By Fire, By Water: Author Guest Post and Giveaway

By Fire, By Water, by Mitchell James Kaplan
ISBN 978-159051352-1
277 pages
Other Press LLC (May 2010)

Recently I was privileged to read Mitchell James Kaplan’s thrilling debut novel By Fire, By Water (read my review). Set in 15th century Spain, this historical novel kept me enthralled. I am even more delighted to have Kaplan here on my blog today with a guest post which I think you will find thought provoking – what IS the difference between commercial fiction and literary fiction…and does it really matter? In addition, the publisher has graciously offered to giveaway a copy of By Fire, By Water to one lucky reader of my blog (see details for the giveaway below).

First a bit About the Book:

Within this dramatic story lies a subtle, insightful examination of the crisis of faith at the heart of the Spanish Inquisition. Irresolvable conflict rages within the conversos, who are torn between the religion they left behind and the conversion meant to ensure their safety. In this story of love, God, faith, and torture, fifteenth-century Spain comes to dazzling, engrossing life. – from the book flap-

Watch the book trailer:

About the Author:

Mitchell James Kaplan lives in Pennsylvania (he has also resided in California, Germany, Connecticut, New York, and Paris) with his wife and two children.  He has worked as a translator, screenwriter, and script consultant. By Fire, By Water is his first novel. Read more about Kaplan and his work by visiting the author’s website.


Commercial Fiction vs. Literary Fiction

Guest Post by Author Mitchell James Kaplan

What is commercial fiction? What is “literary?” Publishers, agents, critics, and academics seem to place great stock in these concepts, but I have never come across useful definitions.

People who use these terms argue either that literary fiction is better than commercial fiction, or vice-versa. Advocates for commercial fiction are quick to point out that Shakespeare wrote for money. Those who prefer literary writing observe that most so-called commercial fiction stands no chance of becoming classic, blithely glossing over the fact that most so-called literary fiction never becomes classic, either.

As everyone knows, the arbiters of taste are often wrong. In his time, Ben Johnson was considered a greater writer than Shakespeare. In 1905, Henryk Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize for Literature; have you tried reading Quo Vadis lately? Raymond Chandler never won any prestigious prizes, but few today would deny his status.

When people use these terms, I always ask what they mean. Sometimes they explain that commercial fiction tends to place more emphasis on plot, while literary fiction showcases style and psychology. Others use a variety of other terms, depending on which type of writing they prefer. Those who prefer commercial fiction will use words like “gripping,” “page-turner,” and “engrossing” to describe the books they like, and “boring” or even “pointless” for those they don’t. Those whose tastes run to the literary may characterize commercial writing as “contrived” and “sentimental,” while reserving terms like “beautiful,” “moving,” or (these days) “spare” for the works they consume.

When I answer that I don’t understand what they mean, they look at me blankly as if to say: I thought you were supposed to be a writer. The reason I don’t understand is that I see no contradiction between these qualifiers. A story can be both gripping and beautiful, or pointless and spare. There is no reason that a novel should not feature a well-developed plot, a fascinating style, and psychologically rich characters.

Many of the classics do. From the Bible through Faulkner, right down to our time, great stories typically combine superior writing and storytelling with a deep understanding of human psychology, as well as one other element: a profound obsession with the human condition. Many of the greatest writers – including, in the English tradition, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Fielding, Dickens, and Faulkner, to name a handful – excelled at combining these elements, producing works that are as exciting to read as they are enriching.

Concepts such as “commercial” and “literary” derive from a pre-democratic model of culture, in which only a small, landed, educated population was deemed to have taste. That model has been defunct for generations. In our society, literacy is rampant and everyone has a right to his opinion. A beautiful story that’s well told, with nuance and intelligence, transcends such simple-minded categorization.



Other Press LLC has graciously offered to send a copy of By Fire, By Water to one lucky winner.  Here are the guidelines to enter the contest:

  • Contest is open until July 27th at 5:00 PM (PST)
  • Only U.S. and Canadian postal addresses please.
  • To enter, leave a comment on this post telling me you are interested in winning the book and WHY.
  • I will choose ONE winner from the entries using and announce their name here on my blog on July 28th. I will also send the winner an email requesting their snail mail which I must receive within 5 days or I will choose another winner.

Good Luck!!!

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  1. I would love to win this book because I really love historical fiction.
    amandarwest at gmaildotcom

  2. I love this guest post and agree totally! Please enter me – I think the book sounds fascinating because it explores a part of history we tend to ignore.

    • Tricia on July 21, 2010 at 06:57

    I would love to win this book becuase I’ve read little about the Spanish Inquisition and would love to learn more. Thanks for holding this contest.

  3. I am not entering the competition as I live in the UK, but I have to say this book sounds fascinating! I love historical fiction which educates as well as entertains and this sounds like a prime example. I recently read another book which dealt partly with the Spanish inquisition and I am eager to find some more novels set in the same period. Definitely adding to my wish list! Thanks for your thoughts on “literary” vs “commercial” fiction – my thoughts exactly!

  4. Wonderful post! I couldn’t agree more with Mitchell’s viewpoints on commercial versus literary books. I guess it might just all boil down to a bit of snobbery.

    No need to enter me in this giveaway, as I will be reading and reviewing the book very soon.

  5. No need to enter me, babe. This is one book I’ve already bought! (see my post at Win a Book as to why)

    I’m dropping in to say thanks for the e-mail. As you can tell, I’ve got this up at Win a Book for you.

    • Carol Wong on July 21, 2010 at 14:43

    I would love to read this book to learn morea about the Spanish Inquistion and your review was a rave so that means wonderful to me.


  6. I would like a chance to win as i like historicals thx for contest..

    • gail miller on July 21, 2010 at 19:45

    I would love to read about 15th century Spain, until now i have devoured books about England, Wales and Franch, I am wanting to expand my knowledge and this is a great way to do it.
    Thank you for the chance to win
    Gail Miller (grams 0f 20)

  7. I love historical fiction. Please add my name to the draw.

    • Sheila on July 22, 2010 at 05:58

    Sounds like a good read—please enter me to win!

    • Marie on July 23, 2010 at 05:48

    I loved Mitchell’s By Fire, By Water as much as Caribou’s Mom did. It was throught provoking and a very touching story that will always stay with me. As far as this post, it is easy to put things into niches and label them forever, but as you say, it is all a matter of opinion. There are different strokes for different folks etc and it all depends on what one has been exposed to. And I have never considered the difference between commercial or literary fiction, so I’ve learned something new today.

    • Lethea Benson on July 25, 2010 at 13:58

    I’d love a chance to read this=)
    I admit I’ve read very, very few if any books set in Spain or regarding Spanish History so I feel like if I read an enjoyable book set in Spain I would definitly pick up something about the Spanish Inquisition/Spanish Culture and expand my horizons=)

    • Tina on July 27, 2010 at 08:16

    This is a period of history that fascinates me . pLease enter me in the giveaway.

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