For the first time in years, I recently read a book that could probably be called pulp fiction. Or maybe bestseller fiction, as pulp fiction may be more specific. The book was Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress, a thriller about cryptography. I read plenty of this sort of book in high school — Grisham and Crichton among the top authors — but switched into literary mode during college and never turned back.
While I can’t say that I found Brown’s book especially rewarding to read for its own sake, I am glad I read it because it helped me to see that there’s a huge difference between bestseller fiction and literary fiction. That’s not to say that one is objectively better than the other; they simply serve different purposes. But boy is there a big difference, and reading Brown’s book helped me put my finger on at least a part of what that difference is.
Perhaps the most obvious difference is that bestseller fiction is plot-driven, while literary fiction tends to be style-driven. I think many people tend to view literary fiction as fiction with a message, but that’s not a sufficient demarcation between the two genres. After all, any number of lessons could be taken from Brown’s book without even pulling away too many layers of the onion, and if you peer deeply enough into pretty much any piece of written work, you can interpret it to have some sort of ethical or life lesson. Bestseller fiction almost always has a fast-paced plot, and the writing itself is more or less homogenous among authors. Dan Brown and Michael Crichton are interchangeable. Only their plots differ.
William Gaddis and John Steinbeck (two of my favorites), on the other hand, differ substantially. Their tones and their cadences, the ways they break up their books, their pacing, their diction — all of these things are unmissably different between the two authors. When Gaddis tells a story, you feel as if you’re there amid the cacophony of voices; Steinbeck’s stories feel more narrated and comfortably paced. There’s no mistaking one author for the other because they’re so stylistically different. They woulld tell the same story in vastly different ways, where in bestseller fiction, I suspect the same story would be told in very similar ways among different authors.
Literary fiction also allows authors to experiment more. David Foster Wallace, for example, ends one of his books in the middle of a sentence. And some of Gaddis’s work is almost wholly dialogue. While much recent literary fiction does maintain a semblance of a plot line, it’s often not as linear and clear as what you find in bestseller fiction. Gaddis, DFW, and Thomas Pynchon provide superb examples of this. The effect is that the books are harder to read and that you wind up investing more in the reading of these books; in my experience, the bigger the investment, the bigger the return on investment.
Which is why I prefer literary fiction. I admire things that dazzle me with their complexity and ambitiousness. And so I admire the cleverness that goes into contriving the plots for bestseller fiction, but I admire more the authors who contrive such plots and present them in original and thought-provoking ways. The difference between bestseller fiction and literary fiction might be likened to the difference between a compact car and a luxury car. Both serve very useful purposes; I just happen to prefer the latter because I believe it is of a higher quality, and I derive more satisfaction from its use.