Literary Fiction vs. Commercial Fiction vs. Feminism


Hey everyone! It’s Holmes from HolmesStorybooks
and I’m here to talk to you today about commercial and literary fiction. This has
been a really interesting discussion point, started by Simon from SavidgeReads and a couple
of people (like Britta Bohler and WildeReads) have responded, so I thought I’d throw my
two cents in as well. This response video drifts from a lot of the original points a
lot of other people have made, but let’s get started. So I define commercial fiction or genre fiction
as fiction with a fast plot, often in a series, though it can be standalone, with high stakes.
Characterisation can be simpler, though no less effective and there’s a lot less ruminating
on a particular theme or idea, and more of a focus on something like a case to be solved,
a spouse to be won over or a heist to be sprung. Simple, moreish and at times, formulaic, commercial
fiction sells incredibly well and is a serious staple of most library budgets, secondhand
bookshops and supermarket shelves. Literary fiction can be a little harder to
define. I think the connotation of literary alone tends to turn people off. Typically
taught in high school and college classrooms in many countries, literary fiction is often
discussed for its ‘merits’ — the very word ‘merit’ makes my blood boil. Who
decides what ‘merit’ is and what makes a book ‘literary’ often have a particular
social capital, are educated, and are considered to be experts in their chosen field for sometimes
arbitrary reasons. If we look at many book prizes from the past few years, it’s really
evident to see that women, women of colour, queer writers and other minority groups are
often excluded from these circles, or, reversely, held up as the beacon for their minority to
the exclusion of all other perspectives. Literary and academic circles can be exhausting and
isolating but, through literary prizes and discussions, they can support writers and
introduce authors to a new audience of readers. Literary fiction tends to focus more on themes
or use well-developed characters to reveal something about ourselves, our society and
how we interact with each other. Literary fiction is actually one of my favourite genres,
I love books that I can really chew on, mull over and think about over and over again.
Of course I love a good plot, excellent characters even more so but I love the way authors can
play with language or formatting in a way they might not be able to do in commercial
fiction. That said, I think there are clear examples
of books that are both commercial fiction and literary fiction. This might be a whole
other video in and of itself but one could almost consider classics a wonderful example
of genre fiction becoming literary. Jane Austen is a perfect example, romances of their time,
now discussed in university classrooms everywhere. Accessible, widely-read but sometimes still
ignored for their romance aspect, Austen’s books are the perfect marriage between literary
and commercial, in my humble opinion. I read really quite widely and I think one
of the reasons literary fiction appeals to me so much is because it isn’t limited by
genre. I love Gothic Southern fiction, I love historical fiction, I love cult classic books,
I love short stories, genuinely, give me anything and I will probably read it. For me, and this might sound bizarre, but
so much of my initial attitudes towards commercial fiction, or genre fiction or literary fiction
can be looked at through a feminist lens. That sounds really scholarly and archaic but
it’s super simple. When I was young, I didn’t used to read
genre fiction much at all. In fact I read almost exclusively classics and literary fiction.
I didn’t like YA at all, and it didn’t help that as a genre, in my time, it really
focused on vampires and love triangles. I found, on the whole, rather than allowing
me to escape, YA was merely a bookish version of surface-level gossip I was inundated with
at school. Now, I think the genre has improved a lot and I have also gotten better at identifying
my reading tastes — but when I was 17? A whole other story all together. I used to consider myself ‘not like other
readers’ and while I never looked down upon the actual readers of genre fiction, looking
at the whole collection of it on the shelves used to bore me. I mean, who wants to read about a detective
solving 79 different cases in 79 different books? Interesting logic I had considering
one of my favourite books of all time was the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur-Conan
Doyle, arguably one of the best commercial pieces of fiction of all time. I think a love of commercial fiction comes
from the fascination of the genre. As my mum so eloquently said, in regards to the crime
genre, there is fascination in both the behaviour and motivation of the criminal (so, the psychological
aspects), and the police procedural or investigative aspects of the case. In well-written crime
books, the major characters are well-developed and sometimes written in multiple perspectives,
which heightens the tension and suspense. Kingsley Amis, who himself was a writer, famously
refused to read the work of his son, Martin Amis, who wrote literary fiction. Amis Sr.
apparently refused to read anything unless it began with “a shot rang out in the darkness”,
so Kingsley allegedly never read any books written by his son, particularly as he got
older. Although, interestingly there was one subgenre
of commercial fiction I gravitated towards, and it was romance fiction. A friend of mine
dared me to read Captain Jack’s Woman by Stephanie Laurens, which I found at once nauseatingly
sweet and also delicious in its readability. I read like, half of it in a day. There was
a pirate and a woman dressed as a man and then the hero was like, I’m into this person,
does that make my gay? And, like, what more did I want in a novel? Romance continued to be my bookish equivalent
of cotton candy, carrying me through any major exam times and sometimes helping me fall asleep
at night. I don’t always read romance books, or bodice tearers as they’re fondly known
in my house, but when I do, I really binge-read them. However, the majority of books I read were
considered to be cult classics or literary fiction. I read what I thought I was supposed
to read. I read lots of modern classics by William S. Burroughs (mostly because he was
queer and I was starved for queer representation) and Jack Kerouac, whose writing I liked less
and less the more I read. I read Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger and loathed it, couldn’t
