Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Commercial, LIterary, and the Question of Value

Posts about commercial writing and literary writing have been done before by many people, but a lot of times it seems to be a tough subject to talk about without offending people. But today, after a class discussion, I was left feeling very angry, very passionate, and very in need of explaining some apparent misconceptions about value when it comes to books.

I'm not here to tell you the definition of commercial or the definition of literary. I'm not sure I could articulate it, really. For me, its an "I know it when I see it" sort of thing. I read both genres, I love and hate books in both genres, and I respect both genres. While I could name off a list of examples of which books fit into which categories, I won't. That's a waste of time. But I will say that I loved White Oleander (literary) just as much as I loved Vampire Academy (commercial). I loved them for very different reasons and in different ways, but I loved them both just the same.


I write commercial fiction. I know this. I love what I write and I am proud of what I write and I work hard to be the best writer I can be.

Which is why it makes me very, very upset when people act is if commercial is of a lesser form than literary fiction.

In class today we discussed the debate happening now between Jennifer Egan and Jennifer Weiner. I personally have no strong feelings about either of these women or their sides, because I feel some wording has been misconstrued on both sides. However, while discussing this debate, some very interesting - and very incorrect - statements were made by my peers.

First of all, the attitude seemed to be that literary fiction is inherently "better" just because it is, well, literary. But what is the definition of better? Every single reader has different feelings about every single book they read. I recently read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom and I can honestly say that I did not enjoy it. I would much rather reread The Hunger Games. But Freedom is literary and The Hunger Games is commercial. So, to me, The Hunger Games was "better." However, I am aware that others will disagree. That's cool. But its unfair to say that all literary is "better" when each reading experience is going to be different.

The second thing that came up that really irked me was that a few of my peers stated that they primarily read commercial and yet they saw it as expendable, meaningless, just for pleasure. Perhaps some books are this way - I've read a few - but to say all commercial fits this mold is highly offensive. Not just to me as a writer, but ot me as a reader. I have read many, MANY commercial novels that "got something out of." I would argue that Dreamland by Sarah Dessen is commercial, and it honestly changed my life. I totally advocate reading for pleasure, but I dare say we can find pleasure in both literary and commercial literature, and that it is definitely possible to get deep meaning from both. Every book is going to affect a person differently. Putting all commercial in the "expendable" category is over generalizing and rather demeaning to many of its readers. And, you know what? Even if a book is only for pleasure, I'd argue that it is still not expendable. Deep meanings and important messages aren't necessary for a good read. My enjoyment is not expendable to me.

The third and most upsetting statement made today was this:

"People aim for literary and just fall into commercial when they miss that mark."

No. No, no, no. WRONG. (And I said as much in the class today.) Most, if not all, commercial authors intended to write commercially. Or intended to write without caring what genre it was. I didn't think, "Oh, I want to write literary!" when I wrote The DUFF. I also didn't think "Oh, I want to write commercial!" I wanted tow rite a story. Now, I know I write commercially, and I am so fine with that. I have many peers who went in knowing and aiming to write commercial books because that is what they read and what they love. To say they "missed the mark" is not only hurtful, it is very wrong.

Not EVERYONE wants to write literary. Not EVERYONE wants to write commercial. Some people don't even care which they write. That's fine. That's why we are all so different. And that's what makes reading so great - we get a wide range because different people want to write different things. To say one aims for literary and lands in commercial is to say all commercial authors are, in fact, failures in some way. I don't think Stephen King would see himself as a failure, personally.

My point here is that both literary and commercial have value. They are very different, they are apples and oranges, and they both matter. I will even venture to say they have equal value, just in different ways. Because both genres have fabulous authors who write fabulously different types of stories. AND THAT'S AWESOME!

I've told you all that I'm leaving Ithaca and taking a year off before. I'm also switching majors. Because over the past two years I have learned that literary fiction is the only acceptable form in academia. This upsets me so much I can hardly put it into words. The point of a writing department is to teach students how to get jobs as writers or in publishing, but by enforcing the "literary is greater" attitude we demean those students who might be great writers and want to write commercially. This is oppressive and damaging, especially in an industry that values commercial literature.

To be clear, this is not why I'm leaving Ithaca, but it IS why I am switching majors no matter where I end up. I desperately hope to see a change made in writing programs around the country. I desperately want to see acceptance of literary and commercial fiction in all genres. I"m just not sure it'll happen anytime soon.

I"m going to end on one final note. Some will call this a war or a debate. I don't. Because I personally stand on both sides. I love literary fiction. I love commercial fiction. And I love stories.

Commercial writers are writers because they love to write. Literary writers are writers because they love to write. If we all love to write, why can't we just support each other in this? Let people write what they want, let people write what they love, and cherish every story told because it'll impact someone, somewhere. I think all writers, no matter the genre, should stand together here. We love what we do, and there is no need to devalue each other when we ultimately have the same goals.

And that, I suppose, is the end of my rant.

22 comments:

Naomi Canale said...

