I recently read Mary E. Pearson's THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX, an intriguing, thought-provoking piece that stayed with me for days afterward. The book raised a lot of philosophical questions about what it means to be human and the nature of immortality, but what JENNA really highlighted for me was the difference between literary and commercial fiction.
For those of you who haven't read it, here's the basic setup: Seventeen-year-old Jenna Fox wakes up from a nearly two-year coma to discover she remembers nothing about her former life or the accident that nearly killed her. Luckily, or unluckily, for her, she lives in the future, when biotechnological advancements have made it possible to sustain life far beyond the limits of humanity. The problem is, not all of these advancements are exactly ethical--or legal.
Now where would you go with an idea like that? Would a pair of federal agents show up a hundred pages in? Would a midnight escape be in order? A firefight, a car chase, a few explosions, maybe? If JENNA had been my idea, I'm sure that's where it would have gone, but I suspect these plot elements didn't so much as wander across Ms. Pearson's cerebrum. Because she's obviously of a more literary persuasion and I of a more commercial one.
What's the actual difference, then, between literary and commercial fiction? That's hard to say, especially since, like most things in this industry, it's subjective. But if I had to articulate it, I'd say the primary distinction lies in the source of the conflict. In literary fiction, the main conflict is often internal, or generated by a character or characters' inner struggle to achieve enlightenment. Commercial fiction, on the other hand, tends to rely on more external forces to create the friction: murder investigations, previously undiscovered worlds, love triangles, and the like. Put another way, literary fiction is more character-driven and commercial fiction more plot-driven.
Which is not to say that literary fiction has no plot or commercial fiction no internal conflict. The fact is, if your literary novel has no story arc, your readers are going to feel like they're just spinning in circles; similarly, if your commercial book has no character development or inner struggle, your characters will come across as flat and unchanged by the novel's end. But the main conflict will generally be internal or external, and one belongs to literary fiction and the other to commercial.
THE PRESTIGE, the novel and the movie, is an excellent example of this dichotomy. The movie, whose screenplay was adapted by brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, enthralled me with the intricacies of its storyline, so I decided to give the source work, Christopher Priest's novel by the same name, a read. Fifty, a hundred, two hundred pages in, I wasn't so enthralled. Christopher Priest had a great idea, I thought, but the Nolan brothers made it sing.
But by the end of the book, I realized that thought probably said more about my own writerly perspective than the caliber of either work. By the end of the book, I realized the two were just coming to the project with different sensibilities, and thus had different goals. Mr. Priest was more interested in exploring the nature of Angier's obsession and how that obsession eventually pushed him to compromise some of his most basic values. Conversely, the Nolan brothers wanted to create a fast-paced fantasy thriller about dueling magicians in nineteenth-century England, one that is perhaps best summed up by its first line: "Are you watching closely?" And so they ended up with two very different projects, even though they both started with the same basic idea.
Neither genre is better than the other, then. They're only different. So now that we've established that--and which one I am--I have to ask: Which one are you?