Literary vs. Popular

I recently attended Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction residency as a visiting lecturer. Since I was only teaching one class, I had a lot of free time, which I used to sit in on other folks’ classes and see what was being taught to this particular crop of writers.

Dr. Mike Arnzen taught one session on “The Theory of Popular Fiction.” As part of this session, he had the class make lists of characteristics of popular fiction and a counterpoint list of characteristics of literary fiction.

It was interesting to see some of the prevailing opinions amongst the students as to the differences between the two, and of course the point of the exercise was to show that, ultimately, literary and popular fiction actually end up sharing more characteristics than one would initially think. Mike made a terrific observation, though — namely, that the ultimate distinction between the two may be that literary fiction is interested primarily in appealing to our intellect and reason, whereas popular fiction is concerned with emotions and generating pleasure.

But here’s something I’ve noticed over the years, something that is typically the major difference between the two: In popular fiction, people are attractive.

No, seriously.

In popular fiction, the main characters are always attractive. The antagonists are usually pretty good-looking, too, but if not, that’s OK — they’re the bad guys, after all. The good guys are always good-looking, unless there’s some sort of deliberate story element that requires them to be ugly, but that’s quite rare.

In literary fiction, it’s POSSIBLE for the main characters to be attractive, but it’s just as likely that they’ll be seriously flawed in terms of physical appearance. And the writer will absolutely DELIGHT in telling you this. In Wonder Boys, for example, Michael Chabon is very happy to repeatedly mention the narrator’s amazing girth over and over again. (Of course, when the book was made into a movie, they cast as the corpulent college professor…Michael Douglas.)

This observation probably ties into Arnzen’s idea that popular fiction is predicated on providing pleasure — after all, wouldn’t you rather read/think/fantasize about attractive people rather than people who are unattractive or just plain NORMAL?

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