Wow great post Kody. I also write commercial and *love* it. You make an awesome point and I can't agree with you more!

Laurel Symonds said...

I had a similar experience where I went to school-Hamilton College. For three and a half years I felt uncomfortable in my creative writing classes because I wanted to write commercial YA whereas the professors and students wanted to read and write and critique adult literary. But then something wonderful happened: for my senior project where I could write whatever I wanted I wrote a YA high fantasy. And my classmates and professor wholeheartedly embraced it. The 22-year-old boys wanted to know who the MC ended up with or about the world just as much as I hope 14-year-old female readers will. Their enthusiasm kept me writing. And although it would have been much better not to have felt unappreciated during the first three and a half years of classes, it meant so much that my classmates did value the commercial novel I was writing when they realized it was my personal project that I was so passionate about.

Tamara said...

Kody, your post is very representative of academia. Sigh. I'm finding the same frustration as I begin my dissertation research that basically looks at successful authors and interrogates how we might adopt their methods for success to creative writing classrooms - in other words, how might the success in commercial fiction translate into academia? The first question is whether academia would even welcome such insight.

I agree that literary and commercial fiction both carry value, and it frustrates me when people claim otherwise. Very well-said.

Kody Keplinger said...

Naomi - thank you!

Laurel - I've noticed that many of my peers write commercial and don't seem to realize they write commercial, if that makes sense. They love it, they write it, they read it, but they think "commercial" is an insult when it isn't. Maybe the distinction needs to be made clear. Maybe there shouldn't even be a distinction. I"m not sure.

Tamara - I would love, LOVE to see commercial fiction integrated into academia. I think it is starting to be in a few children's writing MFAs, but that's pretty much it. If schools do integrate it, I"d love to teach commercial writing.

Chelsea P. said...

When I look back on the books I've read throughout my life I can honestly say without hesitation that the ones that changed my life, the ones that altered my perspective and made me who I am today, were primarily commercial. I don't mean to make a huge generalization here; this is true for me personally. But I've found so much value, so much insight in commercial fiction that it's pretty outrageous to hear the generalizations made by the people in your class. My only guess is that people who make those kinds of statements don't actually read broadly within the commercial genre, if at all.

Try (if you can) not to let it get to you. Having read The DUFF, your blog and Before We Were Lost, I'm fairly certain your'e going to be getting letters for years from people whose lives you've changed. And that's value.

:)

Julia Darcey said...

Kody, this is a great post. I had this experience when I tried to enroll in a creative writing class at my college. The professor was a very big literary name. Even though he said my writing was strong and I was clearly talented, he wouldn't take on my YA urban fantasy because "other students in the class are actually trying to create something meaningful." I was livid. As though my project couldn't possibly have something meaningful to say just because it also had fight scenes in it.

Fortunately, this is changing. A lot of writers are starting to bridge the gap between genre and literary fiction. Michael Chabon is a great example of a big literary name who's set out to change the way we think about genre fiction. I hope someday I can be that kind of writer too, and so can you.

Mary said...

Great post and I totally agree. I could care less if it's considered literary or commercial. All I really want to read is a good story. I want to get lost in the characters and their lives. I want to have someone to root for, to connect with, to fall for. I've read both literary and commercial fiction that does that. I've read both that fall far from the mark.

So why is one considered "better" than the other?

Becca C. said...

I'm leaving my creative writing program for this exact reason. I write commercial YA and I can't tell you how many people have sneered or even laughed at this. My children's lit classes were a lot better than some of the more elitist poetry classes, but even there, when we looked at some popular fiction (Gossip Girl, stuff like Madonna's kids books, etc), people would begrudge these authors their success and think that popular = bad.

I had so many frustrating conversations with people who refused to believe that a book like Gossip Girl had just as much value as anything else because it obviously spoke to a lot of people on some level, and so many people would say my writing was "good... for something aimed at teens." I'm leaving my program, and when/if I go to another university, I definitely won't be taking creative writing.

carey said...

oh, this is exactly why i did little if any creative writing in college. everyone else in the writing classes wanted to write about Big Serious Subjects in Big Serious Ways, and i just wanted to write about 14-year-olds.

Shelby Bach said...

AWESOME post, Kody. I ran into the same thing at my school - both in high school AND college. They only encouraged me to write highbrow stuff, so I ended up writing more outside of class than FOR it. UGH. (But it probably served me better in the long run. :-P)

Now some literary books are among my FAVS OF ALL TIME, but why the preference for it in writing classes? Aren't they designed to teach you the craft, and to help you write better? Why do SOME teachers - not all - train their students to be prejudiced against commercial lit as well?

But to add to what Laurel Symonds says, I did noticed something: the harder the writing class was to qualify for and the better the other writers were, the more my classmates appreciated the writing just for being awesome - rather than bring judgments to the table.

Eve said...

