Literary Fiction vs. Popular Fiction: a Big or Not-So-Big Divide?

Fiction is often described as either “literary” or “popular.” But the lines are often blurry between those two categories — and between authors associated with each category.

I read and love fiction in both categories, and I’m sure most of you do, too. Actually, many a novel is both literary and mass-audience-oriented — making the so-called divide rather artificial (snobbish?) and perhaps unnecessary. Even books that are clearly in one category or the other might be by authors who wrote different works that belong in the opposite category.

Before I get into specific titles, I want to discuss the difference between literary and popular fiction — when they are indeed different. Popular fiction of course often sells better (though not always), but what about the content?

I’m generalizing here, and there are many exceptions, but the best literary fiction has excellent prose, psychological complexity, characters who are finely drawn and nuanced (not totally good or bad), some challenging aspects (such as stories that don’t unfold chronologically), and frequently ambiguous endings, among other elements.

Popular fiction might or might not be very well-written; is often linear, fun, plot-oriented, action-packed, and sentimental; might confirm a reader’s worldview rather than question it; and so on.

Genre fiction such as mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, thriller, and romance novels often get placed in the popular category even though some specific books in those categories have plenty of literary moments.

I would add that many book lovers intuitively know the difference between literary and popular fiction when they see it, even if they can’t always articulate the specifics defining each category.

This topic occurred to me as I’ve been reading Anne Rice for the first time this month. Rice is considered a popular-fiction writer, but her 965-page The Witching Hour has many passages that feel literary. One of many examples from the novel: “When the sun had vanished, a great fiery layer lay upon the horizon from end to end of the world. That lasted perhaps an hour and then the sky was but a pale pink and at last a deep blue, blue as the sea.” Plus The Witching Hour interestingly bounces around in time — including an extended section that starts in 1689 and takes readers through 300 years of the Mayfair family and how some of its women seemingly possess supernatural powers.

Stephen King is another prominent author who comes to mind when discussing a mass-audience approach, but the guy clearly has literary chops, too. For instance, his From a Buick 8 is a writing gem that’s popular fiction yet transcends popular fiction.

Among the many other novels I feel straddle the popular/literary divide are Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Colette’s The Vagabond, Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, Erich Maria Remarque’s The Black Obelisk, Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye, James Clavell’s Shogun, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, and most fiction works by Charles Dickens, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and John Irving, to name a few boundary-crossing authors.

In countless cases, authors get deeper and more literary as their careers go on. Herman Melville first penned mass-audience novels like Typee before entering heavier territory with novels such as Moby-Dick and short stories such as Bartleby, the Scrivener. Robert Louis Stevenson was known for popular fiction like Treasure Island and popular/literary hybrids like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde before becoming quite literary with his exquisite final unfinished novel Weir of Hermiston.

One can also see how authors’ later writing matured when comparing J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit with his subsequent The Lord of the Rings, and when contrasting J.K. Rowling’s first two Harry Potter books with the more complex installments that followed.

Of course, there are terrific popular-fiction authors (such as Lee Child and John Grisham) who offer readers only the occasional literary flourish. And there are iconic literary authors (like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Toni Morrison) who are almost never boring amid their brilliance — meaning they’re sort of popular-fiction writers, too.

What are your thoughts about the literary fiction/popular fiction divide? What is it about the content of a novel that places it in either category? Which literary-fiction authors write/wrote some popular fiction? Which popular-fiction authors write/wrote some literary fiction? Or combine the two approaches in one novel? What are some of those hybrid novels?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

101 thoughts on “Literary Fiction vs. Popular Fiction: a Big or Not-So-Big Divide?

  1. Popular fiction sometimes gets a bad rap. Readers who criticise this genre tend to feel that pop fiction has no literary or cultural value, and that is simply not true. Take Octavia Butler, for example. She only wrote futuristic/sci-fi novels, but Butler was not your usual sci-fi author. She integrated social issues, environmental issues, religion, feminism, spirituality, and humanism in just about everything she wrote. Her prose was beautiful; writing style was superb. She could easily be placed in the literary fiction category, but for whatever reason, she’s not.

