What do my book and a Mills & Boon have in common?

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!

To find out more about Sara and her new book, Beneath the Shadows, here’s a link to her website and blog.



  1. Personally I’m quite ticked off that some books shops have two fiction sections: “Sci-fi/Fantasy Fiction” and “Quality Fiction”, as though implying that anything of a fantasy/scifi nature is second rate trash *eye twitch*.

    The very limited amount of “literary fiction” that I’ve picked up over the years, I’ve done so with the thought: “This is a classic, therefore it must be a masterpiece of the written word, it must astound me with its oubliette of intrigue, its eloquence of dialogue and its graceful complexity” and I’m usually left confused by societies enthusiasm for said book.

    I usually put books into the categories of “stuff I like”, “stuff I don’t” and “stuff that has not yet come to judgement”. Anything else is a misrepresentation.

    No idea what a mills & boon cover is, but I like your cover! =)

    • I agree with you Nick on the way bookshops classify their fiction – mine has been categorised as everything from Australian Fiction (which really means the author is Australian, not the fiction so it’s a bit of a misleeading category), Young Adult, and also Contemporary Fiction (as opposed to say, ‘Old-Fashioned Fiction’, perhaps?!)

  2. I really liked this- probablyu because it mirrors my own thoughts exactly! To me, as a reader but also as a writer, what matters is story. Something that hooks you in, that stays with you afterwards. Language is important, sure, but some of the books I have most detested are those that seem to sacrifice plot for pretty sentences.
    I read The Davinci Code and am happy to “admit” it- it was extremely well plotted it and I enjoyed it. But I’ve also enjoyed Moby Dick and Crime and punishment and Anna Karenina… story matters. That’s the heart of it.

    • Hi Kylie, the other thing I find – not sure if this has happened to you also – is that people often apologise to me when they ‘admit’ that they read chick-lit or something else that might be classified as popular or genre fiction. Now that I’ve written a book, people seem to think that they can only talk to me about ‘important’ fiction – whatever that is.
      I miss just being able to talk to people about books – all kinds of books. When I’m having those conversations it’s probably the only time in my life I wish I wasn’t a published author so that people would go back to feeling comfortable talking about what they’re reading without making any apologies for it.

      • Absolutely! In fact, I’ve been told I couldn’t join a book group because “you’ll make the rest of us embarrassed”, which I thought was kind of sad.
        The other thing I meant to add is that I have seen my novel, After The Fall, shelved or described as Literary Fiction, Commercial Fiction AND Chick lit… I quite like Borders’ approach, where all fiction is just shelved together.

  3. I read both commercial and literary fiction and firmly believe that there can be good and bad examples of both. I was once in a book group where the choices of book were always in the very (dry) literary category. I suggested a few, more commercial titles, and was always met with scepticism, as if commercial books couldn’t possibly worthy of discussion. As a commercial fiction writer I found it fascinating (if a bit disheartening).

    • Hi Rebecca. I’ve been visiting quite a few book clubs over the last couple of months to talk to them about my book and and the commercial vs literary thing often comes up. You’re right, some clubs seem to think that commercial fiction won’t provide enough discussion points but I’ve also been to a few book clubs lately who think that anything literary will take too long to read and should thus be avoided too.
      Interestingly, many of these book clubs have worked their way through the Millennium Trilogy, which is categorised as genre fiction in book stores, and the books are also incredibly long. But the anti-commercial fiction book clubs weren’t worried about reading genre fiction in this instance and the anti-literary clubs weren’t worried about the length.
      It made me think that the feelings people have about commercial vs literary are just assumptions. The hard thing is getting people to put aside their assumptions and just see the book.

  4. I am loving all the comments here! I think you’re so right, Kylie, it’s the story that is to be celebrated, and thank goodness they come in many forms!

  5. Trin

    Most importantly I would say your book doesn’t have a Mills & Boons cover at all and I would know because I am going to come out and say unashamedly every year at Christmas Time, I purchase Mills & Boons Christmas themed books. I love these for the fact at Christmas I love reading a variety of Christmas stories.

    For the rest of the year I enjoy reading all types of books though mostly I lean to commercial fiction as I probably over generalise and think of it as being easy reading whilst still being enjoyable. I hate to say it but I have also apologised for some of those book choices before when people are discussing a book considered literay fiction which I shouldn’t do as if it’s enjoyable to read for whatever the reason then I think it’s worthy of my time and money and the genre becomes irrelevant. Here’s to Border’s approach placing them all together!

    • Hi Trin, you’re the second person who’s mentioned Borders putting all their fiction together – I didn’t know they did that and it’s very democratic of them. Because of course everybody would categorise books differently anyway; what’s literary to one person might be considered gothic romance by another. And I think any writer would love to sell as many copies as Mills & Boon do too!

  6. Pingback: What’s on your ‘should read’ pile? « While the kids are sleeping

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