Four Reasons You Should Attend the IWR (Reason 2)

Four Reasons You Should Attend the IWR (Reason 2)

Reason 2: Literary vs Commercial Fiction (It’s not a competition.)

By: Jo McClelland Phillips, Alumni Award Recipient

A literary novelist might write genre fiction, and that might even turn some readers off. But not I.

What excited me most about the Iceland Writers Retreat is that it is a place where literary and commercial writers meet in a warm and collaborative setting. Pretense isn’t an issue.

In some circles, literary fiction is held in higher esteem than what is referred to as “popular” or “commercial fiction.”

A common explanation of the two, beyond sales, would be that literary fiction comments on the human condition while popular fiction merely entertains. What about books that do both?

A writing teacher distilled the difference down to how complicated the sentences are written. She pointed out that while Stephen King is very commercial, he writes very sophisticated prose. Yet, no one considers Stephen King literature.

The Iceland Writers Retreat is where we can meet award-winning authors, such as Kamila Shamsie, and popular writers like Maria Semple, both of whom were scheduled to appear in 2020, before the global pandemic. I would say that their novels are both entertaining and comment on the human condition. For me, they are equally valuable. As a writer who wishes to elevate her stories while also keeping in mind the current book market, this is ideal.

At the 2021 Virtual Retreat, I studied with several authors and looked at character, setting, and humour.

Bret Anthony Johnston had us look at character through structure, giving weight to the story with a strong point-of-view. Andrew Evans gave us literary-leaning principles of description without using sight or cliché. I don’t know how to answer Terry Fallis’ question “what’s funny?’ but he defined it as “defying normal conventions with juxtaposition, shock, or surprise.”

A good story is grounded in a sense of place with strong characters. It has a clear point of view. And even a drama or horror is best when the strong feelings are offset by humour.

When I apply these tools and tactics that I learned in these workshops, my work improved. I hope the result will be both artistically appealing and commercially relevant. It doesn’t matter if you’re a genre writer, a satirist, or a poet. It doesn’t matter if you write memoirs or essays or short fiction. We all have something to learn from the writers at the Iceland Writer’s Retreat.

Registration is open for the 2022 retreat. Read about all the fantastic writers who will be in attendance next April.

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