    Alistair MacLean is another example. He was a suspense/action/adventure writer. Never tried to venture into any other genre. But what MacLean lacked in prose, character development, etc., he more than made up for in other ways. Anyone who is familiar with Alistair MacLean’s work knows that he was a master storyteller, geography expert, and WWII history buff.

    On top of those attributes, his descriptive writing was amazing. Readers can almost feel the bone-chilling cold of the German alps, or experience the protagonists’ fears of the Hungarian police. His writing style was just that convincing. Would I place Alistair MacLean in the literary fiction category? Absolutely. Unfortunately his mass appeal to people who like action, suspense, covert operations, and WWII history will probably keep him in the popular fiction category.

    One thing I can appreciate about popular fiction is its influence in other areas such as pop culture. Stephen King turned the name “Christine” into a very popular name for vehicles and made people treat their cars with a little more respect (lol). And of course Cujo, both the movie and book, are still quite popular over 30 years later.

    V.C. Andrews made her contributions to pop culture as well. She created a massive cult following after her Dollanganger series was published throughout the late 70s and 80s. Her psychological thrillers were so disturbing….but they were hard to put down. After book # 2, you just had to read book # 3 to see how the characters progressed from the previous book. V.C. Andrews is just as popular now as she was back then.
    So even though authors like Andrews are not ranked high with the standard literary greats, I can still appreciate and acknowledge their unique contributions to literature and pop culture as a whole.

    My opinion is people should read whatever makes them happy. If Reader A chooses Stephen King over Oscar Wilde, that’s fine. If Reader B chooses Alistair MacLean over Nathaniel Hawthorne, that’s fine too. Literary fiction or pop fiction, I don’t think it really matters as long as people are reading something that interests them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well said, Ana! If I had to choose, I’d pick literary fiction over popular fiction, but I’m glad I don’t have to choose and can read both. And as you and others have said, sometimes the “categories” merge (as with Octavia Butler), even popular fiction that’s “just” popular fiction can be VERY entertaining and/or riveting, and mass-market writers like Stephen King can have a big impact on culture (while doing some literary stuff, too).

      I’ve read one Alistair MacLean novel — “Where Eagles Dare” — on your recommendation, and it was excellent. The suspense was almost unbearable, the setting (the snowed-in German castle) was amazing, the characters were memorable (even if some weren’t that three-dimensional), the dialogue was snappy, and the plot twists and turns (and the dual loyalties) were ingenious.

      I must give V.C. Andrews a try one of these days!

      Great last paragraph by you, too.

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  2. “Actually, many a novel is both literary and mass-audience-oriented — making the so-called divide rather artificial (snobbish?) and perhaps unnecessary” Definitely unnecessary in my opinion, Dave, but a great topic nonetheless! I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I know this is a safe place, so I can say that I’m a fan of the “Twilight” saga. They’re not literature. They’re not even good. But something in them spoke to the 16 year-old girl in me, and she really enjoyed them. With all the other stress in the world, she doesn’t get to have much fun anymore, so I don’t mind giving her some Vampire romance 🙂 However your blog reminded me of a conversation I once had with a young man who also enjoyed “Twilight”. And while I didn’t understand what he could see in them, I figured to each their own, as long as you’re reading something that you enjoy. But he lost me when he said they were good. And I somehow confused him when I said they were terrible, but I enjoyed them anyway. And I can go the other way. I recognise that Tolkein was a gifted writer, but his stories did nothing to captivate me. Along the same kind of lines, at one of my recent book group meetings, one of our readers said she struggles to understand WHY she likes some books more than others. And it got me thinking, and I realised I have no idea. I’m not the best reader in the world. Sometimes I can read a paragraph (or a whole page) but not actually absorb it. I can’t quote passages, and descriptions just don’t stand out to me. At least not on a conscious level. But I still walk away feeling that either I enjoyed it, or I didn’t, and I’m not completely sure why.

