And a tangent.
I'm going to arbitrarily divide books up into categories here that I suspect are also abitrary, because I think that most things defy categorization one way or another, cut it's hard to find aother ways to talk about, you know, stuff.
ONEI think (and this is just me thinking out loud here, and probably wrong) that there's an entire subset of writers who make a perfectly fine living and establish a readership turning out novel after novel that is "good enough," "commercial," and "shallow." They have success with one book, establish a formula, and provide perfectly delightful airport bubblegum for the next fifty years. These are not deep books. They are not felt books. They are books that turn up by the fistfulls in used book stores. For my own personal preference, I give you Lilian Jackson Braun, whose books, I think, will never be acclaimed literary masterpieces, and which I have honestly read three or four times while being unable to remember which of her works I was reading.
And I love the damned things. I love them for their breezy tone and their keen observations about life in a small Northern town, and because I can read them when I'm sick.
The thing is, I think the people who successfully write these commercial novels, especially the series ones, do love them. And that love seeps through onto the reader.
TWOThere's another category of writer who wants to tell a cracking good story cracking well, and who doesn't exactly have pretensions to literature, but the story that he wants to tell is important to him, and he has an emotional investment in his theme. What's very interesting is I think these writers may tend to creep up on the 'literary' much more quickly than the next category.
These are books that have a little more passion behind them than the standard genre potboiler or thriller or romance. They may make the reader a little uncomfortable, because they ask some hard questions and don't provide easy answers, and because the writer keeps pushing himself to something a little better, sharper, deeper--rather than following the category. Sticking to the mystery genre, how about Ellis Peters as an exemplar of one end of this category, and James Ellroy at the other?
These are books that can appeal to a wide body of readership and attain the status of literature out of roots as popular entertainment, because they are encompassing. They tend to be much more accessible than category FOUR below, which may be the defining difference between the two.
At his best, that's what my belowed Will up there on the icon bar accomplished. *g* Jane Austen, Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Dickens, Armisted Maupin, Donna Tartt.
THREEThe self-consciously 'literary' novel. Later John Irving, after he became aware that he was John Irving. I tend to think most of these books are more about appearances than content, and may hornswoggle the unwary into thinking they are literature, but they lack the emotive depth, craft, and honesty of TWO above and FOUR below. In other words, they don't have much to say for themselves other than "hey, look at me, a dancing bear," although they may obfuscate that fact mightily.
Books that the publisher hails as "important" often seem to fall into this category: they're enough like literature to deceive the unwary, but they lack what I think is the single most important item of literature, which is honesty. Popular 'mainstream' bestsellers with their usually somewhat uncomplicated Pollyanna outlook often fall here.
Other keywords to watch for: "touching," "special," and "heartwarming."
Alternately, rather than Pollyanna, they can be selfconsciously and fashionably morbid, pretentious, self-indulgent and dark, without a real examination of the moral conflicts involved. This is where I tend to categorize the works of Ms. Rice.
This category is also discussed under the sobiequet, "Lit'raCHUR". *g*
FOUR Unabashed Literature. Into which category I shuffle any Books Which Changed The World And Continue To Do So (One Hundred And) Thirty Years Later (and which are not subsumed by Category TWO (Popular Literature Which Transcends Genre), above). Umberto Eco is probably unabashed literature. As are Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson and Virginia Woolf. John Gardner and Anthony Burgess.
Tom Robbins probably straddles TWO, THREE, and FOUR, above. *g*
Most best sellers, I think, come from Categories ONE and THREE. For a very simple reason: they're not challenging, and if they make anybody uncomfortable, they go out of their way to take that discomfort and put it right back on the shelf, or to make sure it's a very contained and titillating discomfort, rather than a deep and unpleasantly idea-altering one.
Please do note, I said "abitrary," and I rather think that any given reader will probably reshuffle the categories somewhat to reflect his personal preferences in literature, lit'raCHUR, and toilet paper.