A dear friend of mine - and my spiritual adviser if I have such a thing - Ann Keeler Evans is looking to publish some of her poetry, and in searching for some resources for her, I came across this post discussing the difference between commercial and literary fiction. The author of the post poses two questions: Do you think good writing necessarily demands more from a reader? and How obligated should authors be to make their readers "work"?
The following definition of literary v. commercial is given by Zadie Smith:
"…the problem with readers, the idea we’re given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, “I should sit here and I should be entertained.” And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true."
Many of my longtime readers will know that I'm a literature snob. I like to think and be challenged by books. I'm not concerned about being transported to some exotic fantasy world with sparkly vampires. I want to find beauty in sentence construction. In that sense, I definitely approach literature from the second model.
I'm not sure, however, that I agree with the dichotomy presented - that literary fiction makes you work for it and commercial fiction doesn't. There are many masters of fiction - Le Carre comes to mind immediately - who I wouldn't say make the reader work. They aren't "entertainments" as in dumbed down so far that the brain ceases to be necessary in the reading function, but on the other hand certainly aren't challenging in the way, say, a Joyce or Pynchon is challenging. But they are still damn good yet still don't quite appeal to a mass audience in the way Dan Brown does. (I can think of many "genre fiction" titles and authors to throw in here that are in this middle ground.)
The post author, Mike Duran, perhaps makes a somewhat better distinction than the either/or of Smith:
we want to be acted upon, rather than act. Among other things, the electronic age has heightened our expectations of a given media and lowered the requirements of participation. Not only do most readers not want to work harder, many writers make sure they don’t have to.
This certainly seems to be the case. We want everything handed to us - as a society we seem to have become allergic to intellectual pursuits beyond Words with Friends. And if writers are going to be incentivized to write fluff (you know, incentivized with things like money and sales) of course those interested in such are going to give us the junk food we want. After all, McDonald's is ubiquitous for a reason.
On the other hand, as evidenced by my ever expanding TBR pile, there are many contemporary authors who have loftier goals - be they at the level of a Harbach or Franzen, Wallace or Markson, even Haddon or Shteyngart. Regardless of whether we're talking about deep subjects, philosophical puzzles, postmodern experiments or just novels written above a 5th grade level without a lot of exclamation points, these authors are looking to provide something more to their readers beyond a lazy afternoon alternative to an Adam Sandler movie. (That's kind of an old reference now. I guess to be hip these days I should say Seth Rogan.)
That said, I don't believe that authors have an obligation to make readers work. Given our present culture, I think if there was an obligation to do so, the majority of readers - as in those driving Jodi Picoult and James Patterson to the top of the best sellers list - would give up on reading en masse, and then we wouldn't be any further ahead. But the lack of an obligation doesn't mean that authors shouldn't think about their role in culture, and their ability to raise up the level of discourse instead of driving it down. Because honestly, I'm sick of having conversations about 50 Shades of Gray. I want to talk about Scars.
And though my knee jerk reaction to the first question - does good writing necessarily demand more from a reader - was no. What about Le Carre? The more I thought about it, though, I realized that it does demand more of a reader. A good book might not - I'm thinking of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which is atrocious writing but a story that thoroughly engrossed me, but good writing really does. It demands an attention span. It demands an act.