    Anyway, to switch to an unrelated topic, I know that you’re a fan of “The Hunger Games”. I tried a few times to read the books, but something about Collins’ style just put me off. However I did recently watch the first two movies, and thoroughly enjoyed them (despite them being ‘mass-audience-oriented’, so maybe not so unrelated) and so I’ve decided to read “Mockingjay” and am very much looking forward to it. Will let you know what I think 🙂

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    • Thanks, Susan, for the kind words and stellar comment! Yes, I wish there wasn’t such a divide (an often artificial one) between literary and mass-market fiction. I guess part of it is that some people have to feel they’re more high-brow than others — whether it be with books or where they sit on an airplane — and publishers, marketers, etc., are aware of that and feed into that.

      No need to be apologetic about being a fan of “Twilight.” 🙂 We all have our guilty reading pleasures. If there is a book lover who ONLY reads “the classics,” I have yet to meet her or him. My guilty reading pleasures include the Jack Reacher books and time-travel novels, among others.

      And those were interesting thoughts of yours about how we can enjoy a novel or series while still being aware that it’s not good. Though a lot of popular fiction, as you know, IS good. I’ve never read any of the “Twilight” books, so I can’t offer an opinion on them.

      I also hear you about how a reader can’t always analyze why she or he likes or doesn’t like a novel. We just know it, and that’s okay. Sometimes, we also can’t quite figure out why we like or don’t like a person! 🙂

      I did indeed find “The Hunger Games” trilogy compelling, though the books were more an A- than A+ read for me. I liked the first two books better than the third. The third was perhaps the “deepest” installment, but…well…I’m just not sure why I didn’t like it as much. It was depressing as hell, yet the first two books were as well.

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      • I don’t know about stellar, but it’s definitely long. Sorry for the ramble. And I agree about not knowing why we like some people. And I reckon it can go the other way. I’m sure there have been people that I didn’t like, but couldn’t quite put my finger on why.
        Re “The Hunger Games” I was looking forward to the second movie being better than the first, and found myself a little disappointed. I’m not sure why I thought they’d get better as the series went on, as almost all of my experience has been the exact opposite. “Harry Potter” may be one of the few exceptions that seemed to just get better and better. Anyway, it means I’ve lowered my expectations for “Mockingjay” which is probably a good thing. Have you seen the movies?
        Re “The Witching Hour” I can’t believe you read a hardcover! I can’t believe they even published it in hardcover format. Who needs a gym hey?

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        • Ha, Susan! Yes, “The Witching Hour” was a 965-page gym! 🙂 I borrowed the book from someone I know in my town, which is how I ended up with a hardcover.

          I agree that the “Harry Potter” books and movies didn’t fade in the least as they went on. Of course, the thrill of being introduced to a whole new world in the first “HP” novel was hard to top, but J.K. Rowling became a more accomplished writer as the series went on. And, in the films, the acting by Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint just got better and better as they got older and more experienced in front of a camera.

          I have not seen any of “The Hunger Games” movies. Not sure why, except I don’t go to many films… The “Harry Potter” ones were an exception. 🙂

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  3. Ooops, I accidentally pressed post before I finished typing! What I was going to say is that you have brought forth such an amazing question almost and it really got me thinking. I do believe there is such a divide (and a big one) between popular fiction and pure literature. I feel that mass fiction which is popular and on the popular sellers lists to be a little bit tedious almost. Dont get me wrong! They are mostly great, however sometimes I find the writing is not that great as it has been written in such a way that will appeal to everyone… if this makes sense. I also find that the different stories blend together… there are nothing really special or unique about any of them. Whereas, with literature I believe you can find some rare gems. Most often than not, the best books are actually harder to find and are not on the best seller lists. You have to seek them out almost and that is a rareity which I love. But yes! sorry for the epic comments and sorry for how rushed and poorly written these are! I am just racing ahead so I can read your other posts! I truly adore them. Keep it up! (:

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    • Thanks, RedHeadedBookLover, for your very interesting thoughts on the literary/mass-market divide! I guess it varies — some novels are clearly in one category or another while other novels are a kind of combination.

      I love both categories, but I agree that a great literary novel can be much more satisfying (as long as it has at least some entertainment value). When I read, say, a Dostoyevsky or George Eliot novel, I’m transfixed in a way that even the best popular fiction can’t match — though the best popular fiction (like the Jack Reacher series) is darn good.