Just to clarify, because I love you and you are my friend and I want to put this to rest (at least between us), I agree with EVERYTHING you said. I think we merely disagreed on my choice of the word "garbage." I think in my mind it is a much less powerful word than how you interpreted it. Some of the very same books that I have deemed "garbage" (loosely) have had a HUGE impact on my life. This does not undermine how I look at these books at all. For poorly selecting this word, I apologize, perhaps "candy" is a more accurate description. For everything else I said, I stand by 100 percent, but after reading your post it looks like you do too. Whether it's in a literary or commercial book, it seems as though we're on the same page.

Kody Keplinger said...

Eve - I think we really were just disagreeing on the word choice more than our actual points of view on this. And PLEASE do not think this post was targetted toward you. It was so not. It's more about today's class in general as well as some debate I've seen elsewhere. Its just something I am very passionate about and that has bothered me for a long time - and its the reason I'm not going to remain a writing major, so clearly it really is something that kind of enrages me. But I think it IS a relevant issue and something to be mentioned. However, I in now ay hold this against you or even against our peers in class. I begrudge academia as a while, really, for making us believe that commercial has less value and that we shouldn't write it/should think it is "garbage." I blame the system! lol

Caitlin R. O'Connell said...

Hear Hear, Kody!!

Personally, I'm going to keep on writing my lovely commercial (I think?) YA stuff in class, and everyone else is just going to deal with it. :) But I wish you luck in your post-Ithacan adventures!

The Romance Bookie said...

Wow, this is so unbelievably true! I get told all the time that the books I read aren't real books. They are just "Pleasure readers" or whatever. Well let me tell you...I LOVE YOUNG ADULT NOVELS!! Even though, soon enough I might considered too old to be reading them, I SERIOUSLY could care less! I love those books. And like you said, Kody, some of the "commercial" books I have read changed something in me, and were so unbelievably relate able. Your book is a great example of that, as well as Sarah Dessen, and MANY MANY other authors.

Writing doesn't usually...or at least always, start by picking a genre, it comes from imagination. I'd say at least 70% of Young Adult novels are considered "commercial", but it also happens to be that Young Adult novels are the highest sold novels in bookstores! So boo-ya! Commercial Young Adult Rules!
You just keep on writing your awesome novels, because no matter what there will always be haters, but you can never forget there will also always people who absolutely LOVE what you write!
:)

Casey (The Bookish Type) said...

I completely agree with everything you said in this post. Why does everything have to be a battle these days? Why can't we just respect each other as artists and as people? I love and respect the way you use your platform to have such thoughtful discussions, Kody.

V. Rossi said...

Excellent post. There are so many works that don't even fit well into either category. Wishing you a great year off. That takes guts - respect.

Lynne Kelly said...

Why do I envision desks and chairs being thrown around your classroom?

Excellent post, Kody! I too love books of all kinds and for all ages-- a good story is what's important. There's plenty of room for both literary and commercial fiction, and one isn't "better" than another.

Any idea what the new major will be? If you find a school that has a "Reading good books of your own choosing" major, let me know.

Ashes said...

Great post. Reminded me of this post:

http://bridgetasher.blogspot.com/2011/04/jeanne-leiby.html

There are as many good reasons for staying with any program of study as there are for leaving it. Nothing will be wasted, either way.

1000th.monkey said...

So I'm a little late to add to this conversation, but your reasons are the same reasons I dropped out of my university (from the Fine Arts program) and entered a school for animation, game design and programming.

Elitism is a terrible thing, no matter the context.

Designating one thing as *worthless* is a slippery slope. From art, literature, religion, to people, races and nations.

colleen said...

Kody, I feel your pain my friend. I just graduated from an MFA program and while most of the professors/students were open-minded, there were still the old school elitist "LITERARY" types walking around. The people who consider themselves "SERIOUS WRITERS." (Not making that up...that's what they call themselves...as opposed to: The Rest of Us...) I will be all too happy to leave that kind of academic snobbery behind me. I always submitted YA or genre type pieces for workshops and while a good portion of the class and most professors were enthusiastic, there were always those handful of people who would dismiss the piece entirely...no matter how well it was written..simply because it was not written in the realist mode and starring an adult. Honestly though, your publishing success is most likely what is contributing to your unhappiness in your writing program, or more specifically, other people's envy of your success. The creative writing world is plagued with writer pettiness and jealousy. As soon as people hit it big, like with a major publisher and not a small press, peers and even some professors find ways to pick them apart and diminish the achievement. I sold a book a few months back to your publisher Poppy...(Pam and Elizabeth are editing!)and while most of my true friends/writing peers are thrilled for me, several are not. Their response: "Oh, that's great. But it's YA though, right?" ME: "Yeah." THEM: "Oh....(awkward pause)...well, hey, congrats!"

Grrrr.....

Anyhow, I hope you find a program/major that you enjoy and that you are surrounded with people who support your dreams.

:) Colleen




www.colleenclayton.com

alexinksit.com said...

I'm at Sarah Lawrence and everyone has the same attitude here. The truth is we're all probably writing something in the middle. Some might lean more one way or the other, but really we all want to touch our readers and that should be reason enough to write. Great blog, by the way. :)

Aisyah Putri Setiawan said...

Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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