This or That

Two books, one hardcover and one on an ereader.

Because the whole idea of this blog is to keep a daily writing log, here is a very short update: I didn’t write today. Instead I brewed a good cup of coffee, put on some bluegrass, and read.

Literary and Commercial Fiction

So this week I read two books by authors I admire–Lily King and Taylor Jenkins Reid. At first glance you might not think these books have much in common.

Writers & Lovers is literary fiction set in Cambridge, MA. It explores themes of creativity, art, sacrifice for art (in this case, writing), loss, death, love and sex.

After I Do is marketed as contemporary women’s fiction. Set in L.A., the story pokes and prods the theme of marriage from many angles.

The books share several similarities. Both are told in first person, present tense. Both are told from the viewpoint of a female protagonist. Both investigate deep, emotional territory.

I was halfway through the Jenkins Reid book when it struck me: the author wrote the book with a literary structure but in a commercial style. What do I mean? The prose is easy to read, but the story delves into the main character’s interior landscape the way the best literary fiction does.

We call this kind of structure a “mini-plot” story.

Mini-Plot and Arch-Plot

Liam J. Cross offers the following:

“A mini-plot story is a tale that follows a protagonist through predominantly internal antagonism. They have inner demons that plague their lives, and the success of the narrative hinges on whether or not they can defeat them (or rather, whether or not the climax is reached).” [“Writing A Novel: Arch-Plot Vs Mini-Plot — What’s The Difference?”, MEDIUM, September 26, 2018]

A more usual structure for commercial and genre fiction is an arch-plot with conflict introduced early on, regular plot points of increasing in intensity and leading to a climax, and a definite resolution, usually a happy ever after.

Both of the books I read this week are written in mini-plot style. The conflict is mostly personal. There is much self-analyzing and interior monologue and contemplation. The main characters go about their lives and stuff happens, but events do not necessarily move the plot forward so much as give the characters more to think about. Their thinking and realizations move the story forward, not the events themselves.

One style isn’t “better” than the other, and the difference isn’t all that important from this reader’s perspective. King’s prose employs more description, more metaphorical language, more symbolism. The story and characters are perhaps presented in a more complex, deeper way.

But the biggest difference, I think, amounts to this: A book like King’s is likely be nominated for the big lit awards like the Kirkus Prize, the Pulitzer, and the PEN/Hemingway while Jenkins Reid’s is more likely be posted on umpteen Book Tok and Bookstagram accounts–and to be made into an Emmy Award winning television limited series with Elvis Presley’s granddaughter playing the lead part! (Daisy Jones and The Six.)

In other words, “better” is all according to taste.

I didn’t seek to read these two novels at the same time. I wanted to reread King’s, and Jenkins Reid’s was my book club pick for this month. If not for serendipity, I probably would never have noticed the similarities. Now that I have, I think Taylor Jenkins Reid did something most unusual . . . and totally cool.

Literary Authors Writing Genre Fiction

These days, we are likely to see literary authors dipping their nibs into commercial/genre fiction. For example, see Colson Whitehead, a finalist for this year’s Edgar Award. The man’s a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, a National Book Award winner, and now he’s in the running for this prestigious mystery fiction award. Playing around with some genre fiction has become quite trendy for literary writers (but I suspect only after they’ve already proven they are “serious” so as not to confuse those book prize judges and publishers of literary fiction.)

Some commercial fiction authors are every bit as literary in style as the literary writers, and this, too, is becoming more popular. A good development, in my opinion.

In both cases, the books have a more arch-plot structure with literary style.

It’s much less usual to combine commercial style with a mini-plot structure. It’s probably there in some Women’s Fiction/Book Club Fiction, and you can bet I’m now going to be on the lookout for it.

Since writing After I Do in 2014, Jenkins Reid went on to create dual-timeline historical fiction like The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and the interview-structured, previously-mentioned Daisy Jones. She recently walked the red carpet in Hollywood.

She created her own lane–and she’s making it work for her.

Something to think about.