      And you’re right that literary gems often don’t sell as well and can be hard to find — so when we do learn about and find and read them, there’s a real sense of accomplishment. 🙂

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      • This made me laugh when I saw your comment on Jack Reacher! You are very right, Jack Reacher is darn good! And you reminded me, I need to pick up the next book in the series! I am miles behind you. But yes, I agree very much with what you said, it is actually nice to read a mass market book, because they are fun, and mostly light reads. Plus sometimes it can be exhausting looking for a hidden gem! I can’t wait to read more from you (:

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        • Thanks for your reply, RedHeadedBookLover! As I mentioned elsewhere in this comments area, I’m currently reading a Jack Reacher book (2002’s excellent “Without Fail”) before returning to something “deeper.” But Reacher is always “in deep” when it comes to intrigue and danger. 🙂

          I’m planning to post a new column tonight. And, as I said before, I look forward to your next piece!

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  4. I haven’t been on wordpress in a while now and have only just now realized how many of your posts I have missed! So I am definitely going to be catching up on them tonight, starting with this one! This is such an incredibly and beautifully written post, but we wouldn’t expect any less! You are the great Dave Astor after all! Y

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  5. Another excellent blog Dave..literary or not..I stay away from horror novels, Sci-fi books are not my faves either but when comes to sci-fi movies love them . My favorites are thrillers or mystery novels. Psychological books I love to read when authors dwell in different complex human characters as we see in real world.
    I used to read James Patterson long time ago now he writes books with other authors they come out monthly or biweekly I have no interest in those.
    Now Grisham i used to read long ago then after years of break I started reading them again.

    Just other day I picked up ” The Enemy Inside” by Steve Martini my first one by him read only a few pages and liking it. So another author I could go back to.

    Oh by the way GSAW is already on our shelve are you planning to read it ?
    Just curious.
    For me after reading a complex book I take a break and read some other kinds. Love Lee child`s books he never seems to disappoint me.

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    • Thanks for the great comment, bebe! I also like to read a less-complex novel after reading a complex one. And it sounds like you read in several genres even though you mostly avoid some other genres.

      I did look for “Go Set a Watchman” during my last library visit, but it wasn’t there. When it is, I’ll take it out! I’m not bothering with a waiting list. 🙂

      Sorry this reply is a little short but I have to run out for a while. 😦

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      • Just got back, bebe.

        Yes, James Patterson using assistant writers is off-putting. Glad you’re liking Steve Martini; I’ve never read him.

        The Reacher novel “Without Fail” is excellent so far (no surprise there 🙂 ). Interesting plot hook — Jack is asked by a Secret Service person to try to assassinate the (fictional) vice president-elect of the United States to test if there are any holes in the veep-elect’s Secret Service protection!

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  6. Dave! This is my first post be kind 😉 Twain, Sagan, Rice. I think these three will do if I can pen down my erratic thinking. All certainly have been at one point “popular” and literary significant maybe a stretch on Sagan and Rice because they are pigeonholed in their own genre.

    I cannot fathom having any discussion about literature without mentioning Twain. Anytime I read, last time was a few years back, Huck Finn I can feel myself adrift on a raft on the Mississippi, funny the first time I read it was during childhood summer, trapped in the concrete walls of a NYC apartment. I struggled with two things, the language and the injustice of the Antebellum era. Not the first choice when thinking literary works but certainly noteworthy.

    Sagan? He has been the mentor I never met. He brought science and humanity to the masses with elegance, never assuming that we could not understand the scientific method. For many years after reading his books I focused only on science. Then he hit his fans with the fictional work Contact, to me it was a journey trough space/time to meet ourselves or better said what we can become. As far as a popular lit work goes this delivers.

    I’m fascinated by Rice. I read all the Vampire Chronicles books never thinking I would be a fan when I read Interview with the Vampire. What I like about her style of writing is that it draws you in; so descriptive that you feel you’re in that room being part of the story.

    I almost forgot, for character development nothing beats Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. I must admit a chauvinism in saying that if a novel has Elves, Trolls and that sort of stuff I never give it a chance—sorry J. R. R. Tolkien 🙂

    Thanks for this wonderful blog.

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    • Hi Jack, I just wanted to say welcome to this group of book lovers, exemplified by our blogger, Dave. This is a great group, who never criticize another commenter, and also give many recommendations of authors to read. It’s something I look forward to every week!

