Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Commercial Success Versus Critical Acclaim

In India, over the last few years there have been a slew of novels  which come under the category of popular fiction or metro fiction/novels (keeping in mind their readership: people living in the metros). These novels  have the readers: late teens  to forty something, going ballistic  over them. Critics have trashed these books, calling them rantings of  twenty somethings,  to boy lit, and chicklit,  and a lot  of other things.

But not only are these writers laughing all the way to the bank,  they are even sealing movie rights for their books and bagging second and third book deals. Many have moved into the script writing zone.  For these writers all that matters is commercial success, they  are really not bothered about critical acclaim. These books rely  heavily on the mundane story telling abilities of the young writers, which more often than not centers  around a story heavily dependant on protagonists they can identify with. The writing skills  are absolutely ordinary, and  the writers and editors are unconcerned about the finer nuances of  the craft of writing. The plots are simple, and subplots are by and large Missing In Action.

On the other hand there are the veteran writers, writing what I call literary fiction. These writers  receive the full flow of  the critics’ praise,  they receive several awards but their readership cannot match the readership of the popular fiction writers. Many youngsters are not even  familiar with their names, forget about their body of work. The younger generation wants books easy on their mind, they want stories that do not tax them in any way, they want writing that they use in their daily conversation with friends, and they want characters who emulate their lifestyles.

For a writer  to   achieve a perfect balance of commercial success and critical acclaim is a daunting task. To please  both the harsh critics and  hungry reader is an  impossible feat which very few writers have managed to achieve. For the rest of the writers  it’s either one of them.

What about you? What  are your views on  popular fiction which was once called pulp fiction? What would you want? Critical acclaim? Commercial success? Both? How are you hoping to please both the critics and readers?

P.S. I found this post on settings extremely useful. Drop in to Melissa's blog and help yourself to her tips on creating settings as a character. 


  1. For me, it would be a dream come true to achieve the delicate balance of commercial success coupled with critical acclaim. My earlier books did get the critics gushing over them, but due to my publisher's fight with her book selling agent, her books were were sent back by the booksellers. Right now everything has been sorted, and the booksellers are stocking her books big time. I am waiting to see if commercial success knocks on my door. Sadly my books are now five years old. To awaken renewed interest from the readers, I have suggested book readings and signings and competitions.

  2. Great post, Rachna. The battle between Commercial success and Critical Acclaim continues. I have read your stories and features in the newspapers and I love your style. I am sure you will manage to achieve both. :)

  3. Hi Rachna. I read your comments on Terri Tiffany's blog and thought I'd pay you a visit. God bless you in all your endeavors.

  4. I would love to achieve that PERFECT balance, Rachna. I agree that most people, young and old alike, have no clue as to the writers who who write literary fiction. However, they do know who JK Rowling is. She has had tremendous success while Jonathan Franzen (could never match her commercial success) has had critical acclaim, but many outside the literary world wouldn't know him. EVERYONE knows Rowling. Who was it that said, "The two most depressing words in the English language are literary fiction." I'd say it's not impossible to achieve both, just improbable. And easier for a man than a woman. Jodi Picoult blasted the New York Times about that very subject a couple of months ago.

    I haven't seen the post on settings, but I did one last year on setting as a REAL character in our books. If you think of it that way it comes alive. :)

  5. Great post! I will tweet it right away. I think the most unsettling of what you've brought to light is the reading preferences of the younger generation (easy, no challenge). All of that, I believe, is a direct result of video/television/texting taking over young people's lives. They're used to easy, passive activities, so it makes sense that they'd choose the path of least resistance regarding books. Of course, not all young people fit that mold, but the trend is alarming (esp. to people who have English teaching degrees!!)

    But on a happy note, I think some US authors do a good job of crossing the divide between commercial/literary. The publishing industry here calls it "bookclub fiction." Think Jodi Picoult, Sue Monk Kidd, Anna Quindlen, Alice Sebold, Jacquelyn Mitchard, etc. Their stories all had great commercial success, but they also had strong literary elements. THAT is what I strive to be! Someone who writes stories with great commercial appeal, but who has a wondrous command of the language, story mechanics, and literary sensibilities.

    Thanks for linking to my post, Rachna.

  6. In a perfect world I would acheive commerical success and critical acclaim. Who wouldn't? But I'll be honest, I'd far rather have some degree of commerical sucess as opposed too critical acclaim. That doesn't mean I'm going sell my soul and write anything that would sell - I have my own set of moral standards - but I want to make a living from writing!

  7. It's this kind of thing that makes me worry about India. And the abundance of really bad TV serials.

    Quality is very important to me. I need to know that my work is quality literature for quality minds. However, I don't think that quality writing means it's must have less readers. If the subject matter is interesting enough and the characters are people the readership can identify with then I don't see why there cannot be both commercial and critical success.

