Literary/Commercial?

Just started John Banville’s The Sea. I like it. It actually reminds me a bit of I Capture the Castle, which I just finished a week or so ago. It has that 1940s tone, although I think The Sea may be pre-WWII (the past part of it). And the “literary” language is nice, not offputting or pretentious or just dense. In his case the “literariness” is simply a very close observation of the human and physical landscape, with some high degree-of-difficulty linguistic maneuvers, but mostly very simple language. I applaud his twists and flips rather than rolling my eyes, which is sometimes my reaction to stylistic flights.
But it raises a question that I’ve been pondering for a while, since I’m getting near the end of my WIP Reply All. What is literary, what is commercial, what is mainstream, what is family saga, what is women’s fiction? Reply All has elements of all of these. I suppose I’d call it “mainstream,” since it would be pretentious to call it “literary,” but there are passages in it that are “lyrical,” “elegiac,” etc. What is Bel Canto? What is Snow Falling on Cedars or House of Sand and Fog? What about Janet Fitch? I’m thinking of the whole snit-fit Jonathan Franzen threw when Oprah chose The Connections because he thought you couldn’t be “literary” and still appeal to Oprah’s Book Club readers. This is an old conundrum, heavily plowed earth. But it’s bothering me right now. I suppose Reply All is a mainstream novel.
To bring the 2006 reading list up to date:
1. Looking for Alaska, John Green (good, but I never really got Alaska, never saw her. Not like you get Holden Caulfield.)
2. I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith (as good as JK Rowling promised)
3. The Night Journal, Elizabeth Crook
4. The Ice Queen, Alice Hoffman
5. Blood and Chocolate, Annette Curtis Klause
6. Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman
7. The End, Lemony Snickett

Reading The Sea and The Golden Bough (p. 240, prohibitions on kings and stealing souls)

2 thoughts on “Literary/Commercial?

  1. It’s a blurry line. I wouldn’t worry about it too much – honestly I think it’s more of a marketing/PR choice than anything else. Miss Snark says she doesn’t pay attention to what people querying her say their genre is because most of the time they’re wrong anyway. When in doubt call it mainstream.

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  2. That’s indeed what I’m calling it. I know it’s not “commercial” fiction, which I think of as Danielle Steel or Robert Ludlem. But, what exactly is “women’s fiction?” What is “family saga?” Family saga could be anything from Little House on the Prairie to One Hundred Years of Solitude.

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