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    • Jack, my deepest apologies for not responding sooner; for some reason I didn’t receive an email notification that you had posted a comment — a terrific and eloquent comment, I might add. 🙂

      Mark Twain definitely bridges the literary/popular gap — not only in “Huckleberry Finn” but also in novels such as “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.” “Tom Sawyer” is not quite as literary, but it’s certainly iconic — and so exciting and entertaining!

      I read Carl Sagan’s “Contact” many years ago. Given how many professional hats Sagan wore, and the fact that he also wrote lots of nonfiction works, I remember being impressed that he could also pen a very good novel. Perhaps a bit clunky at times, but very good.

      I finished Anne Rice’s “The Witching Hour” after writing this week’s blog post, and it is indeed a highly descriptive (and excellent) novel. Clearly a literary/mass-market hybrid in my eyes even though Rice is pigeon-holed as a genre writer. “The Witching Hour” could have been a couple-hundred pages shorter, but…

      Thank you very much for your comment — and for the kind words about this blog!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Jack, your first or your hundredth post, Dave is always kind 🙂 I agree with Kat Lib that this is a great blog with great comments that I always look forward to. Welcome from me as well 🙂

      I fell in love with Anne Rice’s vampires when I was around 15-16, but as I get older, I find that her style of writing has less impact on me. I’m curious about whether you have read any of her other books, and whether you’ve read any of her more recent vampire novels?

      Dave, I am seriously impressed that you got through “The Witching Hour” in such a short time!

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      • Susan, I greatly appreciate the kind words about this blog! And, yes, so many terrific comments — by you and others. Plus terrific book recommendations! For instance, thanks for being one of the people to recommend the often-riveting “The Witching Hour.” It took me about 2 1/2 weeks to read it, and I used every spare minute — even if it was just to finish a few pages at a time. Excellent aerobic exercise, too, lugging that hardcover around. 🙂 I’m curious about what happened to Lasher, Rowan, and Michael in “The Witching Hour” sequels, but I’m not sure I have the endurance to eventually read them. My next very long novel will probably be Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch,” but I’ll read some shorter books first…

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  7. Two thoughts:

    So much of the course of study in literature concerns its history. Would we read “Pamela” anymore were it not considered by some in the field to be the first English novel? Maybe, but mostly to prepare us to enjoy the riposte that is “Joseph Andrews”.

    Maybe contemporary literature and popular fiction are distinguishable most of all by the size of the imagined audience by its respective practitioners and publishers.

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    • Some novels ARE more interesting for their historical value than for their actual content. Another example of that is the 11th-century novel “The Tale of Genji.” And I LOVE “Joseph Andrews” even though I never read “Pamela”; “JA” can stand alone. It’s hilarious.

      And, yes, there is something to be said for sales being one of the things explaining the difference between literary fiction and mass-market fiction.

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        • There were parts of “Genji” I also liked a lot, but as a novel I found it to be a bit of a snooze. Not a scintillating plot or amazing prose or a lot of character development. But impressive as a VERY early novel, or pre-novel.

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    • jhNY and Dave, I actually read a Penguin or Signet Classics edition of “Pamela” many years ago, that included in the same book, the parody written in response by Henry Fielding entitled “Shamela.” As I recall, it was very amusing.

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      • Interesting, Kat Lib, that Henry Fielding essentially wrote TWO responses to “Pamela.” He must have really had Samuel Richardson on the brain — perhaps an 18th-century version of Gore Vidal vs. William F. Buckley or Mary McCarthy vs. Lillian Hellman. 🙂

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  8. Dave, I’ve read a few books that cross over to the literary realm from what would normally be a popular fiction mold. Most of the books in that vein are really the author at the height of their craft. Terry Pratchett became more literary as he wrote. His fist couple of books were very much genre fiction even if they also qualified as satire. Later on the Discworld series becomes far more literary in books like “The Thief of Time” where even the established characters change and he examines what it means to be human.

    As you said once in a while a literary passage shows up in random places as an author grows. I’ve seen a very literary phrase in what was an erotic romance. Never know where those lines will pop up.

