In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
Book-buyers aren’t attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages.
All sorts of books are written and published every year, and there are all sorts of book-buyers who are looking for different kinds of things. Some people love to read romances, and some people love to read mysteries, and some people love to read young adult novels, and some people, yes, are looking for literary novels.
I’m one of the latter. I write books for the middle grade and young adult market, and I have a particular passion for genre books like thrillers and horror novels, but what I actually love to read the most, the kind of book you’d spot me curled up on a couch actually reading, are literary novels, the bigger the better. I love literary novels about family especially. I finished Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere three weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about it. Two of my recent favorites are The Nix and The Goldfinch, two massive books I loved every minute of.
So, yes, some people like myself seek out novels with a high degree of literary merit.
But you know what the truth of the matter is? King is exactly right: most people want to be entertained. Most people want a book that will keep them glued to the page from beginning to end because of a fascinating story, and three-dimensional characters, and surprising plot twists.
Most people aren’t going to pick up a novel, buy a novel, read a novel, because of its literary merits. They want page-turners, whatever genre that may be. A page-turner can of course be any kind of book. A page-turner can be a literary novel! Little Fires Everywhere is an example of a novel with a high degree of literary merit and yet it totally reads like a genre thriller, one that keeps you guessing until the end.
And this is what takes me to the perfect kind of novel, at least in my eyes. It’s what author Benjamin Percy describes in his fantastic craft book, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, saying,
Toss out the worst elements of genre and literary fiction — and merge the best. We might then create a new taxonomy, so that when you walk into a bookstore, the stock is divided into ‘Stories that suck’ and ‘Stories that will make your mind and heart explode with their goodness.’
Ultimately when something is JUST a literary novel or JUST a genre novel, we’re approaching iffy territory. Because only a select few are going to get a lot out of a literary novel that has no attention paid to genre conventions or expectations, where the story just languishes on the page and nothing ever happens to excite the reader to continue on.
On the other hand, when a book is a cheap and poorly-written genre novel that’s book 47 in a series and that has no real literary merit of any kind, that author is doing a disservice to the reader as well. Some readers adore series, where they know the characters, are familiar with the plots, and these kinds of books are used to pass the time and not much else. That’s fine, I guess.
But when literary fiction and genre fiction are merged, something extraordinary happens. Now you have page-turners that don’t make you feel like you’ve been stuffing cotton candy down your throat for the past two hours. Now you have fast-paced, thrilling novels that leave you feeling smart when you finish them, not dumb. That leave you feeling good about yourself.
So when it comes to the writing that you do, try to merge the literary with the genre. This process makes for the best books, and on the same token, you’ll still be pleasing the book-buying public while at the same time you’re offering something that’s just a little bit more.
At the end of the day, you want people to read your book. And you want them to read the next one, too. Make your work so compelling, in both your storytelling and in the way it’s written, that once they’ve picked up just one of your books, they’ll be hooked to read everything else you put down on paper.
Give your book at least some literary merit, I beg you.
But don’t forget to entertain the hell out of your reader at the same time.