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FYI Interesting comments on genre from PMJ at London Book Fair

E G Logan

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Thought-provoking comments on genre from PMJ MD Louise Moore, interviewed at London Book Fair today, and covered in The Bookseller.

It made me ask myself if I buy books because they are described, in reviews or on the cover, as being 'literary' fiction or 'commercial' fiction.
In fact, I decided, both descriptions actually put me off, if anything.
What do you think??

Extract here, [comments entirely mine].
Moore questioned "why the industry doesn’t better recognise the merits and importance of commercial fiction".
"The divide between commercial and literary needs to stop. We need to do away with commercial versus literary once and for all and start thinking about what does the reader call it.”

She argued that books labelled commercial are often ignored by reviewers and booksellers... citing the example of "Marian Keyes, who despite working since 1997, only received her first book review in the Times and Sunday Times this year" [Wow!]. She said the industry needs to “lean in and embrace commercial fiction vocally”.

Sally Rooney for instance, “has literary cred”, partly being published by Faber – [Ooh, claws!] – she said, despite her writing being similar to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones. [Sour grapes?]

She commented it was a “shame” that this year’s longlist for the Women’s Prize “is all literary fiction”.
 

Vicki

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I sort of agree with her - except I don't like Marian Keyes's writing style at all. It would make for quite a shift for books to be chosen for review by high profile reviewers because of their popularity with readers. And I have to admit anything labelled 'literary fiction' has me running for the hills... with a few rare exceptions.
 

Hannah F

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I sort of agree with her - except I don't like Marian Keyes's writing style at all. It would make for quite a shift for books to be chosen for review by high profile reviewers because of their popularity with readers. And I have to admit anything labelled 'literary fiction' has me running for the hills... with a few rare exceptions.
Ooh. I don't think popularity with readers would be a good measure of quality (unfortunately). Just imagine Fifty Shades winning a women's fiction prize!

There are, of course, great authors with commercial appeal that are also labelled literary: Margaret Atwood, Maggie O'Farrell
 

Eva Ulian

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I always look at what has gone on in the past as a guide... Dickens in his days was considered "commercial", now it is taken as "literary". Jane Austen would probably have gone under the label of Chick Lit... now it is literary fiction.

Books that have stood the challenge of time and now we recognize as literary fiction deserve to be looked into- Why did they stand the challenge of time, and why are they now Literary fiction? If we do look into that, more often than not we find that they have something extraordinary, that have captured the mind, hearts and emotions of those who read them. In other words they were a "good", "satisfying" read. And you don't get that if they are merely flimsy, shallow writing that have nothing much to say and therefore easily forgotten.
 

Robinne Weiss

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I tend to steer clear of anything specifically labeled 'literary' fiction, even though I do enjoy a fair bit of literary fiction. I guess what I want is an author who says, 'Look, I've written this cracking great story!' not one who implies, by the choice of the word literary, that somehow their story's merit lies in the quality of the prose, not the story itself.

Don't get me wrong, I love good prose. But it needs to back up a good story, and I feel like the designation 'literary' doesn't tell me what sort of story it is. It emphasises something that I, as a reader, don't necessarily look for in a book--for me the story is what's important, and if you can tell that story in a compelling, but simple way, then I'm fine with that.

A friend recently gave me a copy of Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann. Decidedly in the 'literary' camp, the book won the Booker Prize in 2019. The entire 998 pages is comprised of one stream-of-consciousness sentence. Very artistic, and intriguing for about the first 10 pages. And I did enjoy the first 10 pages. But 998? I made it to page 80 before I simply lost interest. The prose was fascinating, but the story became monotonous because of the literary device used to tell it. This is the sort of thing that scares me off the designation 'literary'.
 

Hannah F

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I tend to steer clear of anything specifically labeled 'literary' fiction, even though I do enjoy a fair bit of literary fiction. I guess what I want is an author who says, 'Look, I've written this cracking great story!' not one who implies, by the choice of the word literary, that somehow their story's merit lies in the quality of the prose, not the story itself.

Don't get me wrong, I love good prose. But it needs to back up a good story, and I feel like the designation 'literary' doesn't tell me what sort of story it is. It emphasises something that I, as a reader, don't necessarily look for in a book--for me the story is what's important, and if you can tell that story in a compelling, but simple way, then I'm fine with that.

A friend recently gave me a copy of Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann. Decidedly in the 'literary' camp, the book won the Booker Prize in 2019. The entire 998 pages is comprised of one stream-of-consciousness sentence. Very artistic, and intriguing for about the first 10 pages. And I did enjoy the first 10 pages. But 998? I made it to page 80 before I simply lost interest. The prose was fascinating, but the story became monotonous because of the literary device used to tell it. This is the sort of thing that scares me off the designation 'literary'.
I hated "Ducks, Newburyport". The non-sentence structure and the repetition drove me mad. I never made it to 10 pages, never mind 80. I did, however, read the first mountain lion "chapter". What a relief to read proper grammatical structure. If the book had been only the 8 mountain lion "chapters", I'd have enjoyed it.
 

Robinne Weiss

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I hated "Ducks, Newburyport". The non-sentence structure and the repetition drove me mad. I never made it to 10 pages, never mind 80. I did, however, read the first mountain lion "chapter". What a relief to read proper grammatical structure. If the book had been only the 8 mountain lion "chapters", I'd have enjoyed it.
Yes. I agree on the mountain lion chapters--I'd forgotten they were even there. I only remember the monotony of the rest.
 

ChantalS

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I think of literary as being more character driven whereas commercial is easier to picture being made into a movie regardless of storyline. For instance, it can be Bridget jones which is lighter, or girl on a train which is darker, or gone girl which is a bit mind twisty - they all translate it onto a screen much better than some characters that do a lot of internal reflection.
 

Jonny

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Interesting but murky waters here, I think.

I have read books which (according to those to whom such classifications mean something) fall into both camps, but I have never, not even once, considered what that camp is when reading or selecting the book. If a book engages me and tells a story well then I couldn't give two hoots what others might seek to classify it as.

But, I do find myself balking and bristling at (or taking agin :) ) the very idea of 'literary fiction'. All too often its champions and proponents seek to identify it as worthier / loftier than its commercial cousin.
 

Vicki

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I've just about finished the Jericho Self Editing Your Novel Course, which is so popular I signed up over a year ago to get a place. It has been helpful and I've learned a fair bit but have also been surprised by the emphasis on character development and how little time has been spent on plot. It is only a 6 week course so I guess they couldn't cover every aspect in depth.
 
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