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    • Excellent comment, GL! Thanks! I still have to try Terry Pratchett one of these days. Nice to know he got better and better during his career, and imbued his characters with more and more depth.

      And, yes, when a very mass-market novel suddenly contains a literary passage, it’s an unexpected thrill!

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  9. Items from a commercial press go into print because somebody saw a market, or thought they did, for the published work. Lots of the time, somebody was at least a little mistaken– but then less often, somebody is right beyond all reasonable expectations (see Rowlings, JK). But expectation of profit is the essential reaction that those who would be published for sale must invoke. Most of the time, that means the item slots into known sales categories or genres, such as, in fiction, young adult/ coming of age, suspense/horror, Detective/Espionage, etc. Woe betide the writers today who write what they write without regard to them. Where in the bookstore (virtual or brick and mortar) will their work be displayed?

    Which brings me to my point: the genre categories are freighted with expectations, conventions that are also kissing cousins to cliche. Which means a lot of writers, attempting to succeed in their business, will attempt to write in conformity with their genre readership’s expectations.

    Hard to get fresh things out of such preparations. Harder to get literature. But, if literature can be made by making the best possible use of conventions, then many writers have qualified. Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (war reminiscence) comes to mind, Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (mystery/detective) also, and Fitzgerald’s The Far Side of Paradise (coming of age). I guess it’s mostly a matter of exceeding expectations, rather than supplanting them, for popular writers of literature.

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    • jhNY, a very wise comment about the need for marketing “slots,” the limitations those “slots” put on authors, and how some authors occasionally write great and original and literary stuff despite those “slots.” I suppose that when particular writers become best-selling authors, they have enough clout to perhaps not be boxed into a certain category for their next novels, yet a number of those successful writers may not want to risk leaving the category that made them rich and famous.

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  10. Hi Dave, I think the difference to me can be summed up by two different English teachers I had in junior or senior high school. One said, I don’t care what you read as long as you are reading something — even comic books. The other one chastised me for picking out a book when the book library bus came to school of a Mary Stewart (romantic suspense, but very well written) novel. I’ve always tried to mix up my reading with both serious and those that are less so. I’m as eclectic in my tastes for books as I am for music or art. I used to see this as a failing on my part, but the older I get, I see it as something positive that has enriched my life in so many ways.

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    • Very well said, Kat Lib! Yes, some people are book “snobs” while other people feel that reading almost anything is a wonderful thing. Like you, I’m in the latter camp — and am glad we both are!

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      • The last time I tried to read a modern book that was considered “literary” was Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections.” This was following the “war” between him and Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner. I’ve only read one of the two women’s books, Picoult’s “My Sister’s Keeper,” which I threw in the trash because after enjoying the book I hated the ending. I started to read Franzen’s book that I’d picked up at a library sale for next to nothing, but I ended up throwing it in the trash after just a few chapters, not something I normally do, but I thought it was awful. So go figure.

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        • I guess modern “literary” novels vary in quality, as I suppose older ones did, too. (We know more about the good older ones because the bad older ones are often out of print and forgotten.)

          Some of my favorite modern “literary” novels of the past few decades include A.S. Byatt’s “Possession,” Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex,” and almost anything by Barbara Kingsolver (who I know you’re a big fan of) and Margaret Atwood. I also liked Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”; I haven’t read his “The Corrections.”

          I know we’ve discussed Jodi Picoult’s “My Sister’s Keeper,” and I agree that the ending was a train wreck (though the wrecked mode of transportation wasn’t a train).

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          • I just got back from lunch with my guy friend, and I expounded on my dislike of “My Sister’s Keeper,” until his eyes started to glaze over. 🙂 I remain in a reading drought ever since my nephew-in-law died last spring and one of my best friends and across the hall neighbor died last weekend from bone cancer. I know I’ll get past this at some point, but between all that and my broken wrist (which is getting better all the time) it’s been a tough year. I don’t think I’ve read any Margaret Atwood, so which book would you recommend I start with?

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            • Sorry about your reading drought, Kat Lib. Totally understandable that you’d be feeling down after those two devastating deaths (one so recent) and with your health issues. Glad your wrist is healing well, at least.

