On Commercial Fiction

Yesterday, around teatime, I started reading a book I’d been sent for review. I finished it at 11 this morning, and I made dinner and watched television and slept in between. It was called These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf, who apparently did well with her first novel, The Weight of Silence (it was a TV Bookclub book). But it could equally have been written by Diane Chamberlain or Jodie Picoult, or one of a number of interchangeable authors gracing the shelves of my local supermarket. It was one of those family skeletons in the closet/moral dilemma type books that come with book club questions printed out in the back and are obliged to feature small children in peril.

This particular novel begins with 21-year-old Allison Glenn being released from prison after serving five years for a dreadful crime. Her parents don’t want to know her any more, and her sister, Brynn, who is somehow mixed up in the crime, is refusing to return her calls. Allison finds shelter in a halfway house, although the inhabitants, knowing what she did, taunt her initially. But she starts the long process of rehabilitation by getting a job with Claire, who owns a bookstore and frets over her adopted son, Joshua, a child whose existence will turn out to have all kinds of implications for Allison. This is a four-handed tale, the narrative switching in a series of extremely short chapters between Allison, Brynn, Claire and another young woman, Charm, who is caring for her fatally ill stepfather, and who is mysteriously attracted to the bookstore and its inhabitants. I won’t give much away, as the book relies on a gradual revelation of events to hold the reader hooked. And I was hooked. I read it swiftly, without ever a thought of giving it up, and I wanted to know what happened.

But – and this is the start of a series of pretty big buts – there were a number of things about the book that I recognised as fashionable and popular in contemporary commercial fiction but which annoy me. The first is the sensationalism intrinsic to the story. This is not a story about anything likely to happen to me or to anyone I know; it contains very little that is real or profound, instead it relies for its effect on pushing easy-to-reach emotional buttons. This is fine at first, but after a while I feel the way you do when you are tired of being tickled, and what began as delightful ends up as someone scrabbling away at your skin. There’s a relentless atmosphere of mild, unfocussed menace, like made-for-tv movies or celebrity magazines that rely for their effect on being full of suggestions of awful things that never really matter. In this case, the narrative is based on wholly implausible events, the biggest one being (and here comes a spoiler, so skip to the next paragraph if you need to) that a tall, slim star of the soccer field and straight-A student could carry twins to term and no one at school or at home would notice. That demands a level of inattention that is quite spectacular. And how can Claire fret so fiercely about losing Joshua to his real mother when she has adopted him? I thought that adoption was a legal procedure that had no come back for natural parents. By three-quarters of the way through the book I was thinking that the reading speed at which such stories can be consumed is essential to their purposes; if you stopped to think for a moment you might start to wonder how any of it could have actually happened.

But I did read this book to the end, and at no point did I feel I would abandon it unfinished.

When I belonged to an online writing community, this is the kind of book that most people were trying to write (actually, I tell a lie; most people were trying to write a fantasy that involved dragons, angels, or dystopian futures on other planets, this was the second most popular category). Strunk & White were the rulers of the online writing world, and Heather Gudenkauf’s novel would have them cheering with joy. No fears here of tripping over an adverb, or bumping into the passive voice. Style is indeed the absence of any kind of style, just a pure, simple transparency of language. The effect is like the moving walkway at an airport: you glide along somehow faster than is quite natural, and effortlessly. It doesn’t matter that there are four narrators here and they all sound the same. Or that their characters are somewhat two-dimensional because back story or extraneous detail might clutter up that smooth walkway of narrative. Or that nothing is expressed that will remain with you for more than five minutes after closing the book.

But I did read this book to the end and I wanted to know what happened.

This is the ambivalence I feel about ‘bestselling’ commercial novels. I will read anything, and I appreciate variety because for me books do many things. They enlighten and illuminate, but they also entertain and provide necessary escapism. On many occasions, when I’ve been tired or worried or under the weather, I’ve been grateful for a simple read that asks nothing of me and that provides pleasant distraction. But…but I still think that even commercial fiction ought to aim a little higher than just gripping the reader to the end of a hyperbolic tale.  I wish there were more novels that have something to say about life as I know it, not this hyperreality based on a fantasy world whose good parts look like commercials and whose bad parts look like sensational events on the late night news, and I want some scintillating dialogue, and some nice observations on character and situation. This is a perfectly competent novel, not bad one, but if I were Heather Gudenkauf, I’d want to write a third novel that sounded distinct, that made the reader remember my name, not be reminded of a handful of similar authors and books. And I’d want that reader hooked to the narrative, not just out of the basest form of curiosity and need-to-know, but because each step of the way to the conclusion was worth taking in itself.  Ross Macdonald achieved it with his popular commercial fiction, why shouldn’t we hold out for quality now?


