Marissa Stapley on Commercial Fiction in Canada
My first encounter with Marissa Stapley was through her bestselling novel, Mating For Life, which I adored for its smarts and abject bookishness—not enough novels have references to Lauren Groff's debut, The Monsters of Templeton, I think. Since then, I've also come to admire Stapley as a reader and a critic, particularly in her role as commercial fiction columnist for The Globe and Mail. Her work and literary championing has made me curious about commercial fiction as a genre, and also how it fits into the Canadian literary scene.
In this Q&A, Stapley delivers the lowdown.
KC: So let’s start with the hardest, biggest question: what is commercial fiction? Where do its boundaries blur? Are there boundaries at all?
MS: There are some books that fall firmly into one category or the other—but most books don’t. When I pressed myself to try to come up with an answer for you, one that seemed to reflect the opinion of many, all I could come up with was: commercial fiction is focused on plot and entertainment and less on the craft of writing; literary fiction is less focused on plot and doesn’t care if it’s entertaining, because it’s art.
Oh, how I hate that answer! It’s too general. It marginalizes and excludes. And while I do understand the need to label for the purposes of book marketing, too often defining the commercial/literary boundary becomes about taking merit away from authors who deserve it just as much as anyone else, given that they too are creating art.
Those blurred boundaries you mention make this question even harder to answer. Which is why I’ve recently decided there aren’t any boundaries at all, or at least that they can change with the seasons. Recently in my commercial fiction column for the Globe, I reviewed Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. I mentioned this to a literary community acquaintance before the column went to print and she actually gasped from the shock of it. How dare I call Ann Patchett, literary genius, commercial—right? My answer: because the book is getting buzz. That doesn’t make it any less literary—it just makes it a part of a wider conversation that might lead to its commercial success. Ultimately, my hope is to raise the commercial fiction standard, to allow commercial to mean something other than genre fiction or poorly written fiction designed solely to entertain … because that’s just not what it is.
I’ve recently decided there aren’t any boundaries at all, or at least that they can change with the seasons.
But what is it? I still haven’t answered the question, have I? There is no answer. It feels really good to say that. The definition of commercial writing is always changing. One year, it might be EL James and the next, a bigger, more literary book might take centre stage.
Commercial success is an achievement, not something to be ashamed of. And the commercial success of complex, literary novels—or novels that straddle what I consider to be a very sweet boundary between commercial and literary—means you might actually be able to write a complex, literary novel and—shocked gasp—make money. I mean, don’t get your hopes up or anything, but it is possible. I’m one of those people who does consider writing to be a job, or at least a viable way of making a living, so I’m all for it when people actually accomplish that.
It’s also worth noting that a lot of work considered literary today was considered commercial in its time. There’s a lovely divide between the reader and the literary that I hold just as sacred as anyone else—and as time passes, perhaps this divide increases, accomplishing the task of turning the commercial into the literary regardless of the original intentions of the author.
In the end, there may be risks that so-called true literature takes that other fiction doesn’t, always. But when the commercial does take risks, let’s acknowledge that it has and be okay with it and even celebrate it. This is a good alternative to becoming defensive or constructing an argument that’s insulting to other authors, as well as to readers.
KC: What would happen if we had a conversation about commercial fiction, but the word “chick lit” didn’t come up once? Or, um, only once (but that's it. I'm done).
MS: It would be a pretty great conversation, that’s what would happen! I have way too much to say about this topic—but I can boil my simmering cauldron of emotions pertaining to the chick lit label down to this: disappointment. It disappoints me that the response to the fact that women read the most books has been to market something called “chick lit” towards them and then shrug shoulders and essentially say, “What? We’re just giving women what they want!” when questioned about it.
After Bridget Jones—a book I loved and still love; I also really loved Helen Fielding’s Cause Celeb, which was more socially conscious than almost any other book I’ve read before or since—the chick lit label became code for “money maker” and started getting slapped on any book with a plot and maybe a little humour that was written by a woman about women. So, for example Melissa Bank’s The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing was chick lit. This is a complex book that follows the life of a woman from childhood to adulthood. The argument that follows from here is a stale one: what if a man wrote it? Aside from the rather horrifying and completely false assumption—one that I’ve been in the room when a man has made—that men are better, more interesting, more linear writers, and that what they write actually is literature, whereas what women too often write is insignificant, domestic chaff, what is the answer?
I would be thrilled to do away with the chick lit label forever. Here’s why: women buy the most books because they read a lot. Because women read a lot, they’re smart. Because they’re smart, they know what they want. Some women might be okay with a cutesy genre label and cutesy covers, but I know a lot of women who aren’t. They’re still buying the books because they love reading. But I have faith that they would still buy the books even without the direct, gender-biased marketing—and also that without as much of the direct, gender-biased marketing, more men might feel free to try out different kinds of books.
I would be thrilled to do away with the chick lit label forever.
You know how kids who are told they aren’t good at math or science tend to suck at math or science? Maybe we’ve been telling men for far too long that they don’t like fiction, and especially not domestic fiction, and especially not fiction written by women. Maybe it’s time to stop labeling certain types of fiction as “for women,” and then see what happens. We’re okay with kinds bending gender rules. We’re doing away with them altogether. So let’s also be okay with male and female readers, and male and female authors, breaking out of their literary gender ghettos. Let’s stop allowing marketing and the bottom line to be an excuse to perpetuate stereotypes.
KC: Why does commercial fiction bring out the fight in writers and readers? Really, its writers are second only to male Canadian poets for literary catfights. For people writing books best read in deckchairs, shouldn’t everybody be a bit less uptight?