              Hmm…which Margaret Atwood book to start with. I guess I’ll just list and briefly describe my six favorites (not necessarily in order) and you can decide. 🙂 All excellent!

              — “The Handmaid’s Tale” (dystopian/feminist novel that’s her most famous work)

              — “Alias Grace” (historical novel about a real-life Canadian double murder in the 19th century)

              — “The Robber Bride” (a “friend” betrays her three girlfriends)

              — “The Blind Assassin” (multi-layered book about two very different sisters that has another novel within the novel)

              — “Cat’s Eye” (feminist painter looks back on her childhood)

              — “Oryx and Crake” (speculative fiction that’s apocalyptic but also hilarious)

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                • I’ve always been drawn to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” because of my very strong pro-choice beliefs. My most beloved sister underwent a therapeutic abortion after she was exposed to the German measles as a teacher when she was pregnant many years ago.

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                  • Yes, “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Margaret Atwood are very pro-choice, as am I. For so many reasons, including medically necessary ones such as your sister’s procedure. As you might remember from my book, the right to have an abortion ironically made it possible for me and my (now ex) wife to have a healthy daughter. Basically, a woman — not a bunch of reactionary male politicians and religious “leaders” — should have the right to decide on the abortion question.

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                    • Well, I just did my first coloring project tonight since my friend died, so I think I’m about ready to get back to reading. I had a gift card for Barnes & Noble and picked up a few books that interested me — mainly “The Martian” by Andy Weir. My sister hadn’t read the book, but loved the movie. I also started to read “Do Unto Animals,” by Tracey Stewart, Jon’s wife, who have started a farm sanctuary in New Jersey. I hope to have read at least some of these books before your next posting; you’ve had no idea how much I look forward to your weekly posts. Thank you!

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                    • Great that you’re about to get back to reading, Kat Lib!

                      I’d love to read “The Martian,” too, though I imagine there’s quite a waiting list for it at my local library.

                      Tracey Stewart is a VERY humane person, as is her husband. His work on “The Daily Show” was not only hilarious — one could also tell his heart was in the right place on so many issues.

                      And thank you for looking forward to my weekly posts! I always look forward to your excellent comments, too!

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                    • I don’t understand why feminist organisations like NOW, Emily’s List, and League of Women Voters don’t collaborate with Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and Center for Reproductive Rights to wage counterattacks against the pro-birth movement.

                      The only time I see these organisations team up is to release a joint statement when a federal judge strikes down state level anti-choice laws. The pro-birth movement is very coordinated and successful in limiting reproductive freedom. The response to their actions from pro-choice supporters has been timid.

                      Pro-birthers have shown us time and time again they will resort to gutter-level strategies to accomplish their goals of controlling women and creating a country based on their biblical principles. Democrats and our allies need to be just as forceful as the other side, and unfortunately I don’t see that happening.

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                    • I wish there WOULD be more of that collaboration. You’re right that there has been too much timidity when fighting the very well-funded, very aggressive/vicious, very conservative, often very religious, very male-oriented anti-abortion forces. (Yes, there are some women in those forces, but it’s a male-dominated movement.) And, as you know, abortion restrictions affect mostly the non-rich, because wealthy people (including wealthy anti-choice reactionaries) can still get abortions relatively easily despite the restrictions.

                      Great comment, Ana.

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  11. One of my favorite writers is Big Jim Thompson, a hard-boiled crime writer who earned a reputation as “Dimestore Dostoevsky”.

    You speak about literary writers who produce popular work or popular writers who create literary work – but with Big Jim, you would get three throw-away chapters followed by one that would take your breath away.

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    • “Dimestore Dostoevsky” — what a fabulous nickname! I’ll give Jim Thompson a try when I can. Just looked at his bibliography on Wikipedia, and recognized some titles.

      And I loved your line about how Thompson could produce some so-so chapters and then a knockout one. Another way of defining “the element of surprise” in literature!

