Here's my answer, which originally appeared on the website of author Joylene Nowell Butler on Oct. 6, 2009:
I couldn't resist answering tonight about the definition of literary. Here's the best analogy I can think of:
Norman Rockwell vs. Jackson Pollock.
I love Norman Rockwell. I grew up on his illustrations. I've been to his museum. I think he was a terrific artist, and extremely hard-working. His drawings encourage readers to think of the situations in which his characters are placed: the girl who worries she'll never grow up beautiful like the actress on the cover of the magazine; the African-American girl walking to school in her white dress while surrounded by four guards. Great, great stuff.
He didn't really break any new ground. I can look at his work and then forget it. I like the warm feeling his work gives me. But the illustrations don't make me think all that hard. He more or less tells me what he's trying to say. That's why he's such an icon in our society. People can look at his work, understand it immediately and sympathize with the sentiment. Is that bad? No.
Now consider Jackson Pollock. His work — or that of any other modern artist, for that matter — is not so easy. After all, haven't we all at one time or another looked at something that's relatively simple — the proverbial red dot on a white canvas — and thought, "My cat could have done that."
We feel confused, as in why would this piece, instead of some other piece, get the privilege of being placed in a museum? We feel angry because we think the artist is trying to pull one over on us or is trying to be better, loftier, more condescending. We have to work to figure out what the artist wants to say or achieve and in the end, are not given any confirmation of whether we're right.
In the long run, what do we remember? Do we think back on that lovely portrait of the satin-dressed Lady So-and-So. Or do we continue to contemplate that stupid dot?
And therein lies the difference between mainstream and literary literature. Both are great. Both fit worthwhile needs in our lives. But each has a different goal.
Mainstream literature deals with the journey of characters through a particular situation. When the characters reach the end of the journey, the situation resolves and we're left with a feeling of satisfaction and so allow ourselves to forget the story. Is that bad? Of course not.
Literary work, on the other hand, strives to dig deeper, which means we readers might not get that satisfying conclusion. We might end with questions.
If a literary author does a poor job, we're left feeling annoyed and forget the story. But if she does a great job, the story continues to haunt us because it deals with a basic, profound concept that's treated in a way so close to real life — where situations rarely resolve themselves quickly or neatly, if at all — that we're left in a state of agitation. We have to think about what we think. Is that bad? No! It's just a different goal.
Now let's talk about the difference in word usage between mainstream and literary. To me, literary writing does not mean the author throws in as many $50 words as she can. It does not mean she purposely confuses people.
In fact, many literary books are very simply worded. Hemingway is famous for his simple sentences, which go something like, "The man asked for a coffee," and "We went out together." Pretty simple stuff. The same is true of The Stranger by Albert Camus.
Rather than coming up with complex and difficult sentences, then, the emphasis of literary work is on the inclusion/placement of words, and in particular, the intolerance of extra words and the emphasis on choosing and placing words for the most effect.
Mainstream literature in quite often wonderfully written. The primary goal, however, is to convey meaning rather than a sense of art. "He knew he couldn't do the job any longer, so he quit." That sentence does the job, so why bother with something more subtle, like, "He laid down the white apron he'd worn for thirty-two years. He let his fingers sink into the cotton and rest against the metal counter beneath."
The first sentence leaves the situation clear. The second doesn't. Which one is better? We don't know, because we don't know the goal of the author and who she's writing for. Does she want to create a story that will give people a few hours of enjoyment and leave them feeling satisfied? Or does she want her readers to think harder about the underlying human condition?
And yes, genre fiction can cross over into the literary. Day of the Jackal is a classic, not because it's a quick spy read, but because the story tells a haunting tale of a man facing his worst fear: that when it matter most, he might fail.
And yes, Stephen King has actually written quite a bit of literary fiction, some under his own name and some under a pseudonym (or two).
And yes, the literary market is much, much smaller than the genre markets — of which romance rules — probably because literary does take more time and thought to register.
I think the biggest mistake people make is in assuming literary is better than mainstream, when I think the two have such different goals the argument becomes one of apples and oranges.
My suggestion is to read across the board — poetry, essays, genre short stories, literary fiction, etc. — because there's something to be gained from each. Some stories allow us to escape. Some make us laugh. Some teach us about other people, lands, subjects. And some makes us stretch our minds. All are worthy goals.