Is it fair to separate “commercial” novels from “literary” ones? If anyone can answer that question it’s 10-book author Meredith Maran, whose new anthology Why We Write features essays by everyone from Sue Grafton and David Baldacci to Ann Patchett and Walter Mosley. “I chose the authors to include as if they were wines being paired,” Maran told me. “If you like Jennifer Egan [A Visit from the Goon Squad], for example, you might also like to read Jodi Picoult.”
Maran’s mention of Picoult reminded me that the bestselling novelist’s latest, The Storyteller, comes out this week. Though some authors bridle when labeled “commercial” rather than “literary,” Picoult has embraced “the C word” with panache. Her website gives pride of place to this quote from USA Today: “Nobody in commercial fiction cranks out the pages more effectively than Jodi Picoult.”
Picoult has racked up sales by taking a hot-button issue (homosexuality in Sing You Home, for instance, or school shootings in Nineteen Minutes) and exploring how it might play out in one particular family or town. Yes, tears will be jerked and bombshells will be dropped (often in court). But her characters are lifelike, the dialogue crackles, and the underlying research might just teach you something about the real world as well.
One other writer who hit it big in both salons and sales has just been brought back to life by Ellen Meister in her hilarious new novel, Farewell, Dorothy Parker (February 21). In it a middle-aged movie critic named Violet Epps is about to give up searching for love when Parker—the Algonquin wit who coined such phrases as “Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses”—wafts in on a cloud of gin and sets Violet’s life to rights. Is Meister’s novel commercial or literary? I was too busy laughing to care.
And if you’ve been too busy watching the Oscars to think about books, why not brush up by taking this fun and not-so-easy books-and-movies quiz from the LA Times?