Alrighty, Keeper Upperers: today, we’re going to tackle one of the trickiest debates in the bookish world. What’s the difference between literary fiction and popular fiction? In my “real” life, in addition to Keeping Up With The Penguins, I work in a bookstore and I’ve just completed my Masters of Creative Writing, so I’ve had a lot of cause to think about this question over the couple of years. I can’t promise you I’ve got THE answer (anyone who says they do is trying to sell you something), but I’ve got some thoughts…
For most of my reading life, I considered “literary fiction” and “popular fiction” to be miscellaneous No-Man’s-Lands, the places I mentally sent every book that didn’t fit neatly into a “genre” category. If it had magic and dragons, it was fantasy. If it had marriage proposals and sexy bits, it was romance. If it had spaceships and robots, it was science fiction. When a book had none of those qualities, or too many of them, it ended up going “over there” to general fiction territory. I decided which side of the border each book landed on – “literary fiction” or “popular fiction” – using a kind of sliding scale between “likely to win a major literary prize, like the Booker” and “likely to be purchased for $4.99 in an airport”.
And now, let’s look at a few of the (almost innumerable) problems with that line of thinking:
- All of these judgements are pretty subjective, not to mention arbitrary. You can buy just about any book in an airport nowadays, and major awards have been given to some real stinkers. Just look at what happened with Zadie Smith’s White Teeth; it was widely heralded as a critical success, but the Granddaddy of literary criticism James Wood wrote it off as “hysterical fiction” and many airport loungers complained that they “didn’t get it”.
- These judgements are based on external factors – what others think of the book, what the publisher’s marketing budget is, where the book is sold, what it looks like – rather than the content of the book itself. Like it or not, we judge books by their covers.
- There’s an inherent elitism in this divide that’s impossible to ignore: “literary fiction” is for intellectuals and grown-ups, while “popular fiction” is for slobs.
It’s that last point that I want to hone in on here. If Keeping Up With The Penguins had a slogan, I’m pretty sure it would be “elitism stinks”. The whole point of this project and this blog was to break down the barriers (or at least lob a brick or two in their direction) between “good” books and “bad” books, between “classics” and “potboilers”, between the “literary” and the “popular”. I’d always worried that I wasn’t “smart” enough to read or understand literary fiction and classic literature, and it’s because of the very elitism that underwrites this divide.
David Foster Wallace said in one of his essays that “Low Art” is the sort of art that has to please people in order to make money. Now, he was talking about television at the time, but I think we can apply the same philosophy to “popular fiction”. Popular fiction needs to be – you guessed it – popular, in order to be successful. Lots of people need to buy it. And the best way to get people to buy your thing is to give them what they want: whether it be dragons, or sexy bits, or space ships, or just a laugh.
“High Art”, on the other hand (according to David Foster Wallace, and this analogy, anyway) needn’t concern itself with popularity. “Literary fiction”, the die-hard adherents would have you believe, is about Artistic Endeavour and Creative Expression and has no concern with popularity or sales. Except, of course, that’s complete bullshit. Even literary geniuses have to feed themselves. What good is writing a brilliant work of literary fiction if it doesn’t pay the rent? Indeed, how could anyone write a brilliant work of literary fiction if they can’t afford to feed themselves? (Yes, classism and elitism are kissing cousins.)
My suspicion is, deep down, that we all know this divide between “literary fiction” and “popular fiction” is a lie. Every criterion we use to judge them is retrofitted to our gut-feelings. When we read a book, we just “feel” like it’s one or the other – which is why booklovers argue themselves hoarse about the differences between them. No book will “feel” the same to every reader, which means every reader will make their own assessment as to its popularity versus literariness. (Yes, even popularity is subjective – the false consensus effect is an unavoidable cognitive bias that leads us to believe most people agree with us, so if we think a book is good we are inclined to believe that others will/do think the same.)
I see this play out time and time again, in many areas of my bookish life: whether I’m shelving books at work, discussing books in class, or figuring out how to tag them on this blog and on #bookstagram. Diane Chamberlain is a good example: a first-glance at the cover of Big Lies In A Small Town had me convinced that it was going to be formulaic popular fiction seasoned with thriller tropes, but reading it I found a really astonishing and quite literary story about art and race. Even so, I think I’d have a tough time convincing my lecturers to let me write an academic essay about it. Or we could look at a book like An American Marriage, which seems to tick all the boxes on both sides of the page: an Oprah book club pick AND a literary prize winner, a best-seller AND a critical success. What on earth would we call that? Popular literary fiction? Literary popular fiction?
I told you I wouldn’t have THE answer, and – yes, I spoiled it for you – I don’t. I’d really love to see us do away with labels like “literary fiction” and “popular fiction” altogether, but I can see how that’s not practical. These labels act like marketing shorthand, and make it much easier for a lot of people to choose what they’re going to read next. It’s just a shame that, I suspect, they’re going to miss out on some great choices because of these arbitrary, subjective, and elitist distinctions. Ah, well – at least you can always rely on me, here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, to give it to you straight, wherever the book is shelved.
July 5, 2020 at 12:39 PM
I’ve always leaned towards character versus plot. Literary is *mostly* character driven while popular/commercial is driven by plot. But there’s heaps of grey with that formula too, of course.
July 6, 2020 at 12:34 PM
Oooh, good point Theresa!
July 6, 2020 at 3:52 PM
Oh, I’m glad you’ve decided to crack open this chestnut, and I agree with all the points you’ve made. Another distinction I used when younger, with a grain of salt, is that we find the literary ones mostly in alternative theatres as arthouse movies, while the popular ones are blockbuster hits with merchandise everywhere.
BTW, a big congrats for completing your Masters! What a feather in your cap! 🙂
July 7, 2020 at 7:02 PM
Oooh, yes, that’s a good one, to look at how the adaptations are treated… and thank you! Final grades come out tomorrow morning, eek! 😉
July 8, 2020 at 2:37 PM
I’m so glad you tackled this topic! And I loved what you had to say about it. I’ve always thought that “literary fiction” stood the test of time and might someday end up on the classics list, while “popular fiction” was destined to be forgotten as soon as the next “popular fiction” was named as such. Of course, neither is true! Thanks for your spin on the verbiage.
July 8, 2020 at 4:03 PM
Cheers, Lisa! 🙂
July 8, 2020 at 9:12 PM
Congratulations on the Masters that must have been a shed load of work. Deep admiration and it has to be said skips full of envy as well as it’s a subject I wish I understood a great deal more than I do. I hope you got a great deal of enjoyment from it.
July 11, 2020 at 4:08 PM
Cheers, Phil! It was an incredible experience indeed – probably aged me about 10 years, but totally worth it!
June 7, 2021 at 1:15 AM
“Ah, well – at least you can always rely on me, here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, to give it to you straight, wherever the book is shelved.”
Wait a sec, are you trying to sell me something?!
June 9, 2021 at 8:02 PM
Um… a great read, I guess? 😅📚