18 thoughts on “On Commercial Fiction

  1. This doesn’t sound like something for me and I share many of your “buts”. It’s interesting how a book like that can still be so captivating. I read one Jodi Picoult and I was also quite hooked. I think such novels fulfill another need apart from entertainment, they offer a basis for discussion, that’s why they are book club choices. I’m not so interested in that kind of book discussion, I’d much rather discuss style.

  2. I read this recently and really disliked it, I’m afraid. Quite agree about the implausibilities. I couldn’t even finish it, though I did skim the last section just to see how it was all going to turn out. I thought it a depressingly bad book and it made me sad that this is apparently a best-selling author.

  3. I know just what you mean about ambivalence. I’ve not read this book, but I’ve read a fair few like it, and they were enjoyable and compelling enough. But after a while, they all start to sound the same, and I start to crave something that sounds different, that has a little style.

  4. I came here from your post on Stuck on a Book and found such an insightful review. Thank you for expressing so succinctly what I have been mulling over in my head.


  5. Your point about style that’s really the absence of style is an interesting one. Yes, that kind of book can be absorbing, but I would much prefer to be given something to think about as far as language. And oh, yes, ideas too! I’m not sure if I would become absorbed by this, or just get annoyed.

  6. I’m not a fan of much commerical fiction because of its emphasis on plot over distintive style, description and character so won’t be tracking this down Litlove.

    That said, re your spoiler such things do happen as a recent murder trial here in Australia showed, hard to believe as it is.

  7. “an online writing community…” Litlove how funny I found this paragraph! I know just what you mean. Still it’s also sad – a bit like a person who scorns a bite of tiramisu as too fussy and instead finds pudding-in-a-cup a stylish dessert.

  8. I dunno about the Piccoult comparison. She may not be into investigating style, but I find some of her books very distinctive from the kind of commercial fiction you’re describing. ‘Salem Falls’ for example is filled with detailed looks into people’s lives that do feel very true and is about events that might happen to a lot of people. Some of them do feel super sensational though, because they follow storylines that use predictable associative storylines – the Amish and dangerous secrets, or repressed sexuality in ‘Plain Truth’ for example and I kind of imagine ‘My Sister’s Keeper’ to be the same kind of book which is why I’m avoiding it.

    But anyway enough about me getting defensive of one author you’ve only briefly ref’d 😉 I can identify the kind of stories you’re talking about from their lifetime feel, but I think there’s a split in commercial fiction of this kind. There’s the set that has their story revolve around events full of sensational, current appeal and make the entire story about those events. Here I’m really drawn to talk about ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, despite Shriver’s focus on cretaing a distinct, less likeable voice and playing around with word use, or maybe more obviously Linwood Barclay’s thrillers). Then there’s the kind of story where these events are really just a jumping off point for talking about people’s lives. Here I’m reminded of this book called ‘Angel’s Crest’ by Leslie Schwarz, which is about a little boy who goes missing in the snow, but is mostly about how the town reacts to this event and the relationships within the town, or some of Tami Hoag’s and Dennie Lehane’s stuff, maybe even ‘A Simple Plan’ by Scott Smith(although it’s been a long time since I read that). I’m not quite sure how to describe the difference between these books and the first set, except that they seem to go deeper into people somehow, to humanise their story through detailed, observant portraits of people and to allow the reader in. As much as I enjoyed ‘We Need to Talk…’ when I read it I now think of it as a very deliberately distant book, that bludgeoned me with large emotional signals instead of working smaller signals into the text and leaving these details to accumulate in my mind.

  9. Oooh my, aren’t we damning with faint praise…

    I absolutely agree with what you’ve said about the flaws of this “commercial fiction”. That won’t stop me from reading it though – apart from a minimum of style to be upheld, I do appreciate a lighter read. I think a large part of your criticism is because that minimum of style has not been upheld in this particular book?

    (and I will also join Jodie in defending Jodi Picoult. Super-sensationalist, maybe, but I was glued to The Pact to the final page)

  10. I’m glad you’ve stated directly and honestly your opinion about this book. I haven’t read it and usually avoid reading such. My escape into commercial books falls into the detective/legal thrillers genre. Like, I’m a fan of Michael Connelly… have read every one of his detective “Harry Bosch” book. After reading your post, I just have one query, is it hard to write a negative review when you’re sent a book to review? Just curious about your opinion on the expectation and etiquette of book reviewing.

