Literary vs. Commercial Fiction

‘An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmaster of ever afterwards.’

F. Scott Fitzgerald

The distinction between high-brow and low-brow – between obscure and popular, or unprofitable and lucrative – is a source of tension and insecurity in all fields of the arts. Among writers, however – people who tend to be sensitive and pretentious at the best of times – thinking too much about this distinction can cripple your creative output and tie your mind in knots. The impact it’s had on my writing career has been profound.

When I was eighteen, I proclaimed to all and sundry that I would not be going to university, as expected, and instead would become a writer.

‘You won’t be able to support yourself,’ snapped my A-level English Literature teacher in front of the whole class. ‘I know many writers – they all have other jobs. The only way to make money is to write pulp.

She practically spat the last word, the implication being that dusty high-brow literature is somehow more worthy and honourable than low-brow, yet popular, commercial fiction. It is better to be Marcel Proust, writing a ginormous book that next to no one has ever read, than churn out formulaic hit after formulaic hit like Clive Cussler.

‘Well I’m going to write quality fiction,’ I replied, in my arrogance believing myself to be the next Ian McEwan or Sebastian Faulks. To my teenage self, that was the compromise, the dividing line, between my literary pretensions and my pecuniary ambitions – something that would keep my English teacher happy but would be successful enough to buy me a little apartment in Richmond.

And so I spent years trying to write ‘quality’ fiction. I fell in love with the idea of the sophisticated literary intellectual, and started wearing trendy scarves and sewing elbow patches onto my suit jackets. I was adamant that writing was an art form, an expression of the intangible essence of the heart. And that was why everything I wrote was plotless, navel-gazing, self-indulgent pap that was so boring, even I didn’t want to read it.

When people suggested that I study the craft of writing, I scoffed – art can’t be taught, I said. I saw the distinction between literary and commercial fiction the way a sculptor sees that between a statue and a chair. One is created by an act of will, the artist wrestling an image from out the marble as he pours himself into a work that will stand before others as a testament to the divine in man; the other is created by a craftsman in a workshop for people to sit on. And fart on. And use for firewood if he gets cold.

In truth, I wanted to be special. Our society has elevated the artist to the position of mythical genius, and denigrated the craftsman to a manual labourer. Learning the craft of writing seemed to imply that anyone could do it, and if that was the case, there was nothing special about me at all.

I gradually came to realise that such a view of writing – dividing fiction between literary and commercial, worthy and worthless – between art and craft – is not only the result of ego and insecurity, it’s also utterly wrong.

Writing is both an art and a craft. In the same way that painters, no matter how ‘artistic’, have to learn the basic techniques of holding a brush, applying paint with different strokes, understanding perspective and creating balance, so writers have to learn the fundamentals of the craft. Character, setting, structure, pace – inciting incidents, pinch points, climaxes – these are not things that block our intuitive connection with the Muse, they are the fundamental building blocks of writing. And how you use these tools is down to you as an individual.

I also realised that the literary/commercial distinction is pretty arbitrary anyway. Whenever I go into a bookshop that has a literature section separate from the general fiction section, I’m always amazed by the titles the staff have deemed to be ‘literature’. And who is to say that literature has the monopoly on big ideas? I’ve found profound, life-changing notions in books of all genres, from horror and science-fiction to fantasy and crime. It doesn’t matter what you write, so long as you write it well.

My advice to all aspiring writers out there is to forget about whether you’re writing literary fiction or commercial fiction and just write what feels right for you. I spent far too long writing as somebody else instead of writing as me. I like writing stories with a high body count, lots of explosions, and enough guns to start World War Three. It took me forever to realise that there’s nothing wrong with that.

Real writers write

I am a writer. If you’ve seen Wonder Boys, you might groan in response to such a statement, filled as it is with a mixture of pretension and self-aggrandizement, but it is undoubtedly and unashamedly true. I am a writer.

