What’s the Difference Between Popular Fiction and Literary Fiction?
The difference between popular fiction and literary fiction is subtle but unmistakable.
The criteria is graded — think of it as running along a continuum of degrees— so that a book or movie can have elements of both literary fiction and also elements of commercial fiction at the same time. Yet there is a definite distinction.
It’s not the case that plotting is the determining characteristic, though a number of good writers — screenplay writers in particular — will argue this.
In fact, some of the best plots in all the world’s literature are found in literary fiction — I’m thinking specifically of Les Miserables, Ninety-Three, and especially The Possessed, wherein you’ll see the most masterful synthesis of plot and theme that world literature has yet to offer. But the question — what is the difference between literary fiction and popular fiction? — is not insoluble, as it’s often made out to be.
The criteria for literary fiction is this: depth of style, depth of character, which refers to the depth of insight (on the author’s part) of her or his character’s motives, as well as seriousness of approach and an explicit emphasis on theme.
The synthesizing of plot and theme goes a long way in distinguishing literary fiction — theme being defined as the fundamental meaning to which the events of a story add up.
“To write a mighty book,” wrote Herman Melville, “you must choose a mighty theme.”
Herman Melville is correct: there can be no doubt that a mighty theme is one of the two primary criteria for literary fiction.
Yet there’s another criteria — something besides depth of theme projected by a convincing plot — which even by itself, without any real theme to speak of, can transform a book or story into literary fiction. Herman Melville also happens to be among the greatest exemplars of this.
Moby Dick, a literary novel if ever there was one, certainly meets the criteria of a mighty theme. But even more than this Moby Dick possesses a stylistic depth of oceanic proportions, and this why for over a century now many readers all across the world regard Moby Dick as the most poetic novel ever written.
Here are a five passages, chosen at random, from my copy of Moby Dick:
As the blubber envelopes the whale precisely as the rind does an orange, so is it stripped off from the body precisely as an orange is sometimes stripped by spiralizing it.
To chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.
A thin joist of a spine never yet upheld a full and noble soul.
Unaccountable masses of shades and shadows.
While bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all evil will, or ill will, or malice, of any sort whatsoever — as much as to say, oh! My dear fellow human beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill humor or envy! Come: let us squeeze hands all around; nay, let us squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
In any discussion of writing style, it’s crucial to note that style doesn’t just refer to wordsmithing — although that is included — but to a much broader, deeper issue: namely, a focus on the writing itself, which includes such things as density of expression, concentrated speech, syntax and punctuation, clausing, clarity, felicitous phrasing, originality of imagery, depth of description, and many, many other things as well, including cross-combinations of any and all these things.
Sophistication of style is more than well-turned phrases: it is a method of thinking.
Sophistication of style comes from sophistication of thought.
Style is technique, and technique is personality, wrote Oscar Wilde.
Style is for this reason the most complex component of any artwort: because style is personality, and personality at its root is human consciousness, which is arguably the most complicated thing in the known universe.
Read the following, for example:
He wandered on through the raw mud streets and out past the houses of hide in the rows and across the gravel strand to the beach.
Loose strands of ambercolored kelp lay in a rubbery wrack at the tideline. He squatted in the sand and watched the sun on the hammered face of the water. Out there island clouds emplaned upon a salmoncolored othersea. Seafowl in silhouette. Downshore the dull surf boomed. There was a horse standing there staring out upon the darkening waters, and a young colt that cavorted and trotted off and came back.
He sat watching while the sun dipped hissing in the swells. The horse stood darkly against the sky. The surf boomed in the dark and the sea’s black hide heaved in the cobbled starlight and the long pale combers loped out of the night and broke along the beach.
He rose and turned toward the lights of town. The tidepools bright as smelterpots among the dark rocks where the phosphorescent seacrabs clambered back. Passing through the salt grass he looked back. The horse had not moved. A ship’s light winked in the swells. The colt stood against the horse with its head down and the horse was watching, out there past men’s knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea. (Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy, 1982).
This sort of sustained depth-of-style goes far beyond wordsmithing, and many readers, myself among them, find something profoundly life-affirming and moving — something utterly satisfying in this sort of stylistic emphasis — so much so that if deftly handled and done well this one element alone can transform a book into a thing of beauty, even if that book or story fails in other respects.