  11. Eliza – thank you very much indeed! Sometimes it’s nice to think I read them so you don’t have to! 🙂

    Caroline – yes, I do think you’re right, that this sort of book is designed to provoke discussion of social issues. For my own part, I’d think a discussion of Camus or Hesse would provoke a richer response, but then such authors are not everyone’s cup of tea, and there’s much to be said for accessible books that are nevertheless thought-provoking. I just know I’m not a fan of sensationalism, and that’s a purely personal gut reaction.

    Harriet – how very interesting. As I said the other day, I do think we have very similar tastes, so this would be par for the course.

    Teresa – yes, that’s exactly how I felt. When I reached the end I felt disappointed, because I’d wanted the novel to give me more than it had. I’d nothing left to reflect on afterwards.

    David – and that’s a perfect summary of my reading experience! 🙂

    pburt – a very warm welcome from the reading room to you. Thank you for your lovely comment – I’ll pop by and visit you later on.

    Dorothy – yes, you’ve put your finger on something I couldn’t quite articulate. I really love ideas in a novel, and I felt this one was lacking in them. They enrich the reading experience for me greatly and I missed that.

    Devoted Reader – well, if it has happened once then it HAS to be plausible. I suppose I think fiction has to be more plausible than life is, because life is random and chaotic, and fiction works to create order and meaning, that’s its crowning virtue. So coincidence in a novel always feels false, when coincidences happen all the time in real life – if you see what I mean!

    Mary – lol! Funny you should think that too. I guess pudding in a cup might be just what you want one day – but it isn’t the same thing as tiramisu at all, and you couldn’t mistake the two.

    Jodie – well you are quite right that my criticisms here could not possibly relate to all commercial fiction. I think what I wanted to do was highlight some trends that I personally dislike. But that doesn’t mean other people won’t appreciate them. If a book, of any genre, is creating rich character portraits then it certainly has my attention and admiration. I do wish I could remember where I saw it, but I read a quote that said something like, so long as a novel is dealing with what’s recognisably real about humanity, it’s doing something engaging. I do agree with that. As for Picoult, well I confess I have never read her. It’s just that the name is plastered all over this book and the covers are similar – but marketing devices are often not to be trusted!

    readingwithtea – well, I do hope so! Just because I don’t get on with a book doesn’t mean that masses of other people won’t derive a lot of enjoyment from it. I don’t often write negative reviews here – I don’t review all the books I read and tend to talk about those I’ve liked – and I suppose I’m very conscious of how negativity can derail the other things that get said, and leave the only lasting impression. I wanted to keep reminding readers that the book did come good on one of its promises, which was to offer a gripping read, although on other parts of my judging criteria – characterisation, ideas, insights, etc, it hadn’t quite made the mark for me. I hope you enjoy it very much when you read it.

    Arti – I did think long and hard about how to review this, although I decided quite quickly that I would review it and not try to gloss over its defects (as I saw them). I figure that publishers are taking a chance sending a book out, and they have to know that themselves. Plus, sometimes a negative review can encourage other readers (as in the comment above) to decide they really DO want to read it! But I don’t often choose to review negatively, and that made me think about what exactly I wanted to say. I still hope it was clear what it was I was criticising!

  12. The need to know just isn’t strong enough to make me wade through fiction like that. I don’t see anything wrong with escapist fiction. It just doesn’t make me escape unless there’s a basic competency about the writing and some semblance of dimension to the characters. That’s true of literary fiction, too. There’s bad stuff out there purporting to be literary and I can’t get through it either. What’s oddly human though is that there is a lot of disagreement on what that is!

  13. Brilliant review, notably your priceless analogies when it comes to a ”best-seller’s ‘literary’ ‘style”’. Bravo.

  14. I’m not sure I would have read to the end in your shoes. I probably would have decided that I had had enough, flipped to the back to find out how it ends and called it day.

  15. Moving airport walkways! YES!! This is a fabulous essay on current popular fiction in my opinion and I expect to reference it in the future.
    I also enjoy the tiramisu vs pudding in a cup comparison.
    True, what we dislike on one level can still be quite enjoyable when in a different time/place.
    And we do all have our own opinions about popular authors that can influence our ever choosing to read them, unfortunately. I have no interest in Picoult, Corbin, even Patterson just because they are so popular! I have read My Sister’s Keeper and cried cried cried and did then cried more when I saw the movie. But I can’t say I’m motivated to read anything else she has published. She knows just too easy how to push buttons. On the other hand, WE NEED TO TALK ABT KEVIN was amazing to me. A. MAZ. ING. I never saw the end coming! Lionel Shriver impressed the heck out of me.
    We like what we like and need not have to apologize for it.

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