The Lives of Stella Bain by Anita Shreve: Commercial or literary fiction, and does it matter?

Cover image There’ve been a few exchanges in my booky little Twitter corner recently about commercial and literary fiction, how one is thought to be more worthy of serious attention than the other. I haven’t been joining in partly because I’m not sure what I think about it. I do know that my own reading would be considered to fall into the literary pigeonhole but I’m not entirely sure what that means. I’ve been thinking about this having just finished Anita Shreve’s new novel – she’s a writer I’ve often seen reviewed as someone whose books straddle the line between literary and commercial fiction.

The Lives of Stella Bain is another First World War novel – I don’t seem to be able to avoid those for long this year. It opens with a woman regaining consciousness, becoming aware of the stink of gangrene, the sound of surgical instruments, the feeling of pain in her feet. She begins to understand that she has no idea who she is, and no one else does either. She arrived in the French field hospital dressed as a British volunteer but she has an American accent. She waits in vain for clues, grasping at the name Stella Bain which seems to have a glimmer of meaning for her – she can draw, she knows how to drive an ambulance and she has a pressing need to visit the Admiralty in London, all else is a blank. She makes her way across the Channel, becomes lost in London and is taken in by Lily Bridge and her husband August, a cranial surgeon with an interest in the new-fangled practice of psychotherapy. After several visits to the Admiralty with Dr Bridge, Stella is spotted by an old flame who calls her name – Etna Bliss – and things begin to fall into place. She understands that she has two children, that she has fled a bad marriage turned violent, that her husband had inveigled his young daughter into accusing a rival of molesting her in order to disgrace him and that the rival had volunteered as an ambulance driver in France where Etna had gone to beg his forgiveness. When Etna returns to America she must fight a custody battle for her children.

It’s an engrossing story, well told although it stretched my credulity a little – I wasn’t entirely convinced that Etna would have left her children and gone to what was the hell of France in 1915 but she later explains it as literally ‘a moment of madness’. Shreve explores many interesting themes – the newly emerging ‘talking cure’, attitudes to shell shock, and to women. There’s always a welcome strand of feminism running through her novels. She Baileys Women's Prize for fiction knows how to spin a story well and keep her readers’ interest. As to the literary/commercial pigeonhole – this one felt more commercial than her other novels, many of which I’ve read, and it’s possible that the ending might have something to do with it but I can’t discuss that here. What makes a novel literary or commercial, and does it matter? It’s an interesting debate and I’d like to know what you think.

And as for the Baileys long list – click here and all will be revealed, unless you’ve seen it already of course. Only four from my wish list here. Lots to explore, I’m delighted to report, but some I’m very sad not to see most notably Jill Dawson’s The Tell-tale Heart, Helen Dunmore’s The Lie and Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird. Lots more prizes to be won this year and my fingers are firmly crossed that all three will appear on at least one of those lists.

4 thoughts on “The Lives of Stella Bain by Anita Shreve: Commercial or literary fiction, and does it matter?”

  1. The whole thing about genre is so confusing, it’s almost like a cult religion. I’m not sure how widespread it is but a literary agent told me there is a legitimate literary-commercial category as a kind of in between, which certainly sits comfortably with what I want to read and write.
    Oh, and looks like this is another one for my blog!

    1. Interesting input from the agent, Anne. I hope to get a few more comments on whether it means anything to readers or not. It certainly does in the book trade!

  2. I used to worry a lot about this, especially when I was working with children’s literature where the battle lines are drawn up and hostilities entered into on a frequent basis. I was at a discussion a couple of weeks ago with the author Lindsey Davis when this question was raised and she was adamant that it was a distinction that she didn’t want to draw. What mattered to her was whether or not the book was well written and the story one that drew the reader in. I’m still not sure where I stand on this. What worries me is that if we categorise books too much we are going to put off potential readers who would in fact really enjoy a specific book if they had simply picked it up without any labelling at all.

    1. I agree absolutely with your last point, Alex, particularly with regard to children’s literature when surely the aim of the game is to keep them reading.

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