Lucinda Elliot

Combining Popular Taste and Literary Merit

The anti hero of Renbecca Lochlann's brilliant series is headed for such a fate as this in his defiance of Athene's curse...
The arrogant Chrysaleon, the anti hero of Rebecca Lochlann’s brilliant series ‘Child of the Erinyes’  is headed for such a fate as this in his defiance of Athene’s curse..

The gifted writer Mari Biella wrote two interesting posts recently about the decline in publishing opportunities for what was once classified as the ‘mid list’ authors and books not easily classifiable.

Here’s the link to the second post:

Whatever Happened to the Mid-list?: Part 2

This issue, of course, raises questions about traditional and self publishing that must concern every author.

Here’s the off the top of my head response I posted (ignore the later one where I mixed up Kobo and Smashwords!).

Though I am not as kind as you about traditional publishers – I still think that they don’t deserve to make a profit if they won’t take risks – that being the traditional political economics justification for an entrepreneur’s making money after all – they are only part of the problem as you say.

‘On niche writing particularly, a problem has always been unfortunately that the majority of readers have frankly tacky taste – romantic fantasies for women and He Man Action stuff for men. Escapism always seems to have been the essence of it.

‘As you know, I have been exploring the appalling works of that Victorian best seller of sloppy trash Charles Garvice, who aimed to please a ‘newly literate’ class of readership, servant girls and nursemaids, etc,(though I believe during World War One ordinary soldiers in the trenches started to read his stuff, too). It’s a sorry comment on the continuing sexism and violence of our society that these tastes still should go on today.

There was a time in the eighties (here I go: ‘In my young days we…’) when educated women didn’t admit to reading romance, but now its made a great resurgence, the only difference being it’s more sexually explicit. It can sell very well on Amazon, and in catering to this less than elevated taste, an unknown can make writing profitable. I know intelligent, witty, feminist thinking women writers who write far beneath the level to which they could aspire and never venture outside their chosen genre – because they want their writing to be profitable, and the chances of doing that through producing something outside mainstream taste are dismally slim.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m in any way condemning authors for making these choices (though for me any  author who panders to regressive rape fantasies is another thing entirely!) Nevertheless it is a shame that the need to conform to public demand reduces these writers’ choice of subject matter, style, portrayal of character, etc.

As far back as 1833 Aleksandr Pushkin saw the problems of the two trends in literature – popular taste and literary merit, and tried to combine popular appeal, with a stirring, romantic storyline with literary merit in ‘Dubrovsky’. (There I go again; I’ll be on to Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ next). I thought he did a good job of it, but I’ve only been able to find one piece of literary criticism on it, and the opinion of that author on the romantic aspect of that robber novel was scathing. Combining the two SEEMS to be the obvious solution, but is very difficult.’

This is, of course, only one aspect of a complex problem, but one by which I am particularly fascinated and on which I have posted before (Regular readers can hardly fail to have noticed that I’ve posted a lot on Pushkin’s attempt to combine the popular and a work of literary merit in his robber novel ‘Dubrovsky’, one of my favourite novellas, too!).

Writing work which hopefully has some literary merit but which has a popular appeal remains my ambition. Many insist that you can’t combine the two. I don’t see why; maybe I’m being obtuse (waves long ears and says ‘Hee Haw!’) but I don’t see why this is presupposed at all.

There does seem to be a certain distaste for genre fiction amongst readers and writers of literary fiction – it’s seen as rather tacky, somehow, indicative of bad taste, like preferring tinned peaches to the real thing, say, or being shameless enough to say you think some distorted Hollywood version of a classic work far better than the original.

This attitude may be changing, and I hope it is. I admit at once that I haven’t had the time I’d like to have to read up on much recent discussion of the matter on the web.

I have been looking for serious (in so far as I can be serious about anything!) discussion of the feminist issues in historical romance, particularly the most famous authors, ie, Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland, and that is quite thin on the ground. I haven’t been able to find any books specifically dealing with it, though I even started a thread on Goodreads asking for recommendations (I still haven’t got any). Germaine Greer’s ‘The Female Eunuch’ does touch upon the matter in one chapter, and her acid ridicule of a couple of Cartland and Heyer’s  heroines still outrages historical romance lovers today – but that was four decades ago.

I have heard it claimed that in genre fiction, the plot is everything: in literary fiction style is predominate.

To suggest that they are mutually exclusive seems to me mistaken.

