Jodi Picoult- the Queen of Commercial Fiction

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Each to their own but Katie Price’s genre of ‘writing’ is not for me!

I write what would be classed as commercial fiction aimed at the women’s market but my last novel featured dark ethical themes as opposed to simply fluffy chick lit.  I’m proud of my chosen genre and yet I’m very aware that there’s a certain snobbery about the label ‘commercial’ fiction. I’d love to be a bestselling author and would be chuffed to bits if my writing had mass appeal. Of course, not all bestsellers are well written and I’ve never been tempted to read anything ‘written’ by Katie Price or the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey. However, I do like a number of ‘commercial’ writers and don’t believe that a book which sells lots of copies makes it somehow less worthy than literary fiction with a capital ‘L’.  In fact, although I like to think I’ve got a varied reading palette, I’m a bit wary of picking anything up with the ‘literary’ tag for fear of there being no real story and the arty farty concepts going over my head.

images (4)Doesn’t everyone like a page-turner? I know I want to be pulled along by a plot that leaves me guessing. That’s why I enjoy Jodi Picoult’s books. She knows how to tell a damn good tale.  I’ve read a number of her novels but I do admit to needing a break between her books as the formulaic nature of her writing can get a bit repetitive. But it’s a winning formula so you can’t fault her for milking it.

I didn’t fancy her last book, Lone Wolf, but her latest, The Storyteller sounded much more interesting as it tackles a subject matter I’ve always be drawn to- the Holocaust, so I was keen to go along and hear Jodi on the Scottish leg of her promotional tour with my good friend Anne. I’d seen Jodi before, when she launched House Rules and I knew that she was an interesting and entertaining speaker. And she didn’t disappoint on this occasion when she outlined the concept of The Storyteller.

download (2)The book tells the story of Sage Singer who is a baker, a loner, until she befriends an old man who’s particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone’s favorite retired teacher and Little League coach. One day he asks Sage for a favour: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses—and then he confesses his darkest secret – he deserves to die because he had been a Nazi SS guard. And Sage’s grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. How do you react to evil living next door? Can someone who’s committed truly heinous acts ever atone with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren’t the party who was wronged? And, if Sage even considers the request, is it revenge…or justice? That’s got me hooked!

NYTBR-OverallIt could be argued that Jodi is at the top of her game as the queen of commercial fiction and is clearly an accomplished operator. She seemed to have a set of polished anecdotes for the event which she knows are guaranteed to entertain her almost entirely female audience.  Before the event, I’d read Lesley McDowell’s review of The Storyteller in The Herald. Lesley challenged Jodi to elaborate on the controversy the writer sparked when critising the lack of critical acclaim for female writers of commercial fiction in comparison to writers such as Jonathan Franzen. I was pleased to hear Lesley raise the issue with Jodi during the Q and A session. Jodi responded with a well practised answer which got a belly laugh when she told the audience that she’s at a disadvantage of ever winning any prestigious literary awards because she “doesn’t have a penis”. Jodi said her claim can be backed with hard facts and urged the audience to check the VIDA site for statistics on the bias for male writers, especially as women make up 60% of book sales. Fair point, well played!

Do you think commercial fiction deserves to be reviewed and recognised in the same way as literary fiction? Have you experience of being shunned as a female writer? Are you willing to admit to being a literary snob?

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Jodi is inspiring on many levels!

P.S. In a far shallower vein, I wasn’t brave enough to ask the question I was hoping someone else might, and that was, ‘What is the secret to your successful weight loss?’ She looks amazing! The last time I saw Jodi, I vowed that if I was ever lucky enough to be published, I wanted the same photographer. The woman I saw on stage didn’t match the book cover photo so there was either a few photo tricks used or the pic was taken several stones ago. Alas, no one in the audience either cared or dared to ask about such trivia and I’ll never know whether she has Scottish Slimmers to thank for her new look, so now I’m left with another book on my TBR pile and finding my own miracle diet plan…

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29 thoughts on “Jodi Picoult- the Queen of Commercial Fiction

  1. As a photographer, even I’m amazed by the extent to which some author shots are altered, to the point where the author photo is totally non recognisable from the walking talking version. It just looks a bit sad.
    I’ve never read Jodi Picoult but I did read the Maeve Binchy novels a long time ago (which I loved) and I saw how fondly she was remembered when she died. I would have thought that kind of mass success and public recognition would be far more rewarding than a few thousand sales and a glowing review in the TLS?