Granted, I’m not a particularly successful one, but I write, and therefore, I’m a writer. In my life I’ve met dozens, if not hundreds, of wannabe writers, and I’m often asked how to become a writer, as though there is some secret formula to making all your dreams come true. There isn’t. It’s startlingly easy to be a writer.

The only thing that separates a wannabe writer from a real writer is that real writers write.

So many times I’ve seen people in cafes with their laptops on the table in front of them, chatting away as the cursor flashes unnoticed on the screen; so many times I’ve been drawn into conversations about three-act structure and character arcs and pivot points and the hero’s journey; so many times I’ve heard people introduce themselves as writers, as though they’re James Joyce or Graham Greene; and so rarely have I ever met anybody who actually writes.

It seems so simple to me. From the age of four, when my favourite programme was The Littlest Hobo, I started telling people that when I was older, I was going to write books. Then, when I was eight, I started typing out stories on my mother’s old typewriter, telling people that when I was older, I was going to write books. And then when I was twelve, I had an epiphany – I was already older, so what was I waiting for?

The Case of the Samurai Kidnapper was the first ‘book’ I wrote, a 32-page abomination about a ninja assassin and the husband-and-wife FBI agents hunting him down. I followed this with a novella about a platoon commander in the Union Army during Sherman’s march through Dixieland, and then an adventure story about an archaeologist discovering an ancient conspiracy to hide advanced technology from the world at large. It didn’t matter that they were awful – they were the first tentative steps towards my goal and they taught me a truth that has served me well all my life:

Wannabe writers talk about writing; real writers write.

The fact is, it’s easy to talk about writing. It’s easy to sit around and think about writing, to work out the details of character and plot, research your setting, establish your theme. What’s really difficult, and what so few wannabe writers actually do, is sit down and write.

Because writing is hard. It takes discipline and commitment. It’s thankless and it’s lonely. You get stuck inside your head and the white screen mocks you. Everyone else is heading out to parties or lying asleep in bed while you’re sitting at your desk hammering out the finer points of something nobody might ever read. You take jobs that aren’t too taxing so you can write in your spare time. You put the kids to bed then write into the wee small hours, knowing each moment of lost sleep will make tomorrow that much harder. But you do it anyway, because you are a writer, and that’s what it takes.

I worked out a few years ago that in the fifteen years since leaving school I’d written over two-million words of creative writing. I’ve written eight full-length novels and half-written countless others, completed two non-fiction books, hundreds of short stories and several screenplays. This amounts to tens of thousands of hours of effort and sacrifice, practice and false starts, improvement and editing, success and failure.

If you want to be a writer, the only thing you have to do is write.

A lot of wannabe writers make excuses about their lack of output. Everyone knows someone who says they’re going to write a book some day – well why not today? Many people claim they lose interest and can’t finish anything they start – well if you want to be a writer, you have to keep working on it. And the worst thing of all, so many people say they don’t have the time to write – but there is always time to write, if you truly want to.

I read a great line somewhere that I think is very true, something like: ‘If you don’t write when you don’t have the time, you won’t write when you do.’ Who cares if there are dishes in the sink? Go and write. Who cares if the lawn needs mowing? Go and write. You need to motivate yourself to write whenever and wherever you can squeeze it in, or else you never will.

You have to be committed, disciplined, obsessive, sometimes selfish and maybe even a little mad to be a writer, but that’s the lesson for all wannabe writers out there: how do you stop wishing and turn your dreams of being a writer into reality? In one easy step.

Real writers write.

Welcome to The Struggling Writer

Welcome to The Struggling Writer. As the name and tagline suggests, this is a site about a struggling writer, namely me, Andrew ‘Gillan’ Drew. Almost forty, writing fiction all my life and increasingly fed up at getting nowhere, I figured that here would be a great place to share some of my work, discuss some ideas, and go off on frustrated rants about anything to do with writing, publishing and the wider world around me.

Come for the blog, stay for some stories, and hopefully be moved, entertained and provoked in equal measure. Click on the menu above to access my fiction and feel free to comment.

I look forward to engaging with my fellow writers.

Gillan