Friday, October 06, 2006

Is There Such a Thing as Non-Literary Fiction?

The terms "literary fiction" and "commercial fiction" always crack me up. As if Thomas Harris or Stephen King's writings are, uh, "non-literary." As if Philip Roth mows lawns to supplement his unmarketable talents. It's been said before and often: Isn't there just good fiction and bad fiction? People forget that Camus's inspiration for The Stranger was The Postman Always Rings Twice. Cain's masterpiece is pretty goddamned literary. And The Stranger has sold a few copies. Why bother labeling them? Frankly, they both kick serious ass.

The following section is from an amazing Washington Post article, in which Ayn Rand compares the writing of Mickey Spillane, rarely the critics' favorite, to those of Thomas Wolfe:
"Rand appreciated Spillane's precision as a writer, and in an essay on literature (which appears in her book "The Romantic Manifesto") quotes from Spillane's description of New York at night as an example of his skill -- "The rain was misty enough to be almost foglike, a cold gray curtain that separated me from the pale ovals of white that were faces locked behind the steamed-up windows of the cars that hissed by. Even the brilliance that was Manhattan by night was reduced to a few sleepy yellow lights off in the distance" -- and then compares it to a passage by Thomas Wolfe -- "The city had never seemed as beautiful as it looked that night. For the first time he saw that New York was supremely, among the cities of the world, a city of night. There had been achieved here a loveliness that was astounding and incomparable, a kind of modern beauty, inherent to its place and time, that no other place nor time could match."

To Rand, "there is not a single emotional word or adjective in Spillane's description; he presents nothing save visual facts; but he selects only those facts, only those eloquent details, which convey the visual reality of the scene and create a mood of desolate loneliness." Wolfe, she argued, used only estimates, "and in the absence of any indication of what aroused these estimates, they are arbitrary assertions and meaningless generalities."

for the complete article, click here:


Now Wolfe is a brilliant writer, and Spillane certainly has written a few clunky passages. It's unfair to compare merely two sentences and draw broader conclusions. But I found the contrast interesting and compelling, and worth discussion. Which do you prefer and why?

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