Seth Godin is a guru. He, of course, is the author of a dozen international bestselling non-fiction books, from Tribes to The Dip. His books have been translated into more than 30 languages. There are blogs -- dozens of them -- devoted to "memorable quotes by Seth Godin." Who knew? My confession is that until a few weeks ago if given a quiz where I had to link the name of the author with the title of one of his books, unless I'd come up with a very good guess I'd have failed the quiz. I obviously haven't read Seth Godin, though I probably should.
This all came up because a writer I know recently mentioned that one of the key elements of one of Seth's books (I don't even know which) is this: if you don't identify and write to your niche, it may mean that you satisfy no one. That in itself is an intriguing concept, but on that very same day our own Karen Shravemade wrote the following comment to my post, What is True and Right:
"What I'm most interested in ... is the "sweet spot" between literary and
commercial. You know -- books that are beautifully written, but have such a big
premise and/or gripping plot that they hit a note with a broad audience.
I wonder, though, if in trying to find some middle ground between
literary and commercial, I'll end up hitting neither. That I'll write a book
nobody knows what to do with."
The coincidence was too large to ignore. So let's talk about this. Let's talk about boxes, because it seems to me both Seth and Karen are alluding to firm boundaries that we should keep in the forefront as we write. To maintain those boundaries, does that mean we must always create the same type of protagonist? Always write in first person or third, and in the same tense? Must our plot points be comparable? Is there no room for experimentation?
You hear a lot about branding at writers' conferences these days, which is sort of a new term for an old concept. It just means that you should be very identifiable as an author. For example, if I say John Grisham, you think legal suspense. If I say Elizabeth Berg, you think women's fiction that includes subtle humor and an in-depth look at relationships that are vital to women. Jamie Langston Turner has a unique style of writing that includes lots and lots of narrative. Though her novels are short on that all-important "white space," she is one of my favorite authors. We could talk all day about writers who have done an exceptional job of branding themselves. But I'd like to focus on Karen's comment.
As I read the first part, I found myself asking, "Is Karen saying that literary fiction is the "beautifully written" novel, while the commercial one has the plot and appeal that literary fiction doesn't have? Is it that well defined, or is it possible to blend the lines between the two? Can literary fiction have a dynamic plot, or commercial fiction be thought of as beautiful? Does anyone do that, and do it well? With all my heart, I hope the answer is yes.
As I read the second part of Karen's comment, I asked myself, are those of us who are trying to blend the two wasting our time? Are we writing books that, indeed, no one knows what to do with? Funny, but I just pulled a Jodi Picoult novel off my shelf -- Handle with Care -- and this is what a reviewer from Entertainment Weekly wrote: "Picoult is a rare writer who delivers book after book, a winning combination of the literary and the commercial." I could have searched a month for a suitable quote and not found one, but there this was, right at my fingertips, when I wasn't even looking. So the answer is yes, the two can be blended -- and perhaps that in itself defines Jodi Picoult's brand. But as the reviewer said, it's the rare writer who can pull it off.
Now please understand, I'm not comparing myself, or anyone else, to Jodi Picoult. She truly is an exceptional writer. What I am saying is that it's not only possible to find that "middle ground" that Karen talked about, but there's a huge audience for it. Ms. Picoult, Elizabeth Berg, Anne Tyler, Charles Martin and others have bridged the gap, and done so very convincingly. So those of us pursuing literary ficton can take hope in that. But we must hone our skills until we're the best we can be; and we must find our own unique place within the industry. I don't believe in luck; I do believe that God guides us with a steady hand. If we follow what we consider to be the call He's placed on our lives, then we'll fulfill the purposes He has for us. The results are His. Always His. And that's the bottom line for those who call themselves Christians.
What is your opinion of literary fiction, either as a writer or a reader? Who else would you add to the list of authors who have successfully bridged the gulf between literary and commercial fiction, whether in CBA or ABA?