    • Thanks for comment Pete, especially from a photographer’s POV. I’d feel guilty if I used an old photo but of course I’d want one as flattering as possible using all the lighting tricks available! As for lusting after prestigious literary awards, perhaps that comes after mass popularity as the only goal left? I guess it might be a status thing but I doubt I’ll ever have to worry about that problem! 🙂

  2. I read the VIDA stats every year with a sigh. We read more, we write more, we buy more, but the reflection of that in the media is very warped indeed.

    I tend to enjoy literary fiction more than other genres – love the way it plays around with language. Maybe it’s the poet bit of my brain that hooks on to that. Having said that, I’m never averse to a bit of Dorothy L Sayers or Dick Francis when he was in his prime. Once read a couple of pages of an Archer paperback when staying at another house … had to put it away quickly. Even I have limits!

    On top of all that is the notion that ‘literary fiction’ as a genre is just silly. There is breathtakingly beautiful writing in any genre if you look for it.

    • I agree Isabel that sticking a label on writing doesn’t make it better and have found lots of brilliant writing in a variety of genres. I have my limits too and frequently hand back books offered by friends with a ‘thanks but no thanks’ reply. But surprisingly these recommendations come from highly intelligent women who often chose to read chick lit etc to switch off from their stressful lives. But life is too short for me to waste reading time on utter guff.

  3. This is interesting, Helen. I’ve read one Jodi Picoult, because it was concerned with a disability that affects a member of my family. I have to say, I was disappointed. The writing wasn’t bad, and it kept me turning the pages until the end, which, disappointingly, was pretty bad! I may read another of hers at some point, because it was quite enjoyable and I quite liked the style. But I think she relies on plot, as does most commercial fiction? At the expense of fully rounded, complex characters. For me the characters are the most important thing, so I think I tend to gravitate towards “literary” writing which often focuses more on character. Maybe!

    • Hi Louise, Thanks for commenting. If the book you read was House Rules, then it is one of my least favourites of Jodi’s and I struggled to finish it. I’ve avoided a number of her books as the topic matter didn’t appeal at all. I’d recommend Nineteen Minutes if you wanted to read another by Jodi. I’m not sure I’d agree with you that literary novels focus more on character. In fact, Jodi discussed this at the event saying that although she might have an issue in mind that she wants to write about she will only start once she has the characterisation sorted. Lots of her characters stay in my mind e.g. Sara Fitzgerald, the mother in My Sister’s Keeper.

      • Hi Helen, it was Handle with Care that I read and it was a little … sensationalist, I thought. Which disappointed me. I totally agree with Isabel C about the labels and how it’s difficult to tell the difference between literary and commercial … a good book is just a good book isn’t it, regardless of genre? I like reading all sorts,even the occasional sci fi, but I always remember the characters above all else.

      • Agreed! The best example I had recently was Jojo Moyes novel Me Before You as I assumed it was chick lit and too light-hearted for me. The pink girly cover didn’t help but I’m glad I read it as it moved me to tears I was so touched by the characterisation.

      • I read Me Before You after hearing the (lovely) author at the York Festival. I’d originally thought it wasn’t my kind of thing but gave it a go because my expectations changed. Turned out I was right all along, though I can understand why so many people do love it. How boring it would be if we all liked the same books!

      • I like to mix up my reading choices depending on time of year e.g. holiday reading or my mood. Me Before You is a classic case of judging a book by its cover as I wouldn’t even have picked it up if I hadn’t be aware of praise for it.

  4. Hi Helen
    I really enjoyed your post – it’s refreshing at a time when everyone has a sudden downer on literary fiction to get a different take, namely to recognise what is good about other types of fiction. I have to admit to being increasingly confused about what is ‘literary’ and what is ‘commercial’. There are too many common assumptions made about both kinds, of the ‘beautifully written, no plot v. pacy but shallow’ variety. Many of the books I’ve covered on my blog are presented (by the publishers) as literary but I honestly can’t see what distinguishes them from well-written commercial fiction, of which there is plenty out there. I think it’s a real shame we need to slap labels on books as it so often has the effect of being off-putting.
    I think my natural reading (and writing) territory is the crossover zone between lit and comm, sometimes (and equally off-puttingly!) referred to as ‘accessible literary’ or ‘upmarket commercial’ fiction. The bestsellers I’ve enjoyed have been that kind. I must admit I’m not at all into the lighter end of ‘women’s fiction’ (yes, the labels get worse) as I often find the writing and the plots cliched, but that’s just my personal taste. One of my favourite authors is Anne Tyler – whether she would be considered literary or commercial (she’s certainly hugely successful) I really wouldn’t like to guess!

