Understanding the Fit

Submitted by Jessica Trippe
Photos by Cleveland Brown

Just like know your size makes it easier to shop for a new suit, knowing where your writing fits can make it easier to connect with the right agents, publishers and ultimately readers. In the Pensters’ November meeting, guest speaker Linda Busby Parker helped illuminate the lines between literary and commercial fiction. Having published works in both, Parker points to the presence of a major theme as one of the first differences.

Literary stories are more likely to focus on a theme while commercial works are more driven by plot. To illustrate the concept, she discussed Ernest Gaines’ “A Lesson Before Dying” and “A Gathering of Old Men.” In both books, Gaines explores race relations and the idea of integrity.

While commercial works quickly engage the reader in a mystery or action, Parker notes literary stories often begin inside the character’s head. Writers travel along a path of self-discovery with their characters until they know them inside and out. “I like to think that in literary fiction we find out what a character will do and in commercial fiction, we plot it,” states Parker.

The exploration process leads to a slower pace, and a different type of language in literary fiction. Metaphors are more common and extended narrative passages far more accepted than in commercial fiction where they are referred to as ‘narrative dumps.’

Though it may not appeal to the same size audience, literary fiction has a longer shelf life according to Parker. As a college professor, she has plenty of experience dissecting themes written hundreds of years ago with her students, pointing out how many still apply today. More commercial works may sell many copies in a short period, but how do they fare years later? Who continues to discuss the detective novel from twenty years ago?

To close out the session, Parker read from her book “Oliver’s Song,” introducing attendees to the newly established attorney at law Della Boudreaux. Past due rent payments and an assistant painting her toenails at her the desk doesn’t make the day look promising for Ms. Boudreaux, even when followed by a desperate prayer for a client to materialize. Oliver’s Song is available at amazon.com.