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?
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.