So What Exactly Is “Literature”?

By Jerry Payne

January 20, 2016

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Recently, I had a conversation with a literary agent about what she looks for specifically when it comes to memoir. “Powerful and nuanced writing,” she said. This, for this particular agent, was more important than even the storyline. And this points to an important distinction separating one type of memoir from another type. It’s the difference between literary and commercial.

What does it mean for a work to be regarded as “literary”? What exactly is “literature,” anyway? What’s the difference between a work that is considered literature and a work that’s merely a good read? It’s tempting to apply to literature Justice Potter Stewart’s famous comment about pornography: I know it when I see it. But there really is a definable difference and my literary agent friend was hinting at it.

In broad terms, literature is marked by two major characteristics: superior quality of writing (“powerful and nuanced”), and intricate character development. Plot, though important, takes a definite backseat. When you stop to consider those works of English literature that are considered classic, you’ll find they’re dominated more by the writing and the characters than by the story itself. Wasn’t Moby Dick—really—more about Captain Ahab than about a chase for a whale?

Stories that are more plot driven, on the other hand, are considered more “commercial” than literary. This holds true for fiction and it holds true for memoir, as well. God knows there’s nothing wrong with commercial, although it’s often looked down upon by the literati. Plot-driven books with page-turning storylines ostensibly appeal more to the masses than the eggheads, hence the “commercial” designation. (Consequently, they typically make more money. Think Stephen King.)

Not surprisingly, literature is harder to write. This holds true especially for a ghostwriter. When it comes to memoir, the so-called literary ones have all been written (so far as I know) by the main character herself, not a ghost. Think of Mary Karr. Many of the commercial ones have been ghostwritten. Think of any celebrity memoir (which, you’ll note, is always more about the celebrity’s actions than the celebrity). Why is this? It’s not because of the quality of writing. Good ghostwriters can be every bit as talented as the writers of literary memoirs. Rather, it’s the perspective on character that’s missing.

For intricate character development in a memoir, especially of the main character, you almost have to have experienced the characters firsthand. And any honest ghostwriter will admit this. We try, with our clients, to get into their heads as best we can, to extract from them every bit of nuance available to properly flesh them out along with the characters who have surrounded them. But no matter how good we are at it, we’ll never be able to get the level of detail that firsthand experience provides. It’s just simply the nature of the beast.

That doesn’t mean we can’t try. (And it doesn’t mean we can’t also try to write that rare hybrid of memoirs—a plot-driven character sketch, a memoir that crosses over from commercial to literary.) It just means we ought to be honest with ourselves and understand what market we’re really serving. If I want to write a literary memoir, I’ll write one about myself, a character I like to think I know pretty well. For clients, we ghostwriters need to focus on commercial appeal if we’re going to be successful. And that means concentrating on telling a great, page-turning story.

Most importantly, it means never apologizing for this. After all, do you want your book to only be discussed within the confines of academia, or would you rather have it bounding its way towards the top of the bestseller lists? Keep your powerful, nuanced character sketch. I’ll take my page-turner. All the way to the bank.

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