One of my biggest pet peeves is the pressure to classify a book as either literary or commercial. Is literary code for quality? Is commercial code for entertaining? Are they codes for highbrow or lowbrow, accessible or challenging, better or worse, fun or worthwhile, timeless or of-the-moment? In working with Jason Mott on his National Book Award–winning novel, Hell of a Book, it occurred to me almost immediately on submission that it was both literary and commercial. I think most books, indeed many of our most beloved books, are both.
It’s probably true that a lot of this attempted categorization comes from within the trade, from publishers, booksellers, and all of the structures that make sure a book arrives on a shelf—the shelf where the supposed likely readers are likely to find it. But as an editor and a reader, I think assigning a book to one line or the other isn’t the point—it’s the fact that people are reading. Most of the readers of “commercial” books whom I know have very high standards for story and character. Most of the readers of “literary” books whom I know hate getting bogged down in self-conscious or showy writing. Another past Dutton National Book Award winner, John Irving, wrote books read by many, of quality and precision and pace.
I would wager that the best books come from writers who are also less concerned about their book being one thing or another, and more concerned about writing about people who are fleshed-out and living their stories on the page. I’m proud to be working at an imprint that often blurs the commercial-literary line, and to be an editor looking for books of high quality with pages that turn themselves, for which there are many potential readers. My colleagues and I are deeply interested in books by the only writers who can write them, across fiction and nonfiction. That may mean it’s because the story is informed by personal experience—or that the writer has researched and studied their subject and knows it well. The story might be of global significance, or something very local and intimate with big implications.
For writers, instead of deciding before you put pen to paper that you’ll be writing a book that is “commercial” or “literary,” a book that wins the National Book Award or is wildly entertaining, a book that impresses a professor or your friend who loves to read for fun, why not think about it a different way? What are you writing that is unique to you? What combination of experience, knowledge, style, narrative strategy, thematic focus, weight in the world, and discussability do you bring to the table with your writing? What makes it yours alone?
For me that’s the most important category, and where all the best books are. They are commercial, and they are literary. They challenge us and thrill us and make us want to read them again and again.
—John Parsley, vice president, editor in chief, Dutton