Monday, August 31, 2009

YOU SAY POTATO. . . Differentiating Between Literary and Genre Fiction

By Writer X

When I asked my agent how he’d define literary fiction, he said, “I just know it when I see it.”

Okay. That’s helpful.

Unfortunately, that’s the kind of vague explanation you get from experts—the people who read manuscripts all day long and get to decide whether or not a book has publishing potential. Sadly, this ambiguous explanation among the literati is not as uncommon as you think.

Literary fiction isn’t necessarily harder to write than genre fiction (e.g. thrillers, mysteries, romance, chick lit, science fiction), but sometimes it can be more difficult to read—and not because an author went overboard with a dictionary and thesaurus or used a writing style that requires a secret decoder ring. To compare literary to genre fiction is like staring at a Picasso versus a Normal Rockwell painting: The meaning of one may be more difficult to divine than the other. As with a Picasso, sometimes you have to take your time with literary fiction (or read it more than once) to appreciate its meaning.

That’s because, in my opinion, literary fiction is more character-driven while genre fiction is more plot driven, although that doesn’t mean you can get away with writing one-dimensional characters or plot-less stories in genre fiction. It might mean, though, that a literary novel’s characters and conflicts are less obvious; it might require that you look at the world in a different way. And it might also mean that the author takes more liberties with his writing style. Example: I remember reading a book a few years ago by a debut author where she used nouns as verbs thereby creating almost a new language. Quirky book. Now, I can’t remember the author’s name or the book’s title or even what the book was about. And I haven’t seen her work since on the store shelves. That’s probably not a good thing but kudos to the agent/editor who believed in her and tried something new. It doesn’t happen very often.

Additionally, don’t always expect a happy ending with literary fiction or the resolution of every conflict as you do with most genre fiction. Those “loose ends” alone turn off most people to literary fiction.

A publicist told me last week that literary fiction is currently not selling well in today’s marketplace.


Truthfully, I’m not sure if literary fiction ever sells consistently well but that shouldn’t discourage anyone from writing it. The world can always use one more good book, don’t you think? The same publicist also told me that if a person isn’t a seriously brilliant writer or doesn’t have at least a Masters of Fine Arts degree from one of the well-known writing colleges like Columbia or Iowa, he shouldn’t even attempt to write, much less sell, literary fiction. To that, I say: Hogwash.

An MFA doesn’t guarantee success just like a Bachelor degree doesn’t mean that a person is instantly employable or a law degree mean that a person will become a brilliant lawyer (Note: LawHawk and Andrew, naturally, are excluded from this analogy as their brilliance knows no bounds). That doesn’t mean college degrees or advanced degrees are a waste of time either. They can help to provide framework but they’re not a guarantee of success.

In my view, a person should write what they love; anything less and the reader will see through it, whether it’s literary fiction or a romance novel. Or even a children’s picture book.

That said, if a novel lacks a story and compelling characters, good luck trying to sell it or worse—trying to find people who’ll plunk down hard-earned cash to buy it. And a publisher may be less inclined to purchase your next manuscript if your last one generated only meager sales, despite the exceptional writing.

So, given a choice, what type of book would you rather curl up with on a couch during a rainy afternoon? The classics? A spicy romance novel? Something from the New York Times bestseller list? More importantly, what holds your attention: The writing or the story?

The answer to that might tell you whether you prefer literary fiction or genre fiction, either as a reader or a writer. Or both.


Joel Farnham said...

I prefer genre fiction. Science fiction to be exact. After that, fiction by a science fiction author.

I am probably one of the few who does not prefer Stephen King novel. I have read them from time to time, but it never has been my first choice.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, LOL! Our brilliance knows no bounds! Yes, and sometimes we're talking about lower bounds. :-(

I prefer reading a variety of things. However, one thing that I cannot stand is usually the NYT Best Seller list. That stuff all too often seem to be there precisely because it's (A) liberal and (B) vacant. I can get enough liberal, vacant matierial watching the news.

Writer X said...

