First, I'd like to thank you for making your e-books available online and for THE FIRST FIVE PAGES, which is a very helpful book indeed. I've just received feedback from a literary agent who said my novel is a high-concept novel. I cannot reconcile the definition of high-concept (mostly applied to blockbusters) with my story, which even though driven by a big and hypothetical idea, weaves in three first-person narrations and is very much character-based. What is according to you a high-concept novel? Could you possibly give me examples? Thank you very much!
A good question, and hard to answer. We always enter into a gray area when we start to try define precisely what is "commercial fiction" versus "literary fiction" and where one departs and the other begins. In some ways our industry is split down the middle, with some editors tasked solely with acquiring commercial fiction, and others with literary. That said, there are also many editors who will acquire both, and/or who will look for the hybrids. There are many shades of hybrids, across the whole spectrum, with some leaning literary and others commercial. Complicating matters, as soon as one gives examples one can immediately be proven wrong, as one can point to a literary novel which was a huge commercial success or a commercial novel which reads like a great literary work. Also complicating matters is that the line in the sand has become more apparent in our day, whereas going back a century, many literary works were expected to have great plots. Moby Dick is a great literary work--yet at the same time, it has a great plot. That can't necessarily be said about many "literary" works today, for which a great plot can be absent.
From an agent's point of view, there have been many great novels I've sent out to, say, 30 publishers, only to have 15 tell me it's too commercial for their list, and 15 tell me it's too literary. It can be maddening, and shopping novels that fall into that gray area can be one of the hardest tasks for an agent.
In any case, all great fiction, whether high-concept or not, should also be character-based, so I don't see the two as mutually exclusive. Yes, you need a great plot to guide the characters--but you also need the characters to come alive and to do something, at some point, that you would not expect, and to influence the plot themselves. The plot and characters must play off each other, and that is to be expected.