Tell the Story, and Tell it Well: Literary vs. Commercial Merit
Ah, the conundrum. How do I produce a story that incorporates both literary and commercial merit? Let me tell you, from what I’m learning about the indie market, it’s not easy. Most stories I come across focus on the latter—commercial merit, and for good reason! Commercial merit pays the bills. Commercial merit garners reviews (because people are reading it). Commercial merit gets you ranked on the Kindle lists. And there’s nothing wrong with commercial merit. You want your stories to appeal to as many people as possible. Again, that’s what allows you to look at your writing career as a real job versus a fun hobby.
But a good writer also understands the importance of style and mechanics. Or at least I hope she does. It’s not enough to tell an interesting story. The story has to be written well. Do all readers care about that? Some do. Some don’t. I like to read reviews of other books that have garnered attention to see what the everyday reader likes. Some are harsh: “She needs to get an editor” or “It’s amazing what passes as writing these days.” Yikes. But those same stories also boast rave reviews: “Best book ever!” or “I just loved the characters!” I want to be successful both commercially and stylistically, and that means trying to find a balance between the two. It’s the ultimate review that exclaims, “Beautiful story! Beautiful writing!”
I’m unwilling to compromise my writing to get stories out faster. I understand this hurts me financially. But literary merit is important to me. I don’t want someone saying, “Does this writer understand the uses of ‘I’ and ‘me’?” I want to tell the story, and tell it well. I want to incorporate metaphors and similes (that make sense). I want to write lyrically. I want to make my readers think about what they’re seeing and feeling. Because that’s just it! Readers see and feel the picture you paint for them, and I want my words to be . . . well, smart. It’s like trying to merge the commercial success of James Patterson with the literary genius of William Faulkner. How does a writer do that?
Well, lots of successful writers have done that, but J.K. Rowling is really the one who comes to mind. Here is a woman who created a whole new world with fascinating characters and a fascinating storyline. She had to have known she created a blockbuster, but you know what she didn’t sacrifice in the telling of her story? Skill. Mechanics. Style. All of that is there, and if you read her Harry Potter series back-to-back, you see her writing style—her ability—grow. You see her writing skills get better. She does not just tell a story. Anyone can tell a story. She is a writer because she tells a story, and tells it well.
I tried to find a happy balance with Honeysuckle Love. I knew I wanted to tell a tough story about abandonment, poverty, and first love. I thought that had commercial appeal. When I began writing the story, it adopted the style and feel it wanted. I think it became a much more sophisticated read than my debut novel, Hoodie, in terms of style and mechanics. And there’s the literary merit I wanted. Not to say Hoodie has no literary merit, but the writing in each is starkly different.
Not every reader cares about literary merit, though, as I’m learning. And that’s okay. We all read for different reasons. But many readers do read for style as much as the storyline, and I think what writers have to remember—the most important thing for them to remember—is to write what’s real and true. To write what’s in their hearts. That’s what my editor told me anyway, and it’s helped me find that delicate balance between literary and commercial merit. If you’re true to the story and the way you want to tell it, then you’re already successful on both fronts.
You and I have different views on literary. To me I hear that word and I think high school English where they forced me to read stories about death and rape. So to me literary means sad pathetic endings where someone dies or gets raped. It’s all tragic to break the human spirit of growth and following the golden rule to be kind to one another. I prefer to skip out on anything with the ‘life sucks’ and this book panders to the depressed. To me this is literary and what ends up on Oprah’s book of the month nonsense. What book was it from high school where the hero lost his leg and used a red wagon to pull himself out of the depressing little town in the end?!? I still curse the teacher for making me read that.
What made me want to read your book though was how you focused on the mechanics of writing. This I completely agree with. When I read a review on a book that everyone has the same issues, grammar, then I tend to skip it. A good book does take time to form, and it’s not your first draft! I saw how many books come out right after Nanowrimo where the writers never checked their work, ever. A blog is fast and daily, but a book lasts forever. Fixing and editing are super, super important.
What I like about the sound of your book is that you hit the hardness of life and focus on the redemption. Happy and finding the path to your own version of it is awesomeness and better reads than tragedy designed to kill us all with sadness.
I hope your book sells well. It looks great.
Clara sat down on Beatrice’s bed. “I’ve sent in our application for free lunch. I’m waiting for approval, but I’m sure I’ll get it. We should get the cards in the mail sometime next week.”
Clara dug around the house several days ago until she finally discovered a shoebox stashed in the back of her mother’s closet filled with important documents. The Social Security card was there, and Clara thought that God, if he was out there, was a merciful God.
“Clara, can’t we just get to that when we get to that?” Beatrice asked.
“We’re already there, Bea,” Clara explained. “I can’t afford a grocery bill that includes lunch items.”
“I’m not carrying around that stupid card,” Beatrice said. She stood resolute, her face set and arms crossed over her chest decidedly.
“No one even notices them,” Clara replied. She waved her hand flippantly.
“Don’t do that, Clara,” Beatrice demanded. “Don’t sit there and lie. You’re not even good at it!” She thought for a moment. “Well, except at Open House. You were very good at it at Open House.”
“Bea, I can’t afford lunches. We have to eat the school food. It’s paid for, and I’m not going to forego that because you’re a snob,” Clara said.
“I’m not carrying around that card!” yelled Beatrice.
“Yes you are.”
“You can’t make me, Clara! You can’t! Everyone will know and they’ll make fun of me!”
“So you’d rather starve?” Clara asked.
“Yes!” Beatrice cried.
“Get real, Beatrice. You eat like a horse. You’d make it all of one day.”
“Don’t provoke me, Clara,” Beatrice warned.
“How do you even know the word ‘provoke’?” Clara asked.
“Why does everyone think I’m a moron?!”
Clara smiled and walked over to her sister. She put her arms around Beatrice who was resistant at first then relaxed as Clara stroked her back.
“I don’t want to carry that card anymore than you do, Bea,” Clara said. She cringed thinking of the girls she ran into in the bathroom at school the other day. One looked Clara over and said that she had pretty hair, but Clara was certain she wasn’t being nice about it. She waited for the girl to whip out a pair of shears from her purse and cut all of Clara’s hair off. It didn’t happen, but she was waiting for the day it would.
Beatrice burst into tears.
“I just . . . I can’t hold it together all the time, Clara!” she wailed.
Clara grinned. “Who’s asking you to hold it together?”
“Me! I told you that I’m not afraid!”
“I know you’re not afraid.” She pulled away from her sister and bent down so that she was eye level with her. “I’ll hold it together, okay? You just be ten years old.”
“I’ll never be ten,” Beatrice hiccupped. “I was born an old lady.”
Clara laughed. “Yes, I know. But just try. And Bea?”
Clara wiped a tear gliding down her sister’s round cheek. “Just please try to carry the card. You can swipe it really fast. People will think it’s a credit card and then you’ll be the epitome of cool.”
“What does ‘epitome’ mean?” Beatrice asked, the sound of a new word distracting her from her tears.
“The best example of,” Clara replied.
Beatrice drew in a long, ragged breath. “All right then. I’ll try.”