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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Yes--she is. Still is judging by sales, but she's full of spirit. thanks.
Got to have spirit! And sales are lousy for a lot of us.
Can't really speak to the particular book since I haven't read it, though it sounds pretty goofy. I don't think there's ever been a clear division between literary and popular fiction, though, unless the literary work is avant garde or experimental. Hemingway was wildly popular through most of his career, and he wrote about events and situations that could just as easily have been the stuff of genre fiction. The same is true for Updike, Roth, Saul Bellow--much of the 20th century pantheon. And a lot of genre authors have crossed the other way, either as stylistic masters or through artful complication of character or story. Chandler, Highsmith, Umberto Eco to name a few.
Yes, I think that's true, though just as many (or more) have turned the other way, choosing subjects that would guarantee sales. In the recent past, that would have been the vampire thing, or the serial killer novel, or the gratuitous violence. In the past, it was more likely sex, especially of the kind that was only whispered.
the vampire thing,

Now that vampires have become cute and sexy! And young. And some of them even have ethics, apparently. :)

The original Dracula (Bram Stoker's) was neither! Especially in the film "Nosferatu." Of course his "brides" were always pretty, but once Drac himself got to be a sort of swashbuckling type, its commercial potential was boundless. It's still about sex. And power. But I've said that before. It sure sells.
Yes. Exactly. Current vampires really have nothing to do with the original myth. Those bloodsuckers were evil and had to be eliminated with silver bullets or stakes through the heart. An appealing vampire just doesn't sound right.
On the other hand, the original myth also appealed to the prurient: rape fantasies! This part still applies, and if I weren't against censorship for young readers, I'd consider the recent bestsellers highly questionable fare for teen girls.
I'd consider the recent bestsellers highly questionable fare for teen girls.

They tend to outgrow it, though. I'd worry more about the middle-aged women who might be reading this stuff :) I haven't read any of these myself....but maybe they seem sort of "safe" to girls. Like horses. There's no actual sex---at least there isn't supposed to be, vampires can't, can they--just love bites. There was a series by Chelsea Quinn Yarbo, about a vampire who travelled through the ages---seeing as how he was immortal---and only made women into vampires when they really really wanted it--he was a "good" vampire. Historically they were fun---I read a couple, back in the day. But now, like, I am SO OVER vampires. Anyway the old schlock was better than the recent schlock. (If we can distinguish between good schlock and bad schlock!) :E (That's a vampire smile, with teeth--just so you know).
Yes, I suppose you're right. The young can take a lot that might upset older readers.
"Fear of Flying" and "Looking for Mr. Goodbar"
Not sure why its being commercial disqualifies it as a literary novel. First of all, I am pretty sure that the so-called literary novels of the past, many of them anyhow, were commercial and popular. Just think of Charles Dickens - literary, yes, but great plots and pacy, exciting stories.

Also, "literature" is just another genre category. Meaningless in itself, other than as a neat category to get publishers kudos, provided larger advances to "literary" authors than regular genre writers would get. I think there may have been some Booker winners in the past, too, that had pot-boiler elements (does anyone know?)
Well, I just read a Booker nominee that was merely a decent historical novel with pot boiler elements, but it didn't win.
The demarcation line is doubtful. I judge a book on characterization and character development plus style. A memorable plot comes next. But in any case, I want to come away from the book with an overall sense of "well done!" and the conviction that I have just learned quite a lot, either about life and people, or about writing books. That sort of thing happens more frequently with the socalled literary novels than with those novels that were written to meet a market demand (the commercial novel).
Argue as we will, the real difference is what the individual reader chooses to call it--if she or he cares.


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