    • Thanks for taking the time to make a thoughtful comment Isabel. And adding to my knowledge of literary labels. You’re absolutely right about the need to tag every book with a defined genre. I realise that it’s necessary from a marketing POV but it can put folk off taking a chance on a book. Ideally, wouldn’t every writer want to be commercially successful AND write with literary merit? That’s my dream anyway!

  5. Really enjoyed this post. I do agree that Jodi Picoult books are a bit formulaic. That’s the price paid for producing them so quickly! I know that if I’m struggling for something to read there are novels of hers that I haven’t read and would probably enjoy, but I don’t buy them as soon as they’re released.

    For me, the plot is the biggest factor. It doesn’t matter if it was written three hundred years ago or has only been in the shops three weeks – if it appeals to me, I’ll pick it up. I also go with recommendations, which means often reading books that are bestsellers, and some of my favourite books have been big commercial successes over the past couple of years. I will never understand why people criticise popularity. Often (enough), books are popular for a reason!

    On the other hand, sometimes I’ll read great reviews, read the books, and be disappointed. Whether you go with genre, reviews, or recommendations, it’s always going to be hit or miss whether or not the book resonates with you. That’s the danger of eliminating books based on whether or not they are classed ‘commercial’ or ‘literary’.

    • Hi Lauren, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I follow word-of-mouth recommendations and reviewers such as @isabelcostello ‘s blog but keep an open mind and try not to chose based on a label too.

  6. The distinction between literary fiction and commercial fiction is, imho, as much to do with the interests of cultural arbiters and gatekeepers as it is with anything that can be defined precisely about the books themselves.

    I’m reminded of chat shows (Jonathan Ross comes to mind) where the host is sickeningly sycophantic towards the well-known stars (people more famous than the host) and often incredibly rude and dismissive towards the lesser-known and people on the way up. It works the opposite way round with broadsheet newspaper reviews and cultural commentator but the principle still stands.

    Writers like, for example, Jodi Picoult or Ian Rankin or Stephen King (or many genre writers whose books are marketed at a responsive demographic) don’t need critics or reviewers or literary prizes to mention them to achieve sales. However, the more esoteric end of the market depends on the patronage of a small number of cultural commentators not just to sell the books but to get them into bookshops or visible on websites. And in certain cases the two tend to feed off each other — with difficult, opaque books getting good write-ups from critics who like to prove that they’re capable of understanding them. This doesn’t just happen to books, of course, it’s the same (or worse) in many other arts genres but I think it explains quite a lot.

    The power of patronage and recommendation seems to shape a lot of the cultural landscape and I suspect that those in the positions of power and influence tend to come from a demographic that makes the leadership of the Tory party look diverse — possibly the reason why so many of our most lauded literary writers tend to be middle-aged, Oxbridge educated white men.

    There’s not much kudos in a review saying that, for example, the last Harry Potter book is good as it was going to sell huge amounts anyway. However, it was interesting to read the reviews for the Casual Vacancy from that perspective — they were incredibly mixed and I wonder whether the reviewers were more or less inclined to put the boot in because they knew it was going to sell but also because they had to make their minds up whether this hugely well known writer was actually any good in the adult genre. I suspect if the novel had been by an unknown then it would have been reviewed very differently.

    • Thanks for taking the time to make such a thoughtful and reasoned reply. I totally agree with you on the subjectivity of the gatekeepers and their need to be seen to read/review literary fiction. I read The Casual Vacancy and was intrigued by the reviews and also wondered how it would have been received if it had been written under a pseudonym.

  7. As a beginning writer, Jodi has certainly influenced me. I love her books and for those complaining about them being too formulaic, well let’s get this out of the way because here’s the truth: every single writer has a ‘formula’, whether you are a commercial or literary writer. Even writers who are now considered classics had a formula and they were commercially successful.

    I have never been interested in quick reads like the 50 Shades of Grey books, I read a chapter on my computer and just wanted to forget I ever read it – seriously, did nobody want to edit it?

