Convention vs. Sophistication

Sophisticated by Dave77459 on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons License

Today in my creative writing class, we discussed the difference between sophisticated and simple or formulaic fiction.

Formulaic fiction obviously follows a formula – think Harlequin novels or James Bond. They follow this pattern because it works (and sells) well, but they aren’t books that generally have much literary merit.

On the other side of the coin, we have ‘sophisticated’ fiction, which I would probably term ‘literary,’ Sophisticated fiction goes far beyond what is conventional. The easiest way that my professor distinguishes between formulaic and sophisticated works is by asking himself whether he could see the ending coming.

In the middle of our discussion I posed this question: is it possible for a book to lie somewhere between simple and sophisticated works? Can a book have elements of both formulaic writing (like some conventional plot points) and sophisticated writing (unconventional characters, complex themes, etc.)? 

My professor said perhaps, but it would still be classified as formulaic. 

I found his answer lacking. Is everything in life that black and white? No, of course not, so why should we have a rigid dichotomy in fiction between what is and is not lacking literary merit?

Why can’t a book be conventional in some respects and unconventional in others? 

I think it can. A book can have a more predictable plot, but unpredictable and fresh characters who take the plot and deal with it in their own unique ways. A story can have a wonderful, ‘sophisticated’ message while still having bits and pieces of formulaic, ‘simple’ writing in it. 

Of course, I’m not advocating for writers to be completely unoriginal. What I’m saying is that a story can have some bits and pieces that are more conventional or cliche, as long as the author takes them and twists them in a new, fresh way.