Today’s Daily Prompt made me chuckle:
A literary-minded witch gives you a choice: with a flick of the wand, you can become either an obscure novelist whose work will be admired and studied by a select few for decades, or a popular paperback author whose books give pleasure to millions. Which do you choose?
This conversation has come up many times in my writers group. Given the option between fame & money vs. little money and the deep respect of the literary community, I pick being the next J.K. Rowling. I have no hesitation about that choice, either.
Now, here’s the fundamental problem with how this question and all its iterations is framed: It’s the battle between “literary” works and popular fiction with the implication that literary fiction is the superior choice.
Hello?! Most of the writers & works studied in your English class were, in their day, popular fiction. Let’s take Shakespeare, the bard, the guy everybody gets exposed to because he’s a genius, right? Well, he was essentially the Steven Spielberg of his day and the main reason we even care about Shakespeare now is because he was really, really good at one specific thing – getting butts in seats. And, you know how he did that? By writing a whole bunch of slasher plays (do you know what happens in Titus Andronicus?), some twisted tragedies, biopics (historical plays), and a slew of romantic comedies. Oh, and don’t forget the toilet humor, dirty jokes, and slapstick.
Yet, here we are, still reading Shakespeare today and praising him to the heavens for his literary genius. Aside from a few notable exceptions, just about any major writer you study in school got their start from being popular in one way or another.
This whole literary vs. popular dichotomy is a false one laden with snobbery. Bestsellers resonate with people and if they continue to resonate with people decades after they come out, then that makes them literary. That’s all it really is.
Besides, the lines between popular entertainment and scholarship are getting blurrier all the time. Did you know that “Buffy Studies” is a thing? That’s right, there’s a whole area of academic scholarship that focuses on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
So, given the choice, I absolutely pick selling out. If I were able to write something and if that many people loved it, I count that as a major success. If the literary scholars don’t like it, that’s fine. They mainly like to focus on authors who are dead, anyway, so there would be plenty of time for them to warm up to me later