Where do you draw the line between commercial fiction and literary fiction?


They are therefore odious, “commercial” and “literary” categories. Handcuffs forged by the spirit. But they do exist, yes they do exist. We could point out their different speeds, with commercial fiction produced faster (and read faster) than literary fiction. You could say that commercial fiction is what people want to read, while literary fiction is what they think they should read. It’s no joke, the general reader’s inferiority complex – especially here in America, where the nasty word “smart” is a big compliment. How many books are bought in ghostly, “I should be the person reading this”, “I should be the person reading this”? The big brain novel arrives, fluffety-flump, dragging its blurbs, and the intimidated consumer thinks, “Oh, my God, I’d better understand that. And so he buys it, and sets it on the bedside table, and then he continues with his Jack Reacher novel.

I’m sure someone once invented the app that turns commercial prose into literary prose. Because at some level, it’s just a lexical question. Sentences which include the word “hank” or “whisper” or which use some form of the disgusting verb “to limn” – they are literary. A line like “Shut up, Paul!” “Broke Louise”, on the other hand – it’s commercial. (I just thought of a name for the app: Updiker.) The greatest, of course, the writers we love and come back to, are above all of that. Or below, it doesn’t matter. “Hemingway did not have the tongue to write in the classic sense of the omniscient author,” Elmore Leonard told a biographer, “and it was the same with me.” Leonard, I guess, wasn’t sitting on a secret drawer of unseen purple prose. He was not all soaked in thwarted poetic ambition. The entirety of his artistic nature was expressed and projected in his swinging, cut-out and wonderfully commercial novels. Kate Atkinson: There’s another one.

Good language consists in nailing down the details, in pinpointing the reality. Sometimes literary language does it – more often than not, it doesn’t. Goodbye to your tangles and your whispers. Limn me no limnings. True poets know and pay homage to the power of business language. In 1959, Ted Hughes entered a competition organized by the Heinz Company, which was looking for a good line to advertise its baked beans. Hughes’ entry, generally organized along ancient bardic principles (“alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme”), read: “Anyone who cares about the way they dine demands Heinz.” Not bad, if a little, I don’t know, barony. But he was blown away by the eventual winner, the Hughes line admitted to being “inspired”: “Beanz Meanz Heinz”. Do you know who wrote this? I do not.

James parker is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and has written for Slate, The Boston Globe and Arthur Magazine. He was a writer for the Boston Phoenix and won a 2008 Deems Taylor Award for Music Criticism from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.


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