Commercial fiction series, like Harry Potter and the Hunger Games, appeal to a mass audience and sell extremely well.
Literary works of fiction are seen as works of art and books that only intellectuals can read and understand.
In most literary fiction, readers won’t find televised death matches or wizards casting spells. Some champions of literary fiction have used the fact that literary fiction is mostly for intellectuals over the years to look down on commercial fiction.
Dr. Linda Carroll, professor of English, said that the two are not mutually exclusive.
“Commercial fiction can be very good literary fiction as well,” Carroll said. “A book I am teaching in my sophomore lit class now, A Prayer for Owen Meany, was commercially successful and is an excellent work of literature.”
Carroll said she enjoyed reading the Harry Potter series and counts William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury as her favorite novel of all time.
“I do think that books like these can introduce non-readers to the wonderful world of fiction and can engage their imaginations, which is one of the things that makes reading so wonderful,” Carroll said.
Dr. Jeffrey DeLotto, professor of English, said in his youth he read everything from James Bond novels to westerns and pirate novels.
“It developed in me a love for reading,” DeLotto said.
DeLotto said eventually he became unsatisfied with the plots and lack of character development in some of those novels, and moved on to reading more literary works and poetry. He still enjoys commercial fiction.
“I think popular novels are wonderful,” DeLotto said. “Late at night, I read trashy thrillers. I think anyone who can make a living by creating a fictional world is a writer I can admire.”
Dr. Carl Smeller, associate professor of English, said whether it is commercial or literary, if it gets people reading, it’s a good thing.
“Certainly [commercial fiction] seems to be rich enough for interpretation,” Smeller said.
Smeller said he read widely in his youth and read whatever appealed to him at the moment. Smeller said he doesn’t see anything wrong with commercial fiction at all.
“They may not be the most well-written books of all time, but they are responding to the world in some way,” he said.
Smeller said this debate between commercial and literary fiction started long ago with the introduction of high modernism into the world of fiction writing.
“You get [writers] who are trying to be artistically moving in a way that the mass [reading] audience couldn’t understand,” Smeller said.
Smeller said many artistically ambitious authors such as Langston Hughes have straddled the line between the two.
“[Hughes] wanted to make his writing [understandable] to everyday people,” Smeller said. “But it is still regarded as literary.”
“I have nothing against students reading popular fiction,” Smeller said.
Dr. Elizabeth Battles, professor of English, said she considers Harry Potter and the Hunger Games series to both be literary and commercial successes.
“I hope that the success of these novels reinforces the fun and benefits of reading for all young people,” Battles said. “Young and old alike.”
Battles said she would hope that after reading those series, readers would be pushed to explore other types of fiction.
“I couldn’t say for certain that it’s happening,” Battles said. “Likewise, it would be wonderful if these popular books lead more students to the study of literature.”