Literary vs. Commercial Fiction

I have been writing.

A lot.

So much so that I'm almost done with the first draft of my second novel, Safira! (Remember, that's not really the title, just the name of the MC.) I remember drawing a map for this book before I even began thinking about characters. That was New Year's Day 2009, so over 3 years ago. After that I wrote some character portraits and random scenes that I hoped would meld into a cohesive narrative. I don't think I've kept a single thing from those early days. I mean, I have kept them on my computer, but I'm not using anything I wrote back then. Heck, I was working on this novel again for at least 4 months before I began Mina in November 2010. I worked every day on it, wrote like crazy, and again, all of that work is in folders that never plan to look at again.

I've done a lot of things differently with Safira, from dealing with self-doubt to using Scrivener to not caring about chapter titles. Another important thing I've been doing is reading. I go back and forth on whether reading while you're writing is a good thing. I'm sure it's different for everybody. What I go back and forth on is whether reading while writing is good for me. And I think I've finally come to a reasonable answer. Here it is:

Reading while writing is good for me so long as the book I'm reading helps me improve the one I'm trying to write.

Now, that's probably not the best way to describe what I mean. To be clearer, I'll give you an example. I recently read Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding. I first heard about it when I read an article so long that it would be called a novella if it were fiction - Vanity Fair's How a Book is Born by Keith Gessen. It was a fascinating read that was recommended to me by a friend when he first heard that I was writing. (I have no idea why he knew about it. He's a lawyer.) Anyway, if you want a documentary-style read of how a book is written and published, read How a Book is Born. It's so fascinating that I read the whole thing in one sitting.

I read The Art of Fielding because it kept creeping up on me. I'd heard about it from so many different sources that I felt I could ignore it no longer. It was also bugging me because everybody described it as a "literary" novel. I have issues with this term, mostly because I think it's elitist, and part of my decision to read The Art of Fielding was to figure out why people were qualifying it as such. What was so special about this book? What made it different from almost everything else I read?

Everyday my husband asked me how my Literary Experiment was going. My answers evolved, becoming shorter and shorter, because I became increasingly obsessed with finishing the book. At the beginning, I think I told Derek that The Art of Fielding bugged me because there was only one female character and dozens of male ones. (This is true and it still bugs me, but it's no less true of Tolkien, and you'd have to torture me to get me to criticize The Professor.) I was admittedly more fascinated with the chapters that dealt with the female character because I could relate to her. The male characters did awful things like fart and pee and talk about it. I found that rather distasteful, although in my mind, I'm offended by the characters, not by the author - weird, huh?

By the time I finished the book, I knew why it was called "literary" while the rest of the books I read are called "commercial" fiction. The Art of Fielding is written with a close-up lens. It doesn't spare the reader anything, including farts and the color of the guys' pee. It paints characters in realistic shades of gray instead of the usual black and white. This is the kind of book I should be reading while writing. The only other author I can think of whose work has been equally beneficial is Jane Austen. I re-read Emma a few weeks ago and I'm certain it helped me write better. There's just something about those long sentences, that unforgiving eye, that makes me aspire to do better.

This book also taught me that I don't need to be stingy with language. Before, I was careful to always get to the point, keep the plot moving, to not go off on tangents or keep the reader waiting. This is all good advice, to a degree, but I think I took it too far. When I came back to my draft after The Art of Fielding, I allowed myself to go off on the occasional tangent, usually relating to a character's history or personality, and I think my book will be stronger for these little stories that flesh my characters out.