The editor read my sample chapters and said something that I would never forget, which was this: she couldn’t take on the book (not the right fit for their imprint blah, blah), and she thought my manuscript would read and sell better as commercial, not literary fiction.
The editor’s name was Ellah Allfrey (yes, the Ellah Allfrey), and I’ve never forgotten her advice. From that day onwards, I considered myself a commercial writer, someone who wrote, whisper it, popular fiction.
Before Ellah’s advice, I’d bought into the delusion that literary fiction was somehow better than its populist, commercial counterpart.
Literary was sophisticated, erudite and polished. A brilliant work of art that cowers dazzles readers into intellectual submission with nothing more than the sheer brilliance of the author’s pen.
Commercial fiction was ‘populist’, which was another phrase for intellectually inferior. The fact that it tends to sell a LOT more than literary ‘works of art’ was of no importance to me in those days, because I was still craving acceptance from the literati. As if they cared. In all probability, they were too busy trying to hold on to their jobs in the brand new world of Kindles and digital publishing to think about some random writer who had a break out novel in religious publishing.
But, as usual, I digress.
Today, I see some budding writers make the same mistake I did (and it’s always the yet-to-be-published writers). They want to be ‘literary writers’, because they’ve bought into the same delusion that I did, which is that commercial fiction is intellectually inferior.
I tell them to try getting even ONE poxy traditional publishing contract first, and only when they’ve done that can they earn the right to stand before a successful commercial fiction author and tell them their ONE poxy literary work is way better. And even then, I would also say: ‘Let’s see the figures, shall we?’
No one cares, because it’s a matter of preference
My friend swears by Lambrusco. A 200-year-old wine with a £200-per-wine-glass tab is wasted on this particular friend, because she likes Lambrusco ‘and [she doesn’t] care what you wine snobs think.’
I look at books in much the same way. Fact is; I will read anything. However, I do not have the time or inclination to plough through a boring-ass book. When I buy a book, I want a roller coaster ride. I want to flick through the pages or ebook in a state of heightened tension, in a race to find out what happens next. I do not care if the book is literary or commercial; I just want to be entertained.
I may not be the brightest spark in the room, but I do think that most readers feel the same way. So if you’re a writer on the cusp of your publishing career and you’ve bought into the same delusion that I did (that literary is better), before common sense prevailed (thanks, Ellah), I would advise you to put your readers first, because they are the most important thing in this whole ‘thing’. Write to entertain, and if what you’re writing happens to take you down the literary path, then, so be it. If it takes you down the commercial route, then so be it, too. Just don’t look down on other forms or genres of writing; 50 Shades might be rubbish, but at least it got some people reading. O-kay?
As for the writers who still think that being ‘literary’ is all there is to writing, I say ‘Let your readers decide.’ And they will, with their hard-earned cash.