Literary Giants

I was reading a posting on the blog of my writer friend Chloe Banks ( about the writing of Agatha Christie. I’m also a Christie fan, but Chloe was talking about how Agatha’s literary abilities are sometimes criticised – and it’s true she broke some ‘rules’, and when I’m reading her books the editor

She was young once believe it or not!

She was young once believe it or not!

in me always wants to get the red pen out. But she could write a good old fashioned story, and her popularity speaks for itself. It set off a chain of thoughts. The first is that in a sense Agatha was writing in a sort of literary twilight zone, a transitional period between the “Victorian” way of writing and the modern. When I’m writing critiques I often have to advise aspiring children’s writers of a certain age to avoid trying to replicate the style of favourite authors from their own childhood. And that applies to adult fiction too – other than in a tongue-in-cheek way, the rather wordy, sedate-paced “Dear Reader” style is unlikely to get you anywhere today. (Which is kind of ironic considering that those same books do still sell today – perhaps a subject for another posting).

That train of thought led me on to another, related one – what I believe to be a more important and more interesting difference between today’s writers with big ‘literary’ reputations 28_jane_austen_0and those of the past. This is that the giants of old were mostly also consistently best sellers. The general public eagerly devoured their stories because they loved reading them, which is still the case today of course.

I’ve read that some of today’s big literary names are paid ridiculous advances that publishers know the writer’s sales will never recoup, but that they are prepared to do so to keep the prestigious name in their ‘stable’.

I may be wrong, but many of today’s ‘literary’ writers are more popular with literary prize judges and middle class intellectuals who like to discuss such things at dinner parties, than they are with the rest of us. There is even a distinct classification differenCharles Dickensce now – which I think would have bewildered writers and publishers in Dickens’s day – between ‘popular’ and ‘literary’ fiction. How many novels by today’s ‘literary’ authors are  pounced upon by the ordinary working man and woman in the way Austen, the Brontes, Hardy (I want to include Dickens I hesitate to because of the “literary versus populist” debate regarding his own writing) and the like were?



About ramblesofawriter

Writer, thinker, tea drinker.
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2 Responses to Literary Giants

  1. chloefb says:

    I think there is room for both – big-selling popular books and more obscure, beautiful but less accessible works. I don’t mind that the latter are the ones that win big prizes – prizes aren’t why writers should write (and of course there are far more prizes for commercial novels – they’re just not as prestigious). After reading The Sense of an Ending, I thought the Booker Prize was too obscure, but I’ve read a few other winners that I found much more entertaining. I’m not sure books can be split into commerical vs. literary so easily as booksellers like to – and I think most people outside literary circles probably don’t pay much attention to the classification anyway. Certainly when I’ve tried to explain the difference to my friends, most of them – pretty much all of them – had never heard of the difference and couldn’t say which books would go where!

  2. I agree with most of what you say, though I still think there’s a little gaggle of writers looked upon as being ‘better’ than others yet whose books people don’t want to read as much as they do the leading genre writers’. (I’d say the same thing translates to the modern art world too.) And I think there can come a point where writers can be too clever for their own good – to the point of perhaps showing off their prowess at the expense of actually remembering to tell a good story. I have two particular authors in mind, but won’t name them!

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