Literary algebra: The commercial + the literary = the not-quite

December 16, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Ever since commercial fiction has outsold its literary counterpart (which, for those who are unsure, means always), people have argued about what exactly constitutes “literary” fiction. How esoteric/highbrow/impenetrable does a work of fiction have to be to qualify as a “literary” novel? My colleague and buddy Nathan Whitlock has charged into this minefield with characteristic abandon in a recent column for Maisonneuve magazine. Whitlock kicks off his argument by pointing to a review of Lori Lansens’ novel The Wife’s Tale, commissioned by yours truly for Quill & Quire (where Whitlock and yr. humble correspondent share a pod-like cubicle) and written by James Grainger.

Now, I consider Grainger to be one of the sharpest critics in this country, but his review – which was generally positive – nevertheless roused the ire of Lansens’ agent, Denise Bukowski, who accused the reviewer of getting his facts wrong (the review erroneously stated that Oprah Winfrey had optioned the film rights to Lansens’ first novel, Rush Home Road)* and, more egregiously, of committing what Whitlock refers to as the “Sin of Distinction”: “after listing some of the authors who had been picked either for Oprah’s Book Club or … the U.K.’s Richard and Judy Book Club, Bukowski fought back against Grainger’s ‘patronizing’ notion that Lansens was working within chosen boundaries.” Whitlock summarizes the whole farrago this way:

This dust-up was a visible manifestation of a larger problem dogging Canadian publishing: the semi-utopian belief that literature is a garden that not only welcomes all comers (true enough), but contains no hedges or fences, is equally accessible from corner to corner, is blind to difference and immune to personal bias. Authors of all stripes mingle freely, and woe to him who suggests there are fundamental differences between what they write and for whom it’s intended.

The temptation to conflate various kinds of novels that are in fact distinct in execution and intended audience, Whitlock contends, should be avoided; critics need to “be more discerning” in “understanding (or perhaps admitting) that fiction comes in many forms” and they must be “unequivocal about what a given book is, and … catholic enough in their professional tastes to fairly assess diverse authorial intentions.” By describing the commercial aspects of Lansens’ novel, Grainger was simply performing one aspect of the critic’s job: situating the work within a particular category or tradition. Where Bukowski erred was in assuming that this implied any kind of value judgment.

Whitlock puts his finger on the reason a certain kind of middlebrow novel holds sway over CanLit these days: the dominant trend favours a kind of hybrid novel – what he refers to as the “Not-Quite Novel” – the literary equivalent of Dr. Moreau’s man-beasts: books that are “too thorny and/or sober to entertain, yet too conventional and broad to last.” The result of this artificial generic enjambment is novels like The Book of Negroes: ambitious tales about weighty subjects told in a manner that is straightforward and unchallenging. By refusing to completely embrace one aspect or the other – the commercial or the literary – the novel ends up doing justice to neither.

If I have any difficulty with Whitlock’s argument, it would reside in my feeling that he goes too far in pursuing an overly rigid dichotomy between “commercial” novels – those “big-plot, lots-o’-story books” – and “literary” ones (by which I take it he means difficult, more stylistically adventurous books that eschew story in favour of character development and syntactical pyrotechnics). The implication seems to be that “thorny and/or sober” books can’t entertain, while “conventional and broad” books don’t endure. What, then, is one to do with Dickens (who has been called the Shakespeare of the novel), whose writing was enormously commercial in the author’s own day, yet endures down to the present? (Whitlock covers himself here, referring at one point to “the strange things that time and distance can do to artistic categories,” but this admission seems to take a bit of the sting out of his argument.) How does one account for a book like Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees, an Oprah pick that is unequivocally a “big-plot, lots-o’-story” novel, but seems to have a certain amount of staying power (first released in 1996, this month it was selected as one of the five contenders for the 2010 edition of Canada Reads)? And since Whitlock himself brings up Steven Galloway, how are we to categorize that author’s 2008 novel The Cellist of Sarajevo? It’s a story-driven book, but it also has frankly “literary” properties: a weighty subject (the Siege of Sarajevo), well-drawn characters, and evident attention to the prose on a line-by-line basis. (Whitlock might characterize this as a hybrid, or a Not-Quite Novel, but I consider it to be generally better than that.)

Recent years have seen a retreat from the kind of obscurantist anti-novel that began in the Modernist era and found its apogee in the French nouveau roman as practiced by authors like Alain Robbe-Grillet. In its stead, we are witnessing a resurgence – and newfound critical acceptance – of novels that privilege story over technical experiment – witness the critical accolades being heaped upon Stephen King’s latest novel, Under the Dome. King is a self-admitted commercial writer, and it’s unlikely the broad spectrum of his readers would be entertained by, say, the prolix digressions and postmodern approach of David Foster Wallace (despite the fact that, to a certain sensibility, Wallace is giddily entertaining). This, of course, is Whitlock’s point: different writers employ different styles and appeal to different audiences. But I wonder whether the broad categories he sets out may in fact be somewhat more permeable than he seems to suggest they are.

*It was Whoopi Goldberg. What idiot was in charge of fact checking that? … Oh. My bad.


2 Responses to “Literary algebra: The commercial + the literary = the not-quite”
  1. Eek, what a minefield. As someone who writes about literature but who is not a literary critic (and how do we distinguish *those* categories?!), I’m interested in what literature accomplishes, what it does.

    I haven’t read Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes, only because it’s not set in Toronto, but I’d argue that his other work (e.g., Any Known Blood; Black Berry, Sweet Juice), does manage to do a certain amount of justice to both the commercial and ‘literary’ aspects of fiction. Perhaps not as well as Austin Clarke does — and I list them together here only because both engage directly with questions of race and the experiences of black people in Canada) — but then Hill is much younger and is still perfecting his craft. Clarke is unquestionably an accomplished ‘literary’ writer who nonetheless writes engaging narratives with plenty of plot.

    The real difference seems to have a lot to do with the reality that commercial success can quickly overshadow any effort to evaluate a book’s merits. Anyone who criticizes a wildly popular book is liable to being accused of being an envious snob, and anyone who praises it is open to charges of effete populism. Perhaps because this particular review did a little of both, it received Bukowski’s double-barrelled response.

    Having said that, I feel for Bukowski, who likely is fighting a losing battle to ensure that her author is also taken seriously as a literary writer (in Canada this probably is far more urgent than it would be in the US, given that reputation — and long term sales — have more to do with national repute and mentions on CBC than bestselling status upon publication). This means, in large part, ensuring that Lansens is not pigeonholed as a ‘women’s writer,’ — i.e., one who trades primarily in emotional currency in her work, arguably at the expense of meaning. I’m not sure I accept that these particular categories need distinguishing, but it’s clear that some women writers (e.g., Alice Munro) have managed to get away with plenty of the former while still being known mainly for the latter. What’s the difference in Lansens’ work? Perhaps it’s simply the amount of wallowing in emotional landscapes.

    Me, when I read a commercial novel, I do so with a sensation of falling into it. This is something I resist — although the sensation is not unpleasant — and is one of the main reasons I have not been drawn to commercial fiction. I have always preferred books that pull me upward into what I can only describe as an architecture of meaning. What’s the difference? Something akin to field and ground or, a bit unkindly, signal and noise. I like lots of signal in the things I read.

    But still, while writing the Imagining Toronto book I have read quite a lot of commercial fiction engaging with Toronto. And to my pleased surprise, them books gots a lot of meaning in them. Sometimes they have much more to say than the city’s best known ‘literary’ works.

  2. Finn Harvor says:

    Makeda Silvera is also a writer who deserves attention.