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What is the difference between popular fiction and literary fiction?

Donald S. Hays, professor of creative writing in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, replies:

Years ago, my friend and former teacher, Jim Whitehead, asked me whether I’d read a then current novel called Presumed Innocent. I told him I had. He wanted to know what I thought of it.

“Not bad,” I said. “For what it is.”

“What it is?” he said.

“A legal thriller.”

He seemed to think this over. Then he said, “People have been telling me it was really good, telling me I should read it. So I bought a copy and read about fifty pages. Then I realized that the only reason I was reading was to find out who the killer was. So I skipped over to end and found that out. Then I went back to page fifty and discovered that there was no reason to keep reading.”

That was true enough. The prose was merely functional. The characters were one-dimensional. The plot tended toward melodrama.

Jim shook his head. “Nothing bores me more than suspense,” he said.

Of course, there are many great novels that are both topical and suspenseful. And, yes, there are too many so called literary novelists who seemed to have completely forgotten how to plot, how to tell a story. But at the end of a great novel or story, the mystery of who we are and why we do what we do is not solved; it is deepened.

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