Joel, you are not alone in your love of the science fiction genre. That is a hot market, perhaps as hot as it has ever been.

I like some Stephen King but not all. When it gets too gory, he loses me. He wrote a collection of short stories called FOUR PAST MIDNIGHT that I could not put down. I'm also not a fan of his movies. His books are better.

Writer X said...

Andrew, it's always been a mystery how the NYT Best Seller list works. Not sure of the science behind that. Interestingly, Malkin, Levin, and Morris are all on the non-fiction best seller list currently.

Bounds? Who needs bounds...

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, My understanding (and keep in mind that I know nothing), is that the NY Times list is based entirely on pre-sales. So I would assume that means the NY Times list is based on whoever's publisher pushes the hardest to get their books onto the list?

X & Joel, I liked a handful of King's early books (Shining, Pet Cemetery, It), but I think most of his work since is pure garbage. It's entirely derivative of everything else that's out there (I'm sorry, but the man is a borderline plagiarizer -- particularly his movies), it's poorly written (aka boring and formulaic), and he's an ass. That's not a recipe I like.

I'm going off to my grumpy corner now.

Writer X said...

Andrew, I honestly cannot tell you how they calculate their bestseller lists (Pre, post, or during publication) almost as much as how they determine what gets reviewed and what doesn't. With the addition of so many other bestseller lists, theirs has become less coveted over the years.

I like King's earlier stuff better than his most recent stuff, too. His son is also a writer now, although I've not read any of his books. To his credit, he published under a different last name so as not to ride his father's coattails. Still, horror is usually not my cup of tea.

MegaTroll said...

Writer X, Can you explain what literary fiction is? I'm not sure what it is. Is it stuff like Obama was reading?

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks for this post Writer X - I may not yet be able to explain the difference, but at least I now have a crack at knowing it when I read it. I must say I had never heard of the genre 'chick lit' undoubtedly the literary equivalent of 'chick flick.'

I certainly agree a person should write what they love.

I enjoy variety, but for pure pleasure, I'm a fan of John Sanford's books for two reasons; 1) love his characters particularly Virgil Flowers and Lucas Davenport. 2) enjoy his descriptive writing. Here is a very brief example:

"he could see the clouds bunching up in the west, lightning jumping around the horizon while a new crescent moon still showed in the rearview mirror. July was the second best time on the prairie, right after August, the world began to smell of grain and the harvest to come."

That type of description puts me right in the car with the protagonist.

Writer X said...

MegaTroll, you are not alone in your confusion. Sometimes the line between literary fiction and genre fiction is very thin. Other times, not so much. Then, to make matters worse, sometimes a book is described as "a mystery with a literary bent," as an example.

Let me give you an example of literary fiction and genre fiction by giving you two recent specific books. Maybe that will help:

THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE could be described as literary fiction; TWILIGHT is genre fiction (Young Adult, specifically).

I have no idea about what Obama is reading but I assume that anything he'd mention would be very heady. Personally, I think he snuck a romance novel into his summer beach bag. :-) Hey, everybody has to escape now and then.

Writer X said...

Ted, you're very welcome.

Chick lit is very much like a chick flick. In fact, most of the chick flicks were chick lit books. Examples: THE SHOPAHOLIC, P.S. I LOVE YOU. Sadly, both movies were kind of flops, although the books were very successful.

A good writer can help the reader see, feel, hear, and even taste what's going on in a scene. Like art, writing is in the eye of a beholder. I, too, like very visual writing.

StanH said...

Thanks for your series WriterX on inside the writing world. The ambiguity in literary fiction/ genre fiction would make it tuff as a writer to know where and how to sell your novel. A tremendous amount of work to have some agent dismiss your work not fitting into a genre that they can not define? So I guess you just present your work as fiction and let the book industry set what category your book will fall?

Writer X said...

Stan, you're very welcome.

Most writers (myself included) write first and then worry about researching agents/markets/publishers. That's not always the smart way but most people write because they like writing; the business aspect of it, not so much.

After you complete your