Creative Writing: The Art of Confusion (Part 1)

Creative Writing: The Art of Confusion (Part 1)

writing 3Ardain Isma

It took me nearly ten years to conceive my latest novel Midnight at Noon, and despite countless days, months and years in the game of writing, the night before the official release a local journalist asked me this pertinent question: Is it literary or commercial fiction? My mind went blank. My response was neither. I simply replied with a drawn face. “It’s a contemporary novel.” My response was dubious at best, and it is this dubiousness that has long taken hold of many writers’ minds.

So, what is the difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction?  Scott Francis from Writers’ Digest gives us a simple answer to this dull and dualistic subject. “Literary fiction is usually more concerned with style and characterization than commercial fiction,” he writes, whereas commercial fiction bears a faster pace built “with a stronger plot line.” Scott goes on to clarify his definitions. Literary fiction is slow-paced and commercial fiction is crafted with “more events, higher stakes, more dangerous situations.”

Well, that is easy to say. In my own experience as a writer, the answer is not so clear-cut. If we agree that, in the art of writing, perfection is a relative term, we also must agree that the line between literary and commercial fiction can easily be intertwined. For instance, Dany Laferrière, the only person of African heritage to be inducted to the Academie Française, was a no-named writer until he wrote Comment faire l’ amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer (How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired). The work became an instant bestseller, not because of its literary merit, as most reviewers admitted, but rather for its provocative title. In many academic venues, the novel was described as buffoonish at best. The author himself admitted that he penned this novel with one unique purpose: securing his own commercial success. He went on to write several other books, including L’énigme du retour or simply The Return in its English version—a book that most experts describe as one of his best “literary” works.

Impeccable writers like William Styron, Toni Morrison, John Updike have nothing but masterpieces in their collections, or Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio who just received this year’s prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature. So, where do we draw the line—if there is a line at all? One thing remains constant: editors and agents alike are in the business to make profit, and lots of it. To that end, they look for what I call “easy-read” narratives, clotted in generic descriptions, rather than novelistic prose foregrounded in human behavior and in an attempt to foster social changes that may someday transform humanity for the better. Emerging writers can always circumvent the hard work of fiction and go for that romance novel with a happy ending. It seems they may have a better chance. (end of part 1)

NoteArdain Isma is a novelist and editing manager at CSMS Magazine. He heads the Center for Strategic and Multicultural Studies. He also teaches Introduction to Research Studies at Embry Riddle University. To see his books, click here

Also see:

Fellow writers: Read more than you write

Your manuscript is rejected: not the end of the road 

Everyone is making money, but the authors

Why is your manuscript being rejected?

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