For all its stylistic depth and thematic brilliance, Moby Dick — which I love and which deeply influenced Blood Meridian (Moby Dick was Cormac McCarthy’s all-time favorite novel) — remains a ponderously told story, a sluggish story, poorly paced and poorly plotted. Yet even in spite of this Moby Dick will always remain an eternal work of literary fiction.
Because of the unimaginable power found in the depth of its style.
This raises a deeper question, the answer to which is not straightforward:
If not all literary fiction possesses the sustained stylistic depth that Moby Dick and Blood Meridian both possess, can the work in question still fully qualify as a work of literary fiction?
This question is particularly pertinent when the book or story is read in translation. And The Brother’s Karamozov is a fine example of it. In many ways, The Brothers Karamazov is a compelling murder mystery story, and yet by any standard imaginable, this novel falls squarely within the category of literary fiction. In addition to this, the translation of The Brothers Karamozov that I’ve read (to pieces) is at times almost embarrassing in its translated style. Somehow, though, despite this, the novel’s intensity is not diminished.
The reason for this is that all (except one) of the book’s major characters are developed with such a deep and sustained psychological insight — totally believable and totally unmatched: Fyodor, Dimitri, Smerdekov, Father Zossima, and most of all Ivan — “My towering Ivan,” Dostoevsky described him as. Alyosha, the youngest brother and the book’s protagonist, is the one exception. And it is precisely because Alyosha doesn’t possess comparable psychological depth that as a character he falls flat: two-dimensional and thoroughly unpersuasive.
“He never makes it off the page,” my high-school English teacher once said of Alyosha Karamazov.
I agree with this.
In collaboration with the psychological insight of these other characters, there is as well a profound and engrossing and utterly thought-provoking philosophy projected by the plot — i.e. the novel’s theme — which in many passages explodes like intellectual dynamite, blasting the brain into the stratosphere.
Theme is projected through plot (as distinguished from pure exposition), which in turn is enacted by the characters who populate the story, and it is mind-boggling the depths to which Dostoevsky goes in showing us precisely what motivates his characters. In this regard, Dostoevsky is unmatched.
Pure commercial-fiction writers, by contrast, rarely go beyond presenting the immediate reason for a character’s actions — e.g. a man is killed because it gave the killer a sense of satisfaction and fed his lust for power.
But literary fiction, if it’s good, will provide the reader with the motivation behind the lust for power and explain why the man lusted so, and perhaps even discuss the nature of power and power-lust itself.
This is all part of the presentation of theme.
In this sense, it is accurate to say that literary fiction drives down deeper than commercial fiction. This is its distinguishing characteristic.
The extent to which commercial fiction does drive deeper down — stylistically, thematically, or in the explanation of the character’s motives — is the extent to which it is no longer commercial fiction. This exists, I repeat, along a continuum of degrees.
You will never, for example, find a more thorough or more insightful study of the criminal mind than Raskalnikov, in Crime and Punishment. Even Macbeth is second. Yet Crime and Punishment, like The Brothers Karamazov, is in many ways a detective-story-crime-novel. But above all it is literary fiction.
This sort of sustained psychological depth and treatment of theme doesn’t exist in pure commercial fiction, which is also known as genre fiction.
The moment the commercial-genre writer begins to treat a subject on this level and with this kind of depth and seriousness is the moment the commerical-genre writer begins to cross over into the literary.
The process, I say one final time, does definitely exist along a spectrum of degrees. So that many, many books and movies and television shows possess deep elements of both.
Dune, for example, is a novel that crosses over from science fiction into literary fiction. Season 1 and Season 2 of True Detective cross over. Twin Peaks, conceived and directed by David Lynch, veers wildly back and forth, often, at its best, unbelievably poignant and and real, at other times completely inane in its soap-operatic melodrama.
Jane Austin’s romance literature, like the literature of all three Bronte sisters, often crosses over, primarily for its excellent sophistication of style, but as often crosses back into genre fiction.
None of which is to say that there’s anything inherently wrong with commercial-genre fiction — a fact I mention because invariably when I discuss this subject, whether in person or in writing, I offend, without in any way intending to, certain writers. All this is only to say that there is a distinction between literary fiction and commercial fiction, and the distinction operates along a spectrum — a continuum of degrees — whereon at one extreme we find depth of style, seriousness of approach, and an explicit emphasis on theme.