Take two novels: each has lively, interesting characters, each is well written. Each has a theme – let’s say, a love triangle. Each explores the strengths and weaknesses, desires and motivations of the main characters. Yet one is described as ‘literary’, the other as ‘commercial’.
What underpins that distinction?
A year or so ago, a friend urged me to read Jonathan Franzen’s hugely lauded book, Freedom, which I listened to on audio. It was, at heart, about a love triangle. It was very long, extremely well written in the sense that the prose was admirable and his exploration of character profound, yet it seemed to me to amble through various people’s lives and come to no very interesting conclusion. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t either like or care about any of the characters and at the end of the book I was left thinking, ‘Why?’.
Read a great thriller, action novel, romance, sci-fi or any other genre novel, and your reaction is likely to be very different. The characters will leap off the page and into your heart, and whatever situation the author has set up for them to face, you are likely to will them to find the Holy Grail, escape the hit squad, marry the hero, get to Mars and back, or whatever. And you probably won’t stop reading until they’ve succeeded. It’s called PTQ, or Page Turning Quality. (More people like to be entertained in this way, incidentally, than tackle ‘deeper’ but less highly paced prose – that’s why genre fiction is described as ‘commercial’.)
What underpins the difference?
My diagram a bit simplistic, but this is a basic representation of the structure of a literary novel. Events more or less flatline until near the end, where the author takes us either to a happy resolution or something either sadder or more ambiguous. In between, hopefully, you will be bewitched by magnificent prose, get deeply acquainted with the main characters, revel in glorious settings and more.
By contrast, here’s what the structure of a ‘commercial’ novel looks like:
Again, this is very simplified, but you can at once see the difference. Tension drives the action forward to ‘the darkest moment’. There will be many setbacks along the way, but the narrative thrust will be clear – we will know what the hero or heroine is desperate to get, and will take the journey to their goal with them, along all the ups and downs. The ending doesn’t need to be happy, but it does need to be satisfying.
Most readers won’t analyse books in this way, of course – they just know what they like!
What do you think makes a book special?