In Which Commercial Fiction and Literary Fiction Square Off

I read a piece by Joyce Carol Oates[1] in which she mentioned Charles Dickens’ essay “Night Walks,” about how, when he had an ongoing and intense bout of insomnia, he walked through the streets of London until dawn, and how this profoundly unsettling state of “night-restlessness” led him to rename himself “Houselessness” for the course of those evenings. Oates observed: “No one has captured the romance of desolation, the ecstasy of near-madness, more forcibly than Dickens, so wrongly interpreted as a dispenser of popular, soft-hearted tales.”

“Yes,” I thought immediately, “I know that intoxication.” I closed my eyes and let myself fall, for just a moment, into that delicious 3a.m. hush, when thoughts charge through our brains unrestrained, and words curlicue like smoke from our souls. Worlds end at 3a.m. Lives are unbearable and yes, desolation and near-madness can lick up around the edges of our minds, and the blood surging through our veins at those moments turns our pages red.

Even Shakespeare agrees! And who argues with Shakespeare??

Wait, what? The “romance of desolation”? The “ecstasy of near-madness”? And then there is “dispenser of popular, light-hearted tales.”

This is the lit fic rallying cry.[2] It embraces the idea that writers write because we can see the demons everyone else ignores, and we cannot rest until we wrestle them down onto paper, over and over, forever. Writing is our barbaric yawp, and we send it out over the rooftops, hoping to help dim the bedlam of lives lived in the vicious grip of the mundane. Anything less is inauthentic.

I hear the siren call of this idea, and I know it lives deep inside me. And yet my brow furrowed over Oates’s words. I know writers for whom this is not necessarily the state of their souls. They aren’t carving out pieces of the collective subconscious and nailing them to the page. They write about nice people who have all the trouble they need trying to get together with a person they’re attracted to without having to face an existential crisis on their way to dinner. These writers scoff at this idea: “That’s ridiculous! You don’t need to court madness and desolation to be authentic.”

I think both responses are correct. But how can that be, when they’re fundamentally opposed?

I was stumped until I started looking at it from a completely different angle. If you want to understand a culture, one of the biggest sources of information is that culture’s stories. What a bonanza the explosion of story forms in the last two centuries has been—among them commercial fiction, graphic novels, comic books, movies, and video games. And that got me thinking…

Amazing insights can be found by using all these stories to dissect, for example, what a culture fears, how it loves, and what it thinks is possible. Crime, horror, and paranormal, romance, and science fiction do just that. And lit fic, which is busy analyzing and digging into the underlying darkness of the psyche, gives the cultural sleuth an intentional glimpse of the gritty machines grinding away behind the beautiful facade people try so hard to preserve. And with those statements you can already see how this perspective makes murky the line between the two sides—there is just as much commercial fic that gives this glimpse as lit fic that fails to.

See how similar they look? Let’s face it–they’re both badasses. 

This broader view gives us the objectivity to look at fiction as existing on a continuum of human experience. This continuum goes from dark to light. And since no shadow can be thrown without light and no light can exist without creating shadow, there is no way to have sides. Even in a book without shadow we notice its absence, just as much as we notice the absence of light in a book consumed with shadow. The question, therefore, becomes not “What kind of book is this?” but “Where on the continuum of the human psyche does this book fall?” This question invites the reader to engage every book they read on a much deeper level.

If we’re honest, we, as writers, exist on this continuum, too. So what should matter most is how our story answers that second question, because we’re creating roadmaps of the human psyche, whether we’re aware we’re doing it or not. Our duty, collectively, is to provide as many different roadmaps as we can, not dismiss one story or another because of an imaginary literary fistfight. Only through all our approaches can we capture enough variations to get a glimpse of the true play of light and shadow in the soul, and this could lead to the deepest insight of all: When I look at you, your lights and darks, I see myself.


[1] “Running and Writing,” from The Faith of a Writer

[2] I’m not saying this is Oates’s intention. Everything that follows is my exploration, sparked by her observation.