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What’s the Difference Between Popular Fiction and Literary Fiction?

A distinction subtle yet unmistakable

(My photo)

The difference between popular fiction and literary fiction is subtle yet unmistakable.

The criteria is graded — think of it as running along a kind of continuum or spectrum — so that a book or movie can have elements of both literary fiction and also elements of commercial fiction at the same time.

But 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 perhaps 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 genre fiction? — is not insoluble, as it’s sometimes made out to be.

The criteria for literary fiction is this: depth of style, seriousness of approach, and an explicit emphasis on theme.

The synthisizing of plot and theme goes a very long way in defining 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 whatsoever 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, even without a real theme to speak of, can transform a book or story into literary fiction, and Herman Melville also happens to be among the greatest exemplars of this other thing as well.

Moby Dick, a literary novel if ever there was one, certainly meets the criteria of a mighty theme. But even more than that it possesses a stylistic depth — a depth of oceanic proportions — and this why many readers regard Moby Dick as the most poetic novel ever written.

Here are a five passages from my copy of Moby Dick — passages I’ve chosen at random:

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 broader issue: namely, a focus on the writing itself, which includes such things as density of expression, concentrated speech, punctuation, clausing, clarity, felicitous phrasing, originality of imagery, depth of description, and many, many other things as well.

Sophistication of style is, in other words, more than merely well-turned phrases: it is a method of thinking. Sophistication of style comes from sophistication of thought.

Style is technique, and technique is personality, Oscar Wilde expressed it.

Style is for this reason the most complex component of any artwork — by light years: because style is personality, and personality is at root human consciousness — 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, profoundly satisfying in this sort of stylistic emphasis — so much so that this single element alone, if done well, will make a book or story entirely worthwhile, even if the book or story fails in other respects. Moby Dick which I love and which, just incidentally, deeply influenced Blood Meridian (it’s Cormac McCarthy’s all-time favorite novel), is nonetheless, for all its stylistic depth and genuine thematic brilliance, a ponderously told and sluggish story, poorly paced and poorly plotted. Even so, Moby Dick remains and will always remain an eternal work of literary fiction: unimaginably powerful in its depth of style.

Yet not all literary fiction has such a deep emphasis on style — especially when read in translation, The Brother’s Karamozov being an example of this.

The Brothers Karamazov is in many ways a murder mystery story, and yet by any standard imaginable that book falls squarely within the category of literary fiction. Also, 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 several of the characters possesses such psychological depth— Ivan, Dimitri, Smerdekov, and Father Zossima, in particular. (Alyosha, the youngest brother and arguably the book’s protagonist, does not have this same level of psychological depth but falls flat.)

In collaboration with this, the philosophy projected by the plot — which is to say, this novel’s theme — possesses in places and passages an absolutely uncanny power.

Theme is ideally presented through the plot (as distinguished from pure exposition), which is enacted by characters, and it is remarkable the depths to which Dostoevsky goes in showing us precisely what motivates his characters. Pure commercial-fiction writers 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 power.

But literary fiction, if it’s good, will provide 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, literary fiction drills farther down than commercial fiction. To the extent that commercial fiction drills farther down — stylistically or thematically — is the extent to which it is no longer commercial fiction. 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.

And yet Crime and Punishment, like The Brothers Karamazov, is in many ways a detective-crime novel.

This sort of treatment of theme doesn’t exist in pure genre fiction. The moment the genre writer begins to treat a subject on this level and with this kind of depth and seriousness is the moment the genre writer begins to cross over into the literary, and the process, I say again, does definitely exist along a spectrum. Dune is in my opinion an example of a novel that crosses over, as is the television series Twin Peaks, conceived and directed by David Lynch, and which veers wildly back and forth, sometimes, at its best, unbelievably poignant and profound and real, while at other times almost absurd in its soap-operatic melodrama.

Jane Austin’s romance literature, like the literature of all three Bronte sisters, often crosses over, primarily for sophistication of style.

None of which is to say that there’s anything inherently wrong with commercial-genre fiction — a fact I mention mainly because whenever I discuss this subject, in person or in writing, I inadvertently offend certain writers, without in any way intending to. This is all only to say that there is a distinction between literary fiction and commercial fiction, and that distinction operates along a spectrum, whereon at one extreme we find depth of style, seriousness of approach, and an explicit emphasis on theme.

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I’m the author of ten books and counting. I’ve been both traditionally published and also self-published. I write fiction and non-fiction. My latest book is a novel called Neck Between Two Heads: a story of civilization and superstition and it tells the story of a modern-day Apache man named Jon Silverthorne who uncovers something extraordinary deep within the network of caves that lace the earth beneath the Baboquivari Wilderness, some fifty miles south of Tucson.

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Ray Harvey

Ray Harvey

Creative director of all things delightful.