    What’s interesting though is that my sister thinks that the EL James’ of this world are literary geniuses …. Whereas I read stuff that makes me think because I consider myself a deep, thoughtful person who wants to think about how we can use books as a tool to say, “Lets talk about this issue so we can have a safe discussion about this.” and Jodi’s books certainly do that.
    I think they really are useful, because I’ve had some really interesting discussions over certain issues that I never really thought about.

    I was there on Tuesday too and loved every moment of it. It inspired me because I realised that I have a ton of questions that I can’t answer. Writing is my way to make sense of the things I worry about!

    As for losing weight, there is no magic trick. I was an athlete and dieticians told me that diets don’t really work. You have to eat healthy, exercise and have junk food in moderation. There is no secret to that. Jodi goes on a three mile with a friend at 5.30am every day back home 🙂

    • Hi Bernadette, It was a great event wasn’t it? I agree that Jodi has made me think about social issues that I wouldn’t have considered, especially from the American POV. You’re so right about diets too. Eat less, move more. Simple but not always easy to keep up. I wish I had Jodi’s will power!

      • It was a brilliant evening! Was there with mum and loved every moment. She’s inspiring; loved her reading from the book. hearing her speak about the research was great and the Q&A session was fab. We got a wee unexpected treat too about her 2014 and 2015 novels 🙂

        I feel as though Jodi has cracked open my mind with social issues and I’m exploring an issue myself that I don’t think anyone else has touched upon, particularly with myself being a young adult who’s been physically disabled since birth, so I am very excited to be doing the research for that.

        Yeah not easy, I know! Jodi’s work ethic is fantastic – I swear that I am inheriting that from her lol 🙂

  8. A few more thiughts. Despite what I said, I don’t think Jodi’s books are formulaic, btw because when I read the books, I’m always wrong about how I think the ending will be until I get there!

    She was right about the distinction between literary and commercial fiction. There are literary writers whom I would argue that don’t write anything different to Jodi. She deserves to win big awards for her work but won’t because she wanted to reach a wider audience and thats a shame, because her books are great 🙂 Maybe some parts of the literary circle are snobs? I don’t know … that’s what it feels like to me.

    She is so right to raise the fact that female writers get frowned upon because they aren’t male. If someone writes a great book, we should celebrate that, whether you are male or female.

    I read a few reviewers recently that paid no attention to what The Storyteller was about and all I could think of was “Stop being snarky and write your own book.”

  9. Interesting post, Helen! I think it’s essential to feel comfortable, both as a reader and a writer, with whatever genre you’re dealing with. For the last few years I’ve been writing poetry, a different kettle of fish to fiction, but snobbery still exists, of course. I try not to get caught up in that but keep the focus on trying to write something that matters to me.

  10. The last bit of this post made me giggle!!
    Sometimes I wonder if the way literary fiction responds to commercial fiction is perhaps influenced by the amount that the latter sells compared to the former – ie a jealousy thing. But I think they are both just as hard to write, simply because writing is hard, and to put 80,000 words down on a page required dedication. I remember one of my students saying that if she could write a commercial novel, she would – this was when she was struggling with a very opaque and weighty book. But I would agree with you in that it doesn’t work as well when you read a few commercial novels in a row – because then the lack of originality begins to show. Lovely post – sorry I’ve not been by in a while, I’ve been on a long trip and only just getting back to normal life!!

    • Glad I managed to raise a smile Gabriela. I like to try and make a serious point but in a light-hearted way. I’ve just read your post about your trip and loved the fact that you’re prepared to follow your nose (unfortunately not when choosing a subway seat!) and see where your adventure takes you. I sure the trip will have fired you up with loads of ideas for your writing.

  11. Hi Helen

    I got an email when you commented onm y blog with a link to this post. I have read a few JP books in the past but wasn’t much of a fan as I always thought she was cashing in on such taboo subjects. I’m probably wrong her books just aren’t for me. Saying that The Storyteller has me interested, I think I will give it a go, thank you,

    • Hi Gemma,
      I understand how you might feel that Jodi ‘uses’ taboo subjects as material but after hearing her speak twice, I can honestly say that she seemed 100% genuine in her passion for the topics raised in her books. Also, if her writing can help others address these taboo subjects then everyone’s a winner. I haven’t read The Storyteller yet but plan to at some point if my TBR pile ever reduces! 🙂

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