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          • I think one of today’s writers who still does serial writing is Alexander McCall Smith, whose “44 Scotland Street” series appeared in “The Scotsman.” He is a very prolific writer, perhaps known best for his “No. 1 Ladies Detective” series set in Botswana, but he has many other series, such as “The Sunday Philosopher’s Club,” “Corduroy Mansions,” and standalone novels. I’ve fallen behind in keeping up with his various series, but I do find, while not in the same class as Dickens, he is a very warm and witty writer who doesn’t need to fall back into bad language

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  12. Conditionally I correlate popular fiction with authors who have written many books like Stephen King or Nelson DeMille for two examples. Yet Joyce Carol Oates has written several novels yet she is most certainly literary. Then you have Laura Hillenbrand,hasn’t written as many books,but in the popular non fiction world, “Seabiscuit” and “Unbroken” books,both made into films,makes her by millions of books sold,immensely well known in multiple genres. I just watched the film “Unbroken”. To add to the mix the screenplay is written by the Coen brothers!

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    • Astute observation, Michele! Popular fiction is usually easier to write than literary fiction, so the authors who churn out tons of novels tend to be in the former category. But, as you note, there are the occasional ultra-prolific/often-literary authors like Joyce Carol Oates. And as I mentioned in my column, I think Stephen King can be literary at times.

      I’ve yet to read Laura Hillenbrand, but hear her writing is GREAT!

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  13. I wonder whether the passage of time has something to do with whether or not fiction eventually falls into the “popular” fiction or “literary” fiction category? I’m sure some of the books we were assigned to read in high school and college might have started out as “popular” fiction and graduated to “literary” fiction because the subject matter and the prose proved to be timeless?? Some might say that Fannie Flagg writes popular fiction, but she is such a GREAT writer that I have to categorize her as a writer of “literary” fiction. I hope that a hundred years from now people continue to discover her wonderful work!

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    • I agree about Fannie Flagg, lulabelle. Her fantastic “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” is entertaining, socially conscious, AND literary. The prose, the jumps in time, the subtle relationship between Idgie and Ruth…

      And a terrific point about how time can turn popular fiction into at least partly literary fiction. Heck, if a work endures for decades and more, its timelessness is almost literary in of itself…

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      • On the other hand, I don’t think that the works of Harold Robbins will ever graduate from being “popular” fiction to anything other than “unpopular” fiction. 🙂

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        • LOL, lulabelle! You have a point there. 🙂

          I once saw Harold Robbins in a NYC restaurant or bar, back in the late 1970s, I think. I was with a college friend who was visiting from Mississippi, and he was so “awed” by seeing a trashy author celebrity that he kept repeating to me: “F—in’ Harold Robbins! ‘The Betsy’!” I found that hilarious enough to still remember more than 35 years later.

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  14. Literary fiction has a denser style, richer layers of meaning in each line and also, like you mentioned, more experimentation than straight-up mass market fiction. My favorite is a hybrid of the two. I would also add Patricia Cornwell and Gyllian Flynn in that list. All the books and writers you mentioned are good examples, too. The only one I disagree with us Shogun; it’s historically enlightening bit, in my humble opinion, not written in a particularly literary style.

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    • Excellent description of some literary-fiction elements, Eve. Thanks! And, yes, when a novel is both literary and mass-market, it can be a powerful, satisfying combination.

      You may be right about “Shogun.” I found the novel historically interesting (as you noted) and very “exotic,” but may have confused that with literary. 🙂

      I have yet to read Patricia Cornwell or Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”). One of these days…

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  15. “Popular fiction” in this political climate we are facing has a lot more to do with economic instability, gambling by hedge funds and wall street, and a lack of accountability by anyone. That’s unfortunately where my own head finds itself, with great writing being crowded out today by mass media. Time to step back, chill out, read some good books. Great article today, Dave. As always! Thanks!

    Wishing all those lovely people of France and any place hit by this weeks’ horrors of war a better, brighter tomorrow. My thoughts are with you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, hopewfaith. Nice to hear from you! Excellent and heartfelt comment.

      Yes, news of disasters, corruption, and more can crowd out other things from our field of vision — and the “spin” a lot of the media put in their coverage does seem to mix fiction with fact.

      As you note, reading good novels can give people a break — and those books can be more truthful than much of what we see in the media. Plus some novels deal with the issues of the day. Heck, even some escapist fiction like the Jack Reacher books addresses terrorism (whether committed by countries or individuals), poverty, racism, sexism, and more.

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