There is a wonderful piece in last Sunday's New York Times - Great Literature? Depends Whodunit written by Charles McGrath. The article examines the split between literary fiction and genre fiction and begins with an extraordinary story.

Joan Brady writes literary fiction. This 68 year-old expatriate American, living and writing in England, won the Whitbread book prize in 1993. She lives next door to a shoe factory and recently, she sued the factory claiming that "the glue and solvents used in the Conker shoe factory next door to her home in Totnes had poisoned the air and made her sick." And Brady's evidence, you ask? Well, as reported by McGrath, she abandoned a half-finished literary manuscript and wrote, instead, a potboiler. The toxins from the shoe factory, she allege, caused nerve damage and a loss of concentration which caused her to write the potboiler. Her argument, in essence, appears to be that she would never write genre fiction if she were in her right mind.

In his article, McGrath reminds us that the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is fairly recent, that Charles Dickens wrote horror and mystery, that Henry James wrote ghost stories, that Jane Austen wrote chick lit.

Good writers write what they write well. And readers read good books (and sometimes, bad books) that speak to something in their own life. Some days its Dostoyesvsky, some days Stephen King. Edgar Allen Poe. Steinbeck. Asimov. Kafka. Conan Doyle. Tom Robbins. Jonathon Swift. McMurtry. Vonnegut. Sophocles. John Irving. Joseph Heller. Yukio Mishima. Ovid. Dr. Suess.

And the case of Joan Brady? Her potboiler was a success, selling roughly 50,000 copies in Great Britain (and more copies around the world). Nevertheless, the shoe factory settled out of court, paying Ms. Brady 115,000 pounds for her descent into the hell that is genre fiction.

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Surely art in all forms is about the projection of creativity...that's why Darcey B dances on a stage in front of thousands and not in her bedroom and why Shakespeare turned his words into plays and poetry rather than a diary.
A writer can of course write for whatever reason he wants but I dispute that a true 'artist' would seek to make it as difficult as possible. He will want to reach as many people as he can. If he does it for his own pleasure then, in my view, that's not art - it's a hobby.
HB x
Well, that's just your view. There are other views out there. Fortunately, there is no authority on what constitutes art. It's also presumptuous to assume you know Shakespeare's motives.
Quite right. Actually Shakespeare's poetry circulated only privately.
Okay so I didn't know him personally - but I suspect he didn't write quite so many 'just for fun' and in his day they were not played just for the elite either but in open air theatres all around the UK.
In Elizabethan England the masses happily went along to his gigs and threw rotten fruit if they didn't like it....The concept of 'good' art and commercial 'shlock' had not yet raised it's ugly head.
I'd be interested to know what motive you think he had if it wasn't to reach as many people as possible.
HB x
Why would the motives of the writer - Shakespeare or anyone else - matter at all?

Whether they want to reach everyone in the world, or are just writing for themselves, and whether they're aiming to write pure entertainment or aiming for 'literature' - surely all utterly irrelevant to the question of how good the finished work is...?
But surely the motive of every artist is to reach out and touch people? As writers don't we do this because we have a story to tell?
What irks me is when someone who does that very successfully and reaches the masses is degraded. That somehow their motive is base .
The point I was making about Shakespeare is that he did everything in his power to be 'commercial' and reach as many people as he could, but those writers who do it now are often derided.
I guess for me it boils down to not wanting to be disrespectful of other writers. There are certain genres that are just not my cup of tea - cozies, historical, true crime - but I would never slag off those authors as I know myself how hard this job is and the fact that someone else likes them and buys them by the truck load tells me they are still great books.
For me every book that has been enjoyed by lots of people is precious and I hate the devisiveness of 'good' book, 'bad' book.
HB x
No, I do agree that a massive amount of snobbery and elitism goes on. But I guess the key point is "the motive of every artist is to reach out and touch people", because "touching people" covers a lot of ground. Or, in other words, art can function on a number of levels. There's nothing wrong with fiction that's just plain throwaway entertainment - if it works on that level, then it's great, because that's often what the reader is after - but fiction can also be much more than that. However much a Grisham or (deep breath) a Patterson entertains you, would you ever see them being taught to children on the curriculum? Would that not just be playtime in comparison with other more 'serious' works, which can be read time and time again and still give new insights on each reading? However commercial Shakespeare might have been (and yeah, he was), there's more poetry and thought in several of his pages than in entire shelves by some authors. Being commercial is only one area of comparison.

The snobbery comes in saying there's something wrong with reading for pure pleasure, because there isn't. But there are still artistic standards, surely? Just because a sloppy McDonalds cheeseburger tastes great doesn't mean you can't draw a contrast with Michelin star food. You're a snob if you look down on someone who prefers McDonalds - each to their own - but it's obvious to anyone with tastebuds that one is more complex than the other.
You're right of course about complexity - on some occasions that's exactly what I'm after, on others I want the bullet train.
Back to Old William S I recall the first time I saw one of his plays my Dad, an uneducated miner, took me to see Two Gentlemen when I was 10. I don't think either of us had any preconceptions about how difficult, or multi layered it was supposed to be...we just enjoyed it. Later when I studied him and saw more plays they were always less enjoyable somehow, as if I had to appreciate the greatness.
HB x
As far as the plays are concerned, quite right. He was a major stock holder in the company and would be for several centuries to come the only literary great who was a financial success. But he wrote to appeal to at least 3 distinctly separate levels of class and education in each play, a remarkable feat which accounts for his broad appeal.


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