The word literature is a loaded gun. All writing is, at some level, a form of literature, just as all oceans, rivers, and lakes are a form of water. But there definitely is a supposed qualitative definition of the term – more categorization than value-assessment — and too often meaning is assigned to the term that implies literature is better and of more value than what is otherwise considered to be more commercial fiction.
If you have ever read Moby-Dick, you know this is not necessarily true. The value in reading about a mythic whale swallowed by a boring plethora of words is up for debate. Better is always an opinion, and often one held by folks who smoke pipes and are paid to tell us what we should and should not value in our reading.
Sometimes, though, writing literature vs. commercial fiction is a choice a writer can make. A stylistic target. Dennis Lehane — he of the commercial and critical home runs Mystic River and Shutter Island — deliberately went this route in his historical novel The Given Day. The fact that this book sold only a fraction compared to his other works is not the point. What is the point is that the composition of these books — literate vs. commercial — is somewhat different. And it has to do with scenes.
Both styles have plots, even though it may be hard to find them in a literate novel or an art house film. Plot is conflict, and conflict implies character. So far it is the same game. The difference is a question of emphasis.
In what professors and some critics call true literature, it is perfectly okay for the mission of a scene to be character-focused, almost to the exclusion of even a hint of story exposition. You can have chapter upon chapter of character moments and dissection, without ever really sensing what the hero needs or wants, or what stands in his way. The mission of the scenes is to illuminate character, while action and forward-motion is optional and sometimes rare. In commercial fiction the exact opposite is true.
Of course, story (through plot) must eventually show up, but only true fans of literate novels are still with the hero at that point. I am not judging, I am just clearing up the mystery that surrounds what makes a book commercial and what makes a book an icon of literature. When a writer can do both — as Lehane does regularly — then it is all a marketing strategy. And the smart money stays away from the word literature at all costs.
Like everything else about writing, including the nature and mission of our scenes, we always get to choose.
The excerpt is retrieved from the book ‘Story Engineering’