"Be honest. Which one of you wouldn't rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules?" -- Mozart, in the film Amadeus
I've been thinking a lot this week about literary vs. commercial fiction (and it's generally presented as a conflict). This was prompted by a review in the New York Times Book Review section, written by Walter Kirn, about a collection of essays called "The Din in the Head" by Cynthia Ozick. Apparently Ms. Ozick feels that literary fiction is endangered.
The reviewer also talked about what Ms. Ozick and others present as "the image of the novelist as a species of intellectual royalty, administering vast realms of mental space with absolute, divine authority while resisting the claims of social relevance and popular amusement..."
This is, alas, a very common notion about literary novelists, and one I'm guilty of, too. With one exception. I'd be shocked if literary novelists thought they were "resisting the claims of social relevance." If anything, I'd suspect being socially relevant is something they strive for. Popular amusment, on the other hand, which implies a certain frivolity...well, maybe not. I'm sure, though, they'd love to have good sales, which means they're being widely read, the same as the rest of us.
But really, why must there be an "us vs. them" dynamic?
Everybody who reads for reasons other than school or work reads for pleasure, and it's no secret that different people have different ideas about what's pleasurable. Some people find intellectual stimulation and learning about something with social relevance pleasurable. Others find relaxation and entertainment, the opposite of stimulation, pleasurable. There's no right or wrong here, the same way one's preference for blue is not "more right" than a preference for red. Unfortunately, you've got folks in both camps arguing that their pleasure is more right or more valuable than the other person's pleasure. Red's better than blue! Blue's better than red!
Sounds kinda pointless, doesn't it?
As for literary fiction going the way of the dodo, I think that will happen only when the last writer who decides they're going to write what they want to write, the way they want to write it, gives up or dies, and that this has never been more true than now. With all the new technologies, never has it been easier to say what you want to say, to tell your story in the way you want, and find an audience. There's more room now for Hercules and his stylist than there's ever been before.