I joined a local writing guild last week and went to their meeting for May. They had a guest speaker, Nan Cuba, who spoke about the journey of getting her book, Body and Bread, published. It took her quite some time. The novel started out as a piece of flash fiction. Over the years she wrote several short stories and eventually worked them all into what became the novel. She gave out a lot of great information for aspiring authors looking to get published: websites, publications, organizations, classes and programs, and more. But the most interesting information came after her talk, when she took questions from the audience. Well, interesting to me.
The biggest problem she faced with getting published, aside from finding and getting an agent and working the book into the best shape it could be, was the fact that publishers consider her book literary fiction. Most publishers are now looking for commercial fiction instead and kept passing on her book. She eventually did find a publisher, a small press, and she is very pleased with them. In fact, she said she ALMOST wished she had started looking at small presses first. But then, she told us, she would not have as good a grasp of everything involved with publishing if she hadn’t slogged through everything on her way to where she is now. At any rate, all the questions asked of her were interesting and concerned things about which I also wondered. But one gentleman asked her the difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction. I had seen reference to these terms during my own failed search for an agent (It turns out that Nan Cuba had used the same resource I had in looking for an agent, AgentQuery.com. She also failed to find an agent through them, but that’s neither here nor there). Ms. Cuba told us that, in general, literary fiction focuses on character and words. The way words sound, the flow of them and even the structure of the sentences is important. And so is the character’s journey—who they are, where they come from and what leads them to their choices. Commercial fiction, on the other hand, focuses more on action. I think she even likened the difference to independent films versus summer blockbusters.
The thing is, while she was describing them, I kept thinking to myself: But . . . I write with ALL those things in mind. So, am I literary or commercial? Now, while it’s true that I don’t agonize for any appreciable length of time over each and every word, I do read and re-read sections many, many times, working out the flow of ideas and words within paragraphs and between them. And I think a story arc for the protagonist is important, too. That we see where they came from, where they are, where they end up, and that getting there is the result of who they are. But I also feel it important to have some action. Or perhaps a more appropriate word would be tension. You want dramatic moments to get hearts racing. It might be a Michael Bay-type action sequence, sure, but it could also be a tense argument.
Over the last several days, as I thought about it again and again, I kept coming back to the same place. I want aspects of both literary and commercial fiction in my work. I can see how leaning toward one or the other is doable, but the books I enjoy reading always have strong aspects of both, and that is what I want to create. After all, you could have one or more characters described very well, could have their lives shown on the pages in such detail that you feel as if you grew up with them. But if there is never any tension, readers will eventually get bored. And if the work is a series of action sequences with only light sketches of characters, the spectacle would soon wear thin. If readers don’t care about the characters, they won’t care what happens to them. So I try to balance aspects of both literary and commercial. Obviously there is more to a good piece of fiction than that, but at the core, that’s how I try to write.