I'm sampling a few of the Booker nominees. The Booker prize is given out by the British for the best novel of the year.  As a rule, the novels are literary. There have been some wonderful books in the past, so I looked forward with huge anticipation when this nominee had a historical novel set in Japan, specifically during the period that the country was opened up to western trade via the Dutch East India Company and their trading post on Dejima island outside Nagasaki.

 

With this book, however, I ran into the old conflict between literary quality and commercial success.  The author clearly aimed for both, and the result jars.

 

There are fascinating characters, well-rounded and clearly illustrative of the themes (collision between two worlds, intolerance, human rights, the coming of age of the young protagonist, etc).

 

But there is also a plot designed to shock and titillate (the commercial aspect). Young women who are somehow disfigured or disabled are kidnapped by some maniacal Buddhist sect, imprisoned in a hidden mountain fastness, and used by the monks as breeders of children which are ritually killed after birth. The protagonist's love interest is such a flawed woman, and the two men who love her attempt to rescue her before she can be "engifted".

 

My problem is that the commercial aspect of the book disqualifies it as a literary novel. (It didn't win).  But the mind rather boggles at the praise for the book:  "Comparisons to Tolstoy are inevitable" (Kirkus), "Literary brawn and stylistic panache (PW), "M. is clearly a genius." (NYT)

"(A) prodigiously daring and imaginative young writer" (Time).

 

I think the lines between the literary and the commercial have blurred, but now and then one can still tell the difference.

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As literary becomes less of a force, I think the move toward commercial will be more common. I'd make the argument Johnathan Franzen's latest has grounds in both.
Yes, that's probably true. Writers have to make a living -- or at least stay published. But in the case above at least, a choice was made that wasn't in the best interest of the novel. To be frank, I would not use such purely salacious situations as the central action in one of my mysteries, and I have been known to deal with pedophilia in monasteries (historically supported) and the odd sexual perversion. But I like to stay within the realms of actual behaviors.
"Comparisons to Tolstoy are inevitable" (Kirkus),

Of course we all know by now that blurbs are not to be wholly trusted...."beware the burbling blurbist!" Literary brawn? That's a good one! Clearly a genius? Or just packed chock-a-block with testosterone? (That might account for the brawn). You wouldn't hear Virginia Woolf's writings described that way!
You have to wonder if the person who wrote that has even read Tolstoy. And why Tolstoy?

As you say, the lines are blurred. Should there really be such a dividing line between "literary" and "commercial?" If a book is truly a literary masterpiece, it actually deserves commercial success---but often doesn't get it. People gobble up schlock because it's easier. And then there are the elitist readers who are put off by the words "best seller." ( If it's a best-seller, it must be less than a literary gem. ) Dickens, of course, wrote commercially--- in newspaper serials---and few would now contest his importance as a literary giant, whatever his faults---his occasional sentimentality--- may have been. His larger vision, his command of the language, his humor, his compassion for the underclasses, women, and children, elevate him to a greater status than mere commercial success could ever have done. But he was famous and well to do in his own lifetime.
It's the old "many are called but few are chosen" syndrome. There are a lot of good books around; perhaps very few great ones. But a lot of people are trying! I find that sometimes the line between "literary" and "commercial" are very thin indeed, and anyone can cross over----in either direction.
It's too bad that the NEED for commercial success might motivate a writer to mar an otherwise fine book with lurid sex and violence. Was there any historical basis for that?
In the first novel of yours that I read, there was a sect of "renegade" Buddhists who were pretty nasty customers! It was convincing---I didn't doubt that it had a factual basis.
Yes, there is historical precedent for pedophilia in monasteries of the time, also for perverse sects within the Buddhist faith, and for monk warriors. I combined several historical facts (that were less troubling to the Japanese than to Westerners) to create my villain. I'm not sure I would do this again. DRAGON SCROLL was my first novel.

Dickens is wonderful. There is something very satisfactory about a writer who sets out quite humbly to entertain as many readers as possible and yet to remain true to his own convictions. Dickens does occasionally stretch believability to make one shudder or gasp and he is a tad sentimental, but his characterization and the sheer exuberance of the world he depicts make up for that amply.
the sheer exuberance of the world he depicts

A perfect way to describe it! You feel as though you are right there. It's no wonder there have been so many film adaptations of Dickens' work---it was all there in every detail---costumes, settings, characters, dialog.
The opening paragraph of Bleak House is one of the most evocative passages of prose I've ever read---and reads as though it were written yesterday. Also the train ride in "Dombey and Son"--- a gem. His writing is just full of such rich veins. Dickens was a natural--it just came to him as effortlessly as breathing. He was also deeply engaged with the world around him.
I find Dickens a little hard to take. It's the sentimentality thing--but that was what made him so popular with Victorian audiences. It was a deeply sentimental age.
It's the sentimentality thing

But that's only a little bit of what Dickens was really about. He goes far, far beyond mere sentimentality, especially in his later novels. Way beyond Tiny Tim. He had a powerful social conscience, a reformers' zeal, a grand dislike for the arrogance, snobbery and pretensions of the newly rich upper middle class- would be elite money-grubbers, whom he cuts to ribbons in hilarious fashion. Moreovet his influence helped put an end to child labor. His sentimentality was born of something truly sincere---his compassion.
And he could write a pretty darn good mystery, too. The Victorians were sentimental, but they were also ruthless. It was after all the beginning of the Industrial Age, and Dickens saw well into the future. And any writer could learn something from the best of his prose. If I were a novelist I should only hope to write as well even some of the time!:)
"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times."/u>
Am I confused about Kirkus--do you pay them for a review? When I heard that from a fellow writer, I've discounted their reviews ever since. Maybe I heard wrong.

At one time, Kirkus offered another, separate service where authors paid for reviews.  It had a slightly different name. There was a great outcry over this, and they claimed that being paid had nothing to do with reviewing fairly.  I'm not sure if this service is still available.

The regular review section of Kirkus does not receive payment, but they review only mainstream publications by legitimate publishing houses.

 

I agree with your sentiments, but there are two different kinds of Kirkus reviews involved here. I think you can trust the ones under the Kirkus name.  They tend to be pretty sharp in any case.

A fellow writer paid Kirkus to review her work barely a year ago, so I think that arm is still operating. It shows up on her Amazon site as Kirkus Discoveries. Interesting, huh? I thought their comments were fair and not over-the-top in response to her status as paid client.

Anyway, thanks for your clarification, IJ.

Ah, yes.  "Kirkus Discoveries", presumably for undiscovered writers.

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