August 3, 2010


What I’m Reading Today:  Technical documents.  Been doing a little freelance work.

Today, I wanted to riff on the term “literary.” I hope I can be coherent about it.

We all want to write well. For some of us, that means we call ourselves and what we write “literary.” We want prose that people read and go, “Ah. Wow. That is a well-turned sentence.” To us, the term “literary” is synonymous with “well-written.”

Definition 1 ~ Literary = well-written.

An extension of this is a writer who is a step above the average writer. Someone who has mastered their craft. They’ve put in their 10,000 hours. They’re up for awards because of their prose. They are the experts.

Definition 2 ~ Literary = masters of the craft.

Fair enough. I think everyone can agree that this is often the first thing that comes to mind. An extension of this, though, is that literary writing often draws attention to itself. The reader is not only marveling at the fabulous story (we hope); he or she is also marveling at the dexterity and craft of it. They’re reading for the pleasure of the metaphor and allusion. They are keeping half an ear on the resonances and the quality of it.

You might think this sounds fabulous, and it is, but as everyone knows there’s a dirty underbelly to all this. If the only thing the reader is paying attention to is the Latinate flourishes of your pen, they probably care a lot less about your characters and your story. This is what some people criticize about MFA programs ~ it trains writers who are very good but who could care less about plot. The criticism goes that they’re so focused on showing you their stuff that they fail to connect on a very basic story/heart/desire level. The reader is always being pulled out of the story.

Definition 3 ~ Literary = overwritten and self-conscious.

So the problem comes when you, the writer, who wants to come across as someone who knows her stuff, have to label your book for the publishing world. You think, damn it, I’ve put in my time, I write well {at least I hope I do}, so I am going to claim it, own it, and call myself “literary.” This is an assertion of confidence, sometimes wobbly, sometimes well-earned. Well, all the other writers out there are also trying to get their stuff published, and they’ve put in their time, and damn it they’re accomplished too, so they call themselves “literary.” Especially if I’m feeling a little unsure of myself, I’m going to put that in there. So, often, people who are just starting out, who in fact haven’t actually put in that much time ~ though to themselves their words come trippingly off the tongue and they can’t see any other way to fix it ~ they label their work “literary” because they want to assert that it’s well written. So in this case “literary,” meaning “well-written,” is possibly a little further away than the writer hopes.

Definition 4 ~ Literary = a fairly inexperienced writer claiming the territory of “well-written,” though this is often not the case.

You see the problem? Agents (and editors) see a writer claim “literary,” meaning “well-written,” when in fact the manuscript has a way to go, either because the writer has not yet learned his craft or because he impatiently sent out a first draft that was not fully developed yet. So, in this case, the term “literary” becomes a sign of an amateur. This is why I advised people to avoid this label in my checklist of things that may signal amateur to publishing professionals. If you do this and one or two other things, the agent will write you off. Understandibly.

Definition 5 ~ Literary = amateur.

What do you call your work instead, you ask? Well, that’s a tough one. I opt for the term “women’s fiction” for mine. I think going with a category like this is much safer. You could call it “book-club fiction” or “upmarket fiction,” which means well-written commercial fiction. And of course the problem is you have to label it something because you have to show some knowledge of publishing. Another way to get around it is to say “a novel in the vein of Richard Price” or “a novel comparable to Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Jim Harrison’s novella Legends of the Fall,” or something like that. (NEVER “a fictional novel,” since this is redundant and agents see it way too much, they say.)

Genre fiction is the cash cow of the fiction publishing world. It’s the closest thing to a safe bet, they say. Literary is a huge gamble. Eric at Pimp My Novel gives an absolutely terrifying report about literary fiction. And with the publishing landscape changing so quickly, it may be an even bigger gamble in some ways. (Will the readers who like literary fiction be the last ones to move to the new, cheaper platforms?) So, in this case, the term “literary” is a big detriment. It’s like putting a huge L on your forehead. Look at me, I won’t sell more than 500 copies.

Definition 6 ~ Literary = loser.

The problem with literary as a category is that it not easily classifiable. With romance or scifi or historical fiction, you tend to know what you’re going to get. That’s one of its draws. It reaffirms received notions (not shake up preconceived notions, which is what literary fiction often does). It’s like your favorite meal at your favorite restaurant ~ you love it just as it is and you don’t want it to change. That’s why it’s easy for readers who want genre fiction to go into a bookstore and know what their getting. They want romance? They go to the romance shelf and pick one out, and the author’s name is a lot less important. When you’re a literary author, your name is your genre, and you have no one who has built up your genre before you. You’re starting from square one. It’s going to take a long time for you to build an audience, while for genre the audience is already there and is lining up rabid to buy the next book. So literary as a genre is a much more slippery thing. Beyond it being well-written, it’s really hard to define.

Definition 7 ~ Literary = a genre without coherence; you don’t know what you’re getting unless you’ve read this author before and liked them.

Finally, here’s’s great definition of literary ficton:
If you marvel at the quality of writing in your novel above all else, then you’ve probably written a work of literary fiction. Literary fiction explores inherent conflicts of the human condition through stellar writing. Pacing, plot, and commercial appeal are secondary to the development of story through first-class prose.

Multi-layered themes, descriptive narration, and three-dimensional characterization distinguish this genre from all others. Literary fiction often experiments with traditional structure, narrative voice, multi-POVs, and storylines to achieve an elevated sense of artistry. Although some literary fiction can become "commercial" by transcending its niche market and appealing to a broader audience, this is not the same as commercial fiction, which at its core has a commerical, marketable hook, plot, and storyline—all developed through literary prose. Literary fiction often merges with other fiction types to create hybrid genres such as literary thrillers, mysteries, historicals, epics, and family sagas.
Questions of the Day: Do you have any additional definitions to add? Do you disagree with any of mine? Are you in the literary camp, or the genre camp, or both?

1 comment:

Tamara said...

I do not at all want to suggest that genre fiction isn't well written! I'm talking more about self-perception and -categorization, as well as what I've read about the term "literary."