Are you literary or popular? This seems to be a question that bookshops especially want answered. Because of course you can’t be both – to be literary you must revel in being the child at the front of the class with thick glasses and no friends.
Until What is Left Over, After was published, I hadn’t realised it was such an either/or proposition. I hope my book has some of the qualities of good literature – but I also want people to like it, for it to be popular. I was very taken aback, for instance, at the comments of one bookshop owner who declared that the cover of my book was ‘awful’ and akin to a Mills & Boon cover. Mills & Boon are popular, and to aim for popularity by choosing a cover that was trying to attract peoples’ attention was clearly the eighth deadly sin in the eyes of this bookshop owner.
Enter my good friend and fellow author Sara Foster, whose second book, Beneath the Shadows is out this month. We discussed the issue at length and I thought I’d share with you her thoughts. Over to Sara:
The two ‘genres’ of writing I’ve heard most about over the past year are not really genres at all. Yet the literary/commercial divide is implicit in so many comments you read and hear about books, and commercial (aka genre) fiction often comes off second best. I’ve read people ‘confessing’ to reading Dan Brown, as though it is something to be ashamed of. I’ve heard books talked about as ‘good, but pure chick-lit’. And every time I come across these kinds of remarks I want to rise to the defence of commercial fiction without denigrating its literary brother. Because while they bring different things to the table, what I would call the best books in both categories have exactly the same qualities: they engage me and enthral me; they explore their worlds and inhabitants in interesting ways; and they impel me to escape from my world into theirs as often as possible.
One of my favourite things about being a book editor was working on books I would never otherwise have picked out of a line-up, and finding that I often loved them. Until we pick up a book it is an uncharted landscape, full of promise, inviting us to venture in. And our choices, our reactions, our judgements, might depend on a whole host of things from our fundamental beliefs to how tired we are that day. But it’s so sad when the freedom of reading appears to be subverted by an unnecessary battle for supremacy.
In my house there are numerous shelves full of books that I can’t imagine parting with. Bridget Jones sits close to Jane Eyre. Beloved and The Stone Diaries lean on a recent Philippa Gregory and my favourite Jenny Colgan. Nicci French is sandwiched by TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf. And this is exactly how I like it. Because when I find a book that reaches out and connects with some kind of truth, or need, or excitement, or intrigue within me, I’m not worried about its literary or commercial pedigree. I’m just happy to have found another friend for life.
What do you think? Do you avoid reading anything classed as literary fiction for fear of being bored by stylish sentences disguising the absence of a plot? Or do you avoid anything that’s too popular in case that means it requires you to remove part of your brain prior to reading? Do books sometimes subvert your expectations? And most importantly, do you think my book cover looks like a Mills & Boon!