A few days ago I heard an interview with Jeffrey Archer in which he was careful to call himself a storyteller rather than a writer. Perhaps he was being modest about his skills, or simply differentiating fiction from journalism, but I got the impression he was claiming the high ground in terms of pace and plot, while maybe taking a side-swipe at more ‘writerly’ i.e. literary fiction.
Of course I may be doing the man an injustice. But writer/storyteller does seem a nice distinction, particularly for someone who has often been derided as a writer (amongst other things) but whose early novels (Kane and Abel, Not a Penny More) I recall as rattling good reads.
So is this a fair way to distinguish commercial from literary fiction? Does ‘quality writing’ imply lack of pace and does commercial fiction imply lack of style or artistry? And if not, what actually separates one from t’other?
As a writer who finds it difficult to draw the line between commercial and literary fiction and even harder to place myself on either side of it, the question of what those terms mean is an interesting one. All I can conclude is that the aim of commercial fiction is commerce, i.e. the making of money, and as such will include anything that reaches the mass market. Conversely one might say that ‘literary’ puts the quality of the writing ahead of its mass market appeal.
But does this hold water? However lofty our ideals may be, we are constantly told that we must write ‘for the market’ and while many writers do not make a living from fiction, are there any novelists out there (egged on my agents and editors) who won’t do their damndest to make sure the book sells?
Another approach would be to look at the assumed audience for the book. I hesitate to dip my toe into the murky waters of socio-economic class, but taking the iconic model, it definitely grates in to say that literary fiction is for the John Cleese’ of this world and commercial for the Ronnie Corbetts. But there’s definitely a lot of looking up and looking down in the literary world, and by calling himself a storyteller, Mr. Archer may well have been indulging in a bit of inverted snobbery.
Which is probably where I come in, because like Ronnie Barker I’m stuck in the middle. As a reader and writer I’m a literary middle-weight, and I’m not quite sure how to explain that to an agent or editor, except perhaps in the words of an old edition of Mslexia which referred to a new trend to ‘lit-lite’ in which were included, as I recall, Maggie O’Farrell, Salley Vickers and lots more of my favourite writers.
I’m not sure whom I would then place in the ‘lit-heavy’ category. Rose Tremain? Hilary Mantel? Wolf Hall might be a doorstopper that needs a bit more ‘getting into’ but ultimately it’s as compelling as any of the aforementioned and left me wanting more.
I remember one agent I approached who described herself as looking for ‘good stories well told’. If I can produce one of these, I’ll be happy. A writer who can tell a story, a storyteller who can write. Sounds like a win-win situation.