I read trash sometimes.
There, I’ve said it. I don’t always pick up the latest Junot Diaz novel, or re-read James Joyce. Sometimes I like to escape into Charlene Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse universe of Louisiana supernaturals, or Jim Butcher’s snarky wizard world with Harry Dresden.
I always feel a little guilty reading those books, kind of like I’m gobbling verbal Twinkies when I should be virtuously nibbling on uber-existential broccoli. So, here’s the quandary: as writers, do we want to shoot for the commercial, the mass-appeal tome that will attract attention and Hollywood movie deals? Or should be strive to forge the next To Kill a Mockingbird, pouring all of our creative souls into one spectacular work of fiction like Harper Lee did?
Here’s my feeling on it: I’m a greedy little so-and-so. I want to do both. I want to write a literary novel that appeals commercially to everyone on the planet, even the ones who can’t read. Babies. Chimpanzees. People from…(oh, fill in whichever city you want to skewer. I am not naming a specific one because I don’t want to make anyone mad.) I want to pour my heart and soul into a book that lasts. I want to spark a marriage between meaning and mindlessness. Is this possible? So far, I haven’t done it.
I have read a few books that I think fit this category, although I wouldn’t say they were huge best-sellers. Christopher Moore is one of my favorite writers because he is literary and existential, but still makes up hilarious phrases like “heinous fuckery,” and writes about everything from whales to King Lear to Jesus’ childhood friend, Biff. Steven Hely wrote a hilarious novel called How I Became a Famous Novelist, a fictional work about an author who manipulates a literary work into a serious bestseller, but basically kills his career doing it. (I think all my writer friends should read it. It’s full in writer-ish inside jokes.)
My previously published works were basely commercial, although not financially successful, so I guess that makes me the whore who didn’t get paid. I wrote them at the request of a certain editor I met at a writing conference, and it was a great experience except for the lack of money part. I had sent her a completed manuscript, which she really liked, but her imprint was looking for “chick lit”, and she said that if I ever wrote any to send it her way. I did, and long story short, I got a three-book deal out of it. (This is where you can make that disgusted noise and say, ‘lucky.’)
Thus the Queen Geek Social Club was born. I really enjoyed writing these Young Adult books, but they weren’t supposed to get heavy, or be too long, or use words that were too big. When I got a little weird in the plot twists, I had to tone it back to the world of recognizable commercial YA fiction. I wouldn’t say that my freedom was totally restricted on the books; I’m proud of them. But they certainly aren’t fodder for a literary book club to dig into.
The book I’m doing now, Out, is also Young Adult, but much more on the literary side. I didn’t do that on purpose, but it’s turned out that way, and I’m very happy with it. I am enjoying being able to delve into darker areas, to pursue themes that might actually rile somebody. Whether it will be published or not is yet to be seen. But as the author, I feel happy with where its trail is leading, off into the somewhat-literary woods.
I guess when it comes down to it, the best advice is to write the story that comes calling. At the time I wrote the Queen Geek books, that was what had surfaced for me. Now, Out is where I feel I’m supposed to concentrate my skills. Maybe next time I’ll write some rip-roaring vampire-werewolf-prep-school-cheerleader-wizard book that flies off the shelves like rabid bats. I even have a title: Twilight of the Gossip Girl Clique Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest in the Harry Potter. Would you buy it?
Anyway, here’s your question, intrepid Scribophiles: where do your sympathies lie? In commercial fiction or literary fiction, or somewhere in between? And/or tell me your favorite commercial book and favorite literary book. And/or make up your own long-winded, weird title. Or just comment.