After all, wasn’t there a certain playwright of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (they didn’t have novels then) who made quite a thing out of combining popular taste and literary merit?

Shakespeare had to ‘write for the market’. He was in it to make money as well as, no doubt, a desire to write good plays. I don’t think many people would argue that this generally affected the merit of his work.

For sure, he was a genius: but while we almost certainly won’t be able to come near his stature as a writer, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do our level best.

I know of a number of talented women writers who limit their style to that of popular romance. This isn’t because they have limited imaginations, are uncritical of the relations between men and women in our current society, lack wit, or are incapable of appreciating good literature or writing it themselves.

I want to make it clear that I am not attacking these writers, or anyone, (except pedlars of rape fantasies) for writing for the market .

What I am saying is that it is a shame that many writers give up on the idea of experimentation because it is so difficult to escape what might be called the Genre Trap.

They write genre fiction which tends not to experimental in tone because they want to be successful writers and to make a profit out of writing. In this era, escapist fantasies of various sorts seem to be particularly popular.

There seems to be something about the current decade which encourages escapism – it’s rather as if people have lost faith in the ability of ordinary people to change unpleasant things about our current society, or as if in an atmosphere of economic uncertainty people have lowered their eagerness to experiment and opt for adventure in real life.

Continuing sex role differentiation has led to women going on, or going back, to reading romantic fantasies and men reading adventure ones (though it’s worth noting that some modern fiction seeks to combine the two for women more than has been the case in the past).

This reading matter being largely escapism, the question is, is it impossible to combine it with literary merit?

Again, why is this so often assumed to be the case?

Think about Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ or Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ (for all it’s faults, undeniably a brilliant work). These classic novels were both written as Gothic entertainment (with a serious underlying purpose).

I have quoted before the scathing remarks by Paul Debreczeny in ‘The Other Pushkin’ on Aleksandr Pushkin’s attempt to combine adventure and romance with fine writing in his robber novella ‘Dubrovsky’.

In this project, Pushkin encountered problems that all ‘serious’ (or comically serious) writers who aspire to produce well written genre material must encounter.

The critic points out, for instance, that while young Dubrovsky is at first introduced with the same ironic distancing used with regard to his father and the tyrannical landlord Trokurov, soon this is abandoned and what follows is ‘the unhumorous stock-in-trade of romantic literature’. The romantic scenes between Dubrovsky and his love interest Maria are ‘thrown in with the utmost crudity’ (of writing style, that is, lol, not sexual explicitness depicted vulgarly: poor Dubrovsky gets no closer to Maria than kissing her hand).

Then, Debreczeny complains that while combining ‘a serious novel of social protest’ with a robber theme could be done, Pushkin fails to make the connections.

That it was rather difficult to write a ‘social protest novel’ that could bypass the censorship of Tsar Nicholas’ notorious Third Section is an additional complication not, thankfully, suffered by most modern authors in the US and Europe and which Debreczeny perhaps might have taken more into account; the criticism about an increasing lack of humour in the depiction of the love affair between the young brigand and his enemy’s daughter is valid.

Pushkin was clearly aware of the difficulties of his project and while he could have largely removed these by revising the work, instead he seems to have lost his faith in his ability to resolve the contradictions and with numerous excuses, abandoned it never to return to it.

This was a pity, as a successful attempt to combine a novel appealing to popular taste and literary merit was lost. Even unfinished as it is, I find it an excellent read which does, even in translation, combine the excitement of popular appeal (it’s a robber novel with a romantic theme) with literary merit.

A lack of ironic distance, of humorous observation, is often a fault of romantic stories generally and I think a quite unnecessary one. Pushkin, unused to writing romantic fiction, fell into the typical style of an uncritical presentation of the handsome, dashing, wronged hero, and it does detract from the style of the later chapters of ‘Dubrovsky’.

This was surely unnecessary; a certain measure of ironic distance from the author needn’t ruin the emotional strength of romantic episodes.

There have been some recent attempts made to bridge the gap between work of the standard of literary fiction and genre fiction, and one excellent example is the brilliant self published author Rebecca Lochlann in her series ‘The Child of the Erinyes’: ‘The Year God’s Daugher’ ‘The Thinara King’ and ‘In the Mood of Asterion’.

I’ve been completely drawn in to this series, combining as it does the level of research of Mary Renault with a feminist interpretation of history. They are exciting, thought-provoking, expertly written page turners. I can never put them down.

Here’s the link, and I envy you starting on this treat:

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