Somebody who’s not a big fan of me and my writing posted a comment on my other blog awhile ago telling me that I’m an amateur and blissfully unaware of my own mediocrity. Being the relentlessly analytical, self-doubting writer that I am, of course I had to use that as a catalyst to explore the constantly-troubling question of where exactly I fit in the great pantheon of writers. Because I’d at least like everyone to know that I’m blissfully aware of my own mediocrity, if not obsessed with it.
I’m pretty sure my talents fall somewhere between Danielle Steele and Shakespeare, but that’s a wide field to land in. Am I an amateur? By definition, no, since I make money by writing, which makes me a professional. But that says nothing about the literary quality of my work. Some of the professionals who are doing the best, dollar-wise, out of this business are writing what I’d consider utter trash. Am I mediocre? Of course — by somebody’s standard. How do I decide what are “good” books and “mediocre” books, and where do I place my own writing?
Stephen King in On Writing divides writers into four categories and pictures them in a pyramid, with many writers on the bottom level, fewer and fewer on each level as you ascend the pyramid. On the bottom are bad writers, then competent writers, then really good writers, and then the geniuses. He says that while you can’t turn a bad writer into a competent writer, and you can’t turn a good writer into a genius, you can, with effort and dedication, turn a competent writer (yourself, presumably), into a good one.
I think I agree with King’s basic paradigm, but the problem of labelling writing “good,” “bad,” “competent” or “genius” is that it’s so absolutely subjective. You only have to go on Amazon.com and look at reader reviews for a book you love, to find other people — apparently as intelligent, critical, and well-read as yourself — decrying it as a piece of trash. And the reverse, of course. We’ve all seen the phenomenon of a book we thought was garbage becoming a best-seller, or winning a major award. There is simply no such thing as a book that EVERYONE agrees is good and well-written and worth reading — at least not in the author’s lifetime.
OK, so if we abandon the simple “good/bad” distinction on the grounds that it’s too subjective, what about “literary” versus “commercial” fiction? This is the distinction that interests me most; it’s very important if you want to make it as a writer in the Canadian scene particularly. What category are critics going to place your work in?
In Canada, at least, literary fiction gets all the respect. (I’m not sure if it’s different in the US or other countries). Literary fiction is what gets good reviews, what gets nominated for the Giller and Governor General’s awards. You might be flippant and say that literary fiction is what wins awards and commercial fiction is what people actually read. But that’s too simplistic: many “literary” novels make the best-seller lists as well.
What are the differences? It’s hard to define what constitutes “literary” fiction, but I think it tends to be marked by a focus on the language for its own sake, and a willingness to experiment more with form and style. It often includes a more self-conscious attempt to grapple with “serious” issues — political, philosophical, psychological.
I like literary fiction, except when the focus on language is so extreme that the book seems to be all about beautiful words and character and plot seems to get lost. There are some books almost universally acknoweldged as great which I simply can’t get into, and I truly believe the failure is not with the books but with me. Michael Ondaatje’s fiction is a good example. I love his poetry and his nonfiction, but I’ve read both In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient, and after reading either of those books I could not have recapped the storyline for you — I just got so lost in the beautiful language that I couldn’t follow the plot. While this may well be my failure to be an intelligent reader, and I have no doubt Ondaatje is a truly great writer, I also think that within the broad field of literary fiction there are a lot of wanna-bes whose writing really is a case of “the Emperor has no clothes” — they know how to write gorgeous sentences and paragraphs but have no idea how to string together a story or make characters come to life.
What about “commercial” fiction, then? I would say commercial fiction is fiction written primarily for the purpose of entertaining and engaging the reader, for telling a good story. There’s a broad range here, including genre fiction (romance, sci-fi, thrillers, mysteries, etc), much (though by no means all) of which is quite sloppily written, with formulaic plots, shallow characterization, and very little if any sense of literary style — all the way up to fiction which actually is very beautifully written and probaly as wothy of winning literary prizes as any “serious” fiction.
In other words it’s a continuum, rather than two separate boxes. Maybe it could even be represented as two-dimensional, like those “Where do you fall on the political spectrum?” diagrams, because I think there are bad, competent, good and genius writers in commercial fiction, and in literary fiction as well. Some might argue that there are no “bad” writers of literary fiction, but I think the pretentious wanna-be’s are bad; a well-written romance novel is a “better” book, in my view, then somebody’s self-aggrandizing attempt to writer “literary” fiction that isn’t about anything and has nothing fresh or new to say. Some might argue that a “genius” commercial fiction writer should be accounted as a literary writer. and there are certainly writers in the middle about whom you can argue — is she literary? Is she commercial? Is this commercial fiction that happens to be extremely well-written, or is this literary fiction that is highly readable and accessible to a wide variety of readers?
I guess that’s where I’d like to fall — into that gray area. Despite the delusions of grandeur with which I sometimes tantalize myself (like on the back deck at Eastport with Tina saying, “Come on, put it out there in the universe — what do you want?”) I don’t actually believe I’m ever likely to win or be nominated for a major literary award. If that’s mediocrity — the willingness to accept that I’m not a “great” talent, and to stop striving for that level of literary acclaim — then I’m OK with that. But I would like there to be at least a few people (outside my family and friends) who say, “What? Trudy Morgan-Cole wasn’t nominated for the Giller? But her book was so good!!”
Similarly, I don’t delude myself that everyone’s going to enjoy my books. That’s the wonderful and frustrating thing about books — tastes vary so much that people can come to blows about whether Stephen King is a talentless hack, or an absolutely great writer of mainstream commercial fiction, or a literary genius who is forever barred from literary acclaim because his writing is TOO popular. There is a book out there for every taste, every level of sophistication, every reading need.
Just a little while ago, I read a review of an inspirational novel (another of those genre categories that produces a lot of bad writing and a few gems — I hope my own inspirational novels are among the gems, but opinions, as always, vary). I had enjoyed this novel and thought it definitely “transcended the genre,” and had given it a good review on my own book review site; I thought it was, while in no way a literary novel, a good piece of genre fiction, well-written and engaging. Another blogger had also reviewed it positively, citing a few of her favourite passages. Someone commented on her blog to the effect that, “I don’t think I’d like that book, it seems to have too many hard words in it!”
Now, I can snobbishly assume that anyone who finds a nice little piece of genre fiction “hard” because of the big words, probably shouldn’t be reading books at all. But the fact is, this commenter LIKED to read, even though her reading tastes were obviously very different from mine — and there are books out there that she likes and enjoys. Who I am to say every book published has to meet my standard of “good”? If it did, lots of other people wouldn’t have anything to read at all.
Sorry, I think my meditations at this point are getting confusing and rambling. It’s a confusing subject and I guess the simplest thing to say is that there are a lot of ways to define what makes a “good” book. If you go to my reviews at Compulsive Overreader you can see how I define “good” by example. When I think of writers I admire in that gray area between “commercial” and “literary,” writers whose books are thoughtfully crafted but also simply enjoyable to read, I think of people like Anne Tyler, Sue Miller, Joshilyn Jackson, Nick Hornby, Joan Clark, Bernice Morgan, and dozens and dozens of others. That’s the company I want to keep; when I’m striving to write my best, that’s the kind of book I’m striving to write. I may not achieve my own highest goals, and to someone else those goals might still place me squarely in the “mediocre” category. That’s OK. The playing field is big enough for everyone, and all I want to do is play my best on my little corner.