  2. Monday, December 10, 2007 6:01 pm

    I always figured Literary Fiction was what I HAD to read in school, and Popular Fiction is what I wanted to read on my own time.

    I love pop fiction, and I love words and beautiful language. The wonderful thing is…pop fiction and literary fiction aren’t mutually exclusive.

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  3. Monday, December 10, 2007 10:38 pm

    I’m all about indulging in the base desire for entertainment! Totally in agreement that pop and literary can learn from one another, and blend into something beautiful AND entertaining. Great post!

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  4. Tuesday, December 11, 2007 9:25 am

    I’m guilty of reading for entertainment 😀 My problem with Lit. Fic. is I just get bored while reading it, so I don’t read it.

    And I ran into the problem, when looking at schools, of finding one that focused on Pop Fic. So many of the programs did offer anything I was looking for because it was a big focus on the Literary. Oh well. I never say one is better than the other. Each has their merits, but for me, I like Pop. Fic.

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  5. Tuesday, December 11, 2007 10:18 am

    I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of most modern literary fiction. I’ve tried reading award-winning books only to put it down after a chapter or two and forget to pick it up again (e.g., The Thirteenth Tale). But I love classic literature (you all know my favorite) and am even making my way through Tolkien, expanding my horizons and my vocabulary (literally and figuratively).

    I’m also reading a lot more nonfiction these days, and choosing works that are a little more literary in flavor, such as Sue Monk Kidd’s Firstlight or collections of Madeleine L’Engle’s essays.

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  6. Carol Collett permalink
    Thursday, December 13, 2007 11:25 am

    I’ve always wondered why we have to maintain ‘class’ distinctions everywhere in life? To those who argue literary writers are better at language, read Dean Koontz. He uses figures of speech in the most fresh and amazing ways. Didn’t this craft/calling of fiction start out centuries ago with storytellers and minstrels?
    Okay, off my soapbox now.
    Carol, back to watching for the UPS truck which is delivering my Alphasmart today…

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