    At the same time, we can't please everyone. I never expect universal adoration because that's never going to happen. And I don't even try for it because that kind of aim would compromise my writing.

    What a great post, Rachna. You got me thinking about this!


  8. Arjun, thanks for your faith in my writing. Hope I can live upto it.

    Cheryl, thanks for dropping by. Its nice to meet you.

    Robyn, I too would love to achieve that perfect balance. I agree with you that its extremely difficult to achieve both critical acclaim and commercial success. But, we all must and should try for it.

    Melissa, the reading habits of the younger generation gives me a severe panic attack. When I asked my students ( 18 to 20 year olds) what they read, only five were decent readers, the rest preferred watching movies and were not even familiar with the writers I mentioned.

    I like the category "bookclub fiction". Will check out the writers you have mentioned. I love the idea of stories having commercial success as well as literary elements. That would be my aim too.

    Ellie, I too like you would rather lean towards commercial success as opposed to critical acclaim. Even for commercial success the story, setting and characters must appeal to the readers. Though achieving both would be a dream come true.

    Jai, I am in sync with you. Some of the T.V serials are bad, and have spoilt the taste of millions of people. Its difficult to please everyone. A senior writer told me that if we can please 60-70% of the people that is more than sufficient. Getting 100% adoration will be difficult.

  9. I would want a mix to happen. I am not writing to only sell a book but to make a difference to the reader if possible:)

  10. I love the term "metro fiction"--like "Sex and the City."

    It's fascinating to me that it still thrives in India. In the US/UK we called it "chick lit" and it died a horrible death with the crash in our economy. We still have just as many pulpy books, but they now must be dark, blood-soaked and preferably involve brain-eating monsters and/or fangs.

    Book club fiction is the sweet spot to aim for: good reads with literary elements. In the UK, that kind of fiction can be humorous. But in the US, it must be sad and sentimental. Americans only consider a book "good" if there's a lot of human suffering. Not sure why.

  11. I think a writer just had to figure out what their goal is, and go with it. I'd love a mix of commercial success with a book that I'm not ashamed of having my most literary friends read. So...I'll keep trying!

  12. I'd love both but I'm not sure it's possible. I have to write what pulls at my heart. I have to be true to my creative self all the while keeping in mind the sellability of it.

  13. Terri...like the idea that you want to make a difference to the readers. If stories inspire, motivate and make a difference in someone's life, then its a wonderful achievement for the writer.

    Anne...the chicklit genre is really flourishing in India. The boylit genre has joined it now. Infact many writers have jumped onto that bandwagon. Its the easier route to publishing. We caught that fever from the US/UK bit late.

    Lydia...For me an ideal scenario would be a book which straddles both the literary and commercial elements. Difficult, but not impossible.

    Lynda..we do have to pander to our creative selves while at the same time keeping the sellability of the book firmly in mind. This is one way of bridging the gap between commercial and critical aspects of the book.

  14. Rachna, lovely to meet you. I enjoyed your thoughtful post. Pulp fiction, trash fiction, penny dreadfuls, whatever the name, has always been with us. Why? Because people love a quick easy entertaining read, and that's great! We aren't all the same and not everyone can understand, let alone enjoy, literary tomes.

    I like chick-lit (even though they're trying to train us not to use the term, it's here to stay) but I also love liteary fiction. I like to think my writing is a blend of the two - so like every other writer, there'll be those who hate my style while others hopefully will love it.

    Thank you for a great post..:)

  15. I'm not quite sure where my work would fall. I suppose I wouldn't really care where it landed! I just love writing, and I'd love it if someone else out there enjoyed my story too.

    As for reading, I mostly read commercial fiction. Nothing too fancy that makes me feel like a dope.

  16. I wouldn't say 'all' the younger generation want non-taxing stories as that seems a bit of a sweeping generalism, but even if they did I wouldn't be worried. The fact is they are reading - hooray! And reading anything, even something light and frothy, is the gateway to reading more, discovering more, and progressing. I'd be more worried if the trend was to ignore books completely. As for my own work, I would just love it to be enjoyed on whatever merit. Oh glorious day!

  17. I certainly don't fall into the category of a young reader anymore, but I find many of the critically acclaimed books to be boring and over-descriptive. Just because a work is perfectly composed doesn't mean the story will appeal to the masses.

  18. L'Aussie... I like books that are well written and have stories that make a difference in someone's life.

    Julie...I love to read both literary fiction as well as my share of commercial fiction.

    Jayne...I agree that I made a sweeping statement, but this statement is an offshoot of my prolonged interaction with many of the younger generation. The YA genre in the US/UK has driven the younger generation towards reading. But in India its still in the nascent stage and the younger readers I teach hardly read. The few who do so, read books that will not make them greedy for better books.

    Alex...I agree that many of the critically acclaimed books are boring and over descriptive, but some are outstanding and make the entire reading experience worthwhile.