MS: I love this Nathanial Hawthorne quote: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” And it’s so true! I die a little inside every time someone refers to Mating for Life, my first novel, as an “easy, beach read.” To me that implies that it was somehow easy to write. It was not easy to write! It took me years. So I think that’s part of why discussing commercial fiction brings out the fight in people—and especially in writers, because they’re the ones doing the work. Things turn ugly because there can be the undertone of superiority that might in some cases be valid, and in others unfair, dismissive, and very, very small. By the way, both sides can be superior and dismissive. But everyone ends up sounding small.
I die a little inside every time someone refers to Mating for Life, my first novel, as an “easy, beach read.” To me that implies that it was somehow easy to write. It was not easy to write! It took me years.
The truth is there’s good literary fiction and there’s bad literary fiction. There’s good commercial fiction, and there’s bad commercial fiction. But what exactly defines this? There might be set parameters that could be useful sometimes, but saying one thing is “bad” and the other is “good” also means being critical of readers, and what they like—what gives them joy. Unless it’s something that hurts another person is it okay to be critical of what gives another person joy? I don’t care who you are, or what a giant literary talent you might be considered to be. Trashing another artist’s work just makes you a jerk.
My favourite authors are—in order of when I discovered them, for lack of a better way to put them in order—John Irving, Marian Keyes, Margaret Atwood, Thomas King, Martha Gellhorn, Alice Munro, Helen Fielding, Julia Glass, Melissa Bank, Mordecai Richler, Meg Wolitzer, Miriam Toews, Barbara Kingsolver, Audrey Niffenegger, Ann Patchett, Marilynne Robinson, Jodi Picoult, Haruki Murakami, Lauren Groff, Elizabeth Strout, Jojo Moyes, Chris Cleave, Maria Semple, Sophie McManus, Emma Straub—I should probably stop here, but I hope you get the picture. My criteria for loving a book is not that it is either literature or commercial, but that it is done well, that the author has achieved what he or she set out to achieve. The quality might lie in the complexity or in the simplicity. But the definition of whether it is a quality piece of work does not lie in whether it is literary or commercial.
My criteria for loving a book is not that it is either literature or commercial, but that it is done well, that the author has achieved what he or she set out to achieve.
KC: What can writers and readers do to promote diversity in commercial fiction and make changes so the genre is not so glaringly white?
MS: I really enjoyed Modern Lovers, Emma Straub’s most recent novel, in part because one of the couples in it is a multi-racial lesbian couple who felt as real as a couple in a genuinely good book should feel. Not like some sort of quota fulfillment, not like they were created out of a sense of duty—or worse, out of a desire to sell more books—but as real people in love (or out of love, or somewhere in between) should feel on the page. I’ve read books I’ve wanted to throw across the room, and probably have, because of how obvious it is that the author is attempting to work something or someone into the plot to satisfy society’s growing appetite for books that reflect cultural diversity. Rather than faking it, which is an insult to almost everyone, a good way to encourage diversity in commercial fiction, and any kind of fiction—because literature is pretty glaringly white as well—is for authors to continue to produce diverse work that feels genuine because it is genuine. Readers need to be open to it, as well. I think that’s true more and more every day. There’s room for all the stories. The tent is getting bigger and bigger. It’s exciting.
KC: I’ve heard you say many times that the Canadian commercial fiction scene is something you’re really proud of and excited about. Why do you think the scene is so strong? And what writers and books are those that really underline your enthusiasm?
MS: I say it in part because someone needs to! CanLit gets a lot of attention—and rightly so; it’s brilliant, it’s dark and beautiful and subversive and funny and the best in the world—but commercial fiction written by Canadians sometimes feels like the younger sister the parents don’t pay attention to because instead of getting her PhD she’s running her own successful business—and this isn’t just any business, it’s a socially conscious, innovative, savvy business that’s going to change the world.
The scene is strong because our literary scene has always been strong. It just makes sense that our commercial scene, when allowed to flourish as it finally is now, would be just as strong and just as exciting. Perhaps commercial fiction authors in Canada aren’t writing stories that are specific to Canadians—but they are telling stories with international appeal through the lens of being Canadian. We’re not like anyone else, so we don’t write like anyone else. This is shining through in all the writing that’s coming out of Canada.
The scene is strong because our literary scene has always been strong. It just makes sense that our commercial scene, when allowed to flourish as it finally is now, would be just as strong and just as exciting.
I’m very excited about Marni Jackson’s Don’t I Know You?, recently published by Flatiron Books and edited by the incredible Amy Einhorn. It’s wise, deep, commercially appealing—and also uniquely Canadian, but not in an obvious way
I’m also very excited about your book, Mitzi Bytes, because this is the kind of fiction I’ve been waiting for. Social commentary, a wry undertone, feminism—but also just a really good story, and good writing. And I’ve made some really good friends in the world of Canadian commercial fiction over the past few years, and they happen to be exceptionally talented, extremely successful, or both: Karma Brown, Jennifer Robson, Kate Hilton, Elizabeth Renzetti, K.A. Tucker, Amy Stuart—these are Canadian authors writing commercial fiction and doing well at it.
Many of these authors are giving us a voice on the international stage, and that is thrilling.
Marissa Stapley is a bestselling author (Mating for Life), newspaper journalist, National Magazine Award nominated magazine writer, and creative writing mentor. Her second novel, Things To Do When It's Raining, will be released in 2017 and her debut romance novel, written under the pen name Juliana Macintyre, was recently released. She writes regularly for The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star, and her work has appeared in Elle, Today's Parent, Reader's Digest, The National Post, and many other publications. She is also a former magazine editor who has taught creative writing and editing at the University of Toronto and Centennial College, and now privately mentors students in Toronto and online.