I am not sure of this title. After all, every book published is a commercial object. I can’t really imagine Penguin, Hachette or Harper Collins publishing a book just for the sake of it, without wanting the book to sell well. It’s normal, and I have no problem with that – I’m sure most writers hope to get published in order to live from the sales of their novels. Commercial fiction could really be any fiction ever published, but for some it isn’t; they use this phrase as a politically correct way to refer to ‘low’, ‘low-brow’, ‘cheap’, ‘supermarket’ literature. Commercial fiction is the Primark of books.
Distinctions between different degrees of literature is not something new. Before the eighteenth century, you had the romance and the novel. Then, Victorians really developed the three categories of high, middle and low brow. Now you have commercial fiction and literary fiction.
In general, I would tend to say I read a lot of things, but the truth is I mostly read classics. They are a different breed, because time put a certain glamour over them. When I said I preferred nineteenth-century classics, my mum thought I was being a bit snobbish because classic novels carry a lot of intellectual weight with them. Yet, Charles Dickens was not a high-brow author, he was very popular and everyone knew his stories – even people who couldn’t read because they would hear the stories read aloud to them. That’s why classics are great: they are democratic. Anyone can enjoy them; no matter their background or age.
But sometimes, the refined language of Charlotte Brontë or Jane Austen is just not what I fancy. Sometimes, I want to read a story told in the same language register I speak and taking place in a familiar setting. From September last year, I have only read books for my MA course. I had to think about every sentence of a novel, and read tons of academic books about so and so. This is something I love doing, but last month I felt like I needed a breath of fresh air. Something different that I wouldn’t need to analyse; a story that I could simply enjoy. I went to my local public library and had a look through the shelves, I was utterly lost. I hadn’t done any research and I realised there were so many names I didn’t know, written on the bright-coloured spines. I could have blindly borrowed any book that tickled my fancy and just see, but instead, I played it safe and borrowed an author I knew I loved dearly. Sophie Kinsella. I read her Shopaholic series when I was a teenager, and I have such fond memories of these books, I thought she would be the perfect remedy.
And indeed, she was. I borrowed The Undomestic Goddess, I read it in a couple of days, and it was just really nice. I guess some people would find it problematic as it tells the story of financial lawyer who becomes a housekeeper – and you can’t really glamourise that kind of labour – but sometimes it’s important to take things just as they are, and this is a light-hearted comedy (like Jane Eyre is a love story). I think a book is what you make of it. If you want to read more into a novel, you will always be able to. This book sparked a conversation within me as I found myself thinking about what I really wanted from life – do I want to focus on my career or on more simple things? Is it really so bad to not have a vocation? And then I started to think of all the times I had told someone ‘I don’t really know what job I’ll be doing next year. I’m open to opportunities, I guess’ and their horrified faces.
I am weary of distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ literature. Some books are good, some are bad, and chances are no one will agree on which are what. I personally like books which makes think of many different things, and completely transport me within their stories. Sometimes, Ian McEwan will make you happy, and sometimes Jojo Moyes will. Your enjoyment is perfectly acceptable in both cases. I really wish modern novels, like classics, would be more democratic and unite more than they separate.