Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Two Sides of the Same Coin

The first part of July I spent in Boston at the residency week of my MFA program. The second part of July I spent in Orlando at the Romance Writers of America annual conference. Literary then commercial. What's the difference?

Here's what I've come up with so far.
  • Literary authors, when asked "What do you write?" don't always have a short, handy answer. They might even blink at you and say, "Fiction."
  • Commercial authors, when asked, "What do you write?" will respond with something concise: "Short contemporary romance under 75,000 words" or "YA steampunk with romantic elements."
It makes sense that commercial writers are more in tune with exactly what they are writing and what they are going to do with it.
  • Literary authors ask, "What is the dramatic question?"
  • Commercial authors ask, "What is my hook?"

After much stewing, I have come to conclude that both questions are the same. Plot is plot. Characters are characters. Nobody needs me to remind them of how many books that are currently considered classics started out (were originally published) as commercial works.
  • Literary events have readings. The author reads from their work and books are for sale afterward.
  • Commercial events have signings. Readers buy the book and take it home and read it themself.

This is a difference. No getting around it. Do I like hearing authors read? Sure. But sometimes I really would just have the book to cuddle up with. Just me. And the story. No author there to remind me they wrote it.


  1. Melissa,
    I admire the way you write. Pithy, succinct, brilliant. If anyone has credibility with this topic, you do ~ as Melissa Ford Lucken, literary fiction writer, and as Isabelle Drake, commercial fiction author. I also look forward to the day when self-published/independently-published/non-traditionally-published authors are celebrated for being both literary and commercial. (Of course, Mark Twain is among those writers who defy these labels. He is one of the eminent success stories of this curious "labeling" phenomenon for he is a literary, commercial, self-published and traditionally published writer.)

    As you know, Jason Pinter's article in today's Huffington Post Books Section (8/26/10) supports your comments, Melissa. He also discusses the role of gender when it comes to literary vs. commercial fiction and New York Times' reviews. I wish he had interviewed YOU along with Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult.

    In your conclusion, Melissa, I submit you offer an opportunity to merge the labels of literary and commercial by focusing on the reader. I agree with your conclusion. Hearing "literary authors" read their work may feel indulgent to a potential reader who wants only to be "hooked" on the story and snuggling on a sofa to read a great book by a "commercial author" may afford a reader the luxury of time to discover this author's "dramatic question."

    Ultimately, I would prefer an event where I could hear a three minute reading from an author (similar to the Undergraduate Readings at the Solstice MFA of Pine Manor College residencies), a quick question and answer forum, a book signing, and moments to read a chapter before turning off the light beside my bed.

    Thank you, Melissa, for your insight and perspective. As a devoted reader of your work ~ both literary and commercial ~, I feel honored to celebrate your point of view.

    Carol Owens Campbell

  2. Carol, I love your idea of a short reading followed by a Q & A or commeentary on the work. While the book *can* be read after the event, that type of interactive exchange can only take occur in the present.

    Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the support and encouragement!