The “L” word and the “C” word are tossed around all the time in this business. A conference attendee recently asked an editor to define “Literary” and the editor replied, “It means (long pause…long pause…long pause), like, NOT the DaVinci Code.” I looked at my friends on either side of me. They shrugged. I shrugged.
I realized at that moment that I could not accurately (GASP!) define the two for myself. Really. No joke. How could I get this far and not know (or be able to articulate) the difference between Literary and Commercial? I mean, I get that Gossip Girl is Commercial and I get that Johnny Tremain is Literary, but what exactly does that mean?
These are some of the answers I received from author friends of mine:
“Literary books are for smart kids and Commercial books are for fun kids.”
“Literary books win awards, but Commercial books sell more.”
“Commercial means it has a big hook, Literary means it's slow and boring.”
“Literary books are pieces of art. Commercial books are trendy and fleeting.”
M'kay. (Remember, I didn't create these definitions…I'm just quoting them.) The exercise was not entirely helpful because, of course, I can argue that smart kids enjoy both L-books and C-books. Printz winners “American Born Chinese” and “Monster” both seemed pretty hook-y and Commercial-y to me, but still won the coveted award. And I consider “Because of Winn Dixie” to be Literary, but it certainly is not slow or boring (to me).
I looked up “Literary” in the dictionary. It means: Having to do with the written word. 'Kay, that just doesn't help me a bit. So I looked up “Literature.” It means: Written works (I get that part) that are recognized as having important or permanent artistic value. Ohhhhh…now I…wait. What? “Artistic value”…riiight.
Problem: Art is subjective. Which is why our small town still celebrates a massive structure built entirely of slimy used gum as a “must see” highlight on our Chamber of Commerce map…but that's a whole 'nother story. So, what really makes one book Literary and another Commercial? Is one better than the other? And can one book be both? I think about this constantly as I'm revising my book. And I wonder if adding all the figurative layers is dragging it down and taking away from its potential commerciality, or adding to its artistic value. I guess it all comes down to telling a good story. Which is what I've decided to do, no matter what category it gets thrown into.
I know Catcher in the Rye is considered completely Literary, but did people label it as Commercial when it was published back in 1945? Maybe it was the Gossip Girl of its time and everyone was all like, “Oh, that's sooo light and silly and trendy…” And now it's a major classic and J.D. Salinger is sitting there like, “Hmm…who knew?”