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.
I once saw a TV interview with Salman Rushdie in which he was asked to sum up the distinction. He said that a great literary novel is often beautifully written but short on plot and a great poplar novel is often brilliantly plotted but badly written.
I like both. It always depends what I am in the mood for. In terms of writing, I just do what comes naturally.
I agree, I.J.
It comes down to taste when reading and pride when writing. Most of my work is comedy. The timing of the punchline and the set up require some work. It isn't accidental when people laugh out loud. Then again, some of them just seem to come from nowhere.
You are absolutely right, however. I would cite Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policeman's Union as a great crime plot, written in prose that I wanted to memorise.
Hi I.J. - I can see that, ordinarily, I get miffed when too many liberties are taken with historical fact. I did love Yiddish Policemans Union, however.
I probably helps that living across the pond means I am often insulated from the worst excesses of hype. I have no idea why it is but when I mention Chabon here, most people look at me blankly.
I'm very much afraid that this is what happens when anyone mentions my name in the UK, and I have a British publisher. Not that I've ever had Chabon's success.
Now the French are tad more amenable to my books.