finish The Stranger by Albert Camus because it was so depressing. I read and loved F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The
Great Gatsby and a selection of his short stories. His writing is spectacular because
he manages to carefully pick apart the American dream without criticising those who follow
it. I did read Martin Amis — I read Dead Babies,
which is a story about a group of young people who rent a house and get up to all sorts of
drug and sex-filled antics. At the time, I loved it because I was 17 and it totally wasn’t
marketed towards a young woman like me. And although Amis’ writing was fun (a sort of
P.G. Wodehouse meets Marquis de Sade to echo the blurb) the women in his books were poorly
written, poorly constructed echoes of ideas of women. This continues to be a theme in a lot of the
literary fiction that I read — modern or otherwise (looking at you George Orwell — god
why did I read 1984? Why? WHY?). Lots of these authors were cis white men, sometimes gay,
but a consistent theme in their work was they didn’t like women or found them inconsequential.
This affected me more than I think realised and the only person who gave me excellent
reading suggestions was my mum. She told me to read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen,
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, The Secret History by Donna Tartt — all brilliant books I’ve
loved. But it did take me years to get around to reading them, so in the meantime I continued
to read a particular brand of literary fiction. So much of that was me desperately trying
to prove myself. I felt that if I read books that were considered literary, then I would
be taken seriously. I think all young girls hunger to be taken seriously and I didn’t
want anything (particularly genre fiction) to jeopardise that. And this comes into the crux of my argument
in that I treated reading in the same way I did feminism. I assured myself I “wasn’t
like other girls.” This was compounded by the fact that I was (and still am) bisexual
and so my attraction to other women allowed me to be more like the boys I hung out with
(somehow). I don’t want to go so far as to say I wasn’t
a feminist, but I do want to say that I wasn’t ready to defend my feminism. I had feminist
thoughts and feelings but I rarely called anyone out in public. I didn’t want to offend
anyone because I didn’t want to be labelled a lesbian femi-nazi, which was compounded,
once again by the fact that I was actually queer and generally preferred women, and sometimes
entertained the ‘radical’ notion of shaving my head. In my efforts to be liked and approved of,
I avoided a lot of things I might’ve actually enjoyed. One of those things is commercial
fiction. I’m a really wide reader, I probably would’ve loved a lot of commercial fiction,
if I’d read it. And in a lot of ways the commercial fiction I did read (Joanne Harris’
Chocolat — I read almost all of her books, actually), was the perfect marriage between
providing a more in-depth reading experience than YA without having the verbal and thematic
gymnastics of literary fiction. I also read and loved Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen
series, which was a cosy crime series. Some fantastic titles include but aren’t limited
to: Blueberry Muffin Murder, Fudge Cupcake Murder, Strawberry Shortcake Murder and so
on. Remember what I said about not liking commercial crime books? Patently untrue — as
it turns out, I just had to find one that I liked amongst the thousands available. In particular, I think that I avoided contemporary
women’s fiction, or “chick lit”. I had so many biases against it then, and I’d
wager I still subconsciously carry some of those biases now. To me, chick lit is fluffy,
light and on the verge of inconsequential. I felt that if I read those books they would
take away time from books that would be more meaningful to me, both in my reputation and
in better match with my own reading tastes but also because I was oddly, afraid of it?
If I read chick lit it meant that I would be lumped in amongst all the stereotypes chick
lit wrongfully carries with it. I didn’t want to be seen as superficial, or worthless
pulp or that I didn’t have anything important to say. Of course, these stereotypes about
chick lit are all incorrect, but I would wager that the stereotypes I carried in high school
were the same my peers carried as well. Thus, I often endured reading books I didn’t like
because I thought I would like them eventually. And I found it easier than risking criticism
from other people — something I retroactively discovered, took a lot of effort. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule,
and the more I read and refine my reading tastes, the more books appeal to me through
different genres. I’d really love to read Erotic Stories for Punjabi Women by Balli
Kaur Kaswal, which is about a lawyer who quits her job and opens a creative writing class
in the Punjabi neighbourhood of London. It’s published by William Morrow and came out in
2017 — lots of people really loved it, other people didn’t like it so much because it
felt too much like chick lit so we’ll have to see what I think. I will say that my feminism and my reading
tastes did really grow together, almost side by side. So much of my feminism has been crafted,
shaped, altered by books so it feels right to talk about them together. The more I read
for myself and the less I read for other people, the more authors I began to discover whom
I loved. I found Jhumpa Lahiri, who I picked up because The Interpreter of Maladies was
a pulitzer-prize winning book. I adored the Colour Purple by Alice Walker, which needs
no introduction, I also loved Maya Angelou’s works, and I discovered one of my favourite
literary fiction authors of all time: Xiaolu Guo. The most important thing I have learnt in
thinking about how I compare literary and commercial fiction is that I shouldn’t.
They both go together and complement each other beautifully. There is a distinct difference
between judgement, taste and inherent bias — I’ve held those biases against commercial
fiction for too long, particularly when it comes to women’s fiction. And really, reading
is a hobby, something most of us do for enjoyment. And if I were to give any advice to my 15-year-old
self it would be to avoid reading 1984 by George Orwell and otherwise: read whatever
I pleased. That’s it, that’s all for this video.
Thank you for coming along with me on this remarkably personal journey — but would
it be a discussion video or a review if I didn’t incessantly talk about myself and
what books mean to me? I don’t think so. Let’s talk in the comments below. Bye everyone!

