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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The average reader buys to his taste, but there will always be those who will buy books identified (by publishers, reviewers, and awards people) as "literary". Conversely, such a tag may cause other readers to run.
See also my post about Benjamin Black's ELEGY FOR APRIL on the "What Are you Reading?" thread.  Benjamin Black is the alias John Banville uses when he writes mysteries rather than literary novels.

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.

Yes, but clearly there's no reason why any novel cannot be both.  I will say that it takes a lot longer to get the language right, and publishers don't really pay enough to take that much trouble.  For that matter, most readers just like to swallow the book, gristle and all.

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.

 

That one was an alternate universe story, wasn't it?  I don't like SF.
Only in the sense that Chabon took as an historical reference and plot device that the Jews had been allowed to settle in Alaska, rather than Isreal. It has nothing at all to do with sci-fi. It is a brilliantly written, hard boiled noir detective story.  
Ah, yes.  Sorry.  Alternate history.  My mind was elsewhere.  :)  I still don't relate well to that.
I did try it.  There was so much publicity about it at the time.  But I couldn't get into it at all. I need my novels to be reality-based.

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.

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