5 Replies to “Literary Fiction vs. Commercial Fiction vs. Feminism

  1. This was such a cool video, thanks so much for sharing your reading history! It's such a fascinating topic how we change/grow as readers throughout life… and I related to a lot of your points. I too read a lot of serious white boy lit in my edgy teen days (Burroughs CHECK, Kerouac CHECK, Orwell CHECK!). I loved Kurt Vonnegut as well… he totally can't write women but I find so much else delightful about his work that I am perhaps a little to forgiving 😛 I think a lot of my feminist thinking was way more influenced by the music I was into than the books I read… kickass female-fronted 90s bands really gave me a lot of confidence, so I'm really thankful for that!

    I tend to lean a lot more heavily to lit fic/classics, but I'm trying to be less of a snob. I sometimes get caught in that headspace of wanting to read "important/consequential" books, but I admire your open-minded attitude about reading widely across genres. I used to read almost exclusively fantasy as a younger reader, so that is a genre I am always meaning to read more of in order to return to my roots!

    Also, loved the tour through the shelves of Chapters! Great vid, as always :}

  2. Is this a Canadian bookshop? So many large paperback new releases a la Australian new release style.
    A wonderful video! I loved basically browsing a bookshop from the comfort of home. I don't think I had a clue what kind of books I was picking up when I was younger. I had some sense of Dickens and all these scary classics to get to one day. As I got older and realised I should be reading certain men, luckily I was older, so it didn't take long to turn that around. The wonderful thing is there are so many obscure lost classics by women to read and so many popular commerical books by women — and even more excitingly, a real wealth of very good literary books written by women coming out now…. I mean think of Chris Kraus or Maggie Nelson, Rachel Cusk, Zadie Smith etc. I absolutely adore Jhumpa Lahiri. But also, a lot of commerial genre fiction is apparently fairly hard to write, to do so in a timely manner as expected, to maintain the interest of peopke who know the genre so well. Also, It's funny that Will Self recently proclaimed the novel 'dead' yet again, precisely at a time when women seem to have taken the reins. Your mum sounds interesting, would love to hear about her reading habits more, hah. x

  3. this was so good! i have so many thoughts, perhaps too many for a youtube comment. I'm very tempted to return to youtube to make a video response…This topic intersects with so many ideas 😀
    I had a similar experience to you, but also quite a different one because I'm a few years younger. For example, Twilight was big when i was a "tween" and so I didn't feel ashamed for being a fan of it. And that set the tone for my teen experiences – actively resisting the shame of liking feminine things and just letting myself be a teen girl in a society that loves to shame them/us. Right now, I seem to read zero commercial fiction. My reading consists entirely of classics/literary fiction + fanfiction – a classification perhaps even more widely shamed than commercial fiction, and very connected to women as writers, readers and fans.

  4. Loved your frankness and honesty in this video Lydia and I like to think a lot of my favorite booktubers mix it up with what they read. After studying English lit I went years only really reading genre fiction because I was so burnt out on classics and literary fiction. Gradually that love came back and now I am probably back to ninety percent Literary fiction and classics but I still love historical crime and have got lots of great recommendations from booktubers about potential sci fi books I might dip my toe into. I think being open to everything , even sometimes, old, cis white men 😉 but also knowing/learning what you like are key to a happy reader.

  5. Such a brilliant video!

    You put into words a lot of things I have felt, but never knew how to say. The idea of my reading tastes growing and evolving alongside my feminism, the "I'm not like other girls" mentality to books and reading. So thoughtful and things that ring so true.

    I feel like I've grown a lot as a reader, and have become all the more thoughtful because of it. I think a lot of it is thanks to booktube, and documenting myself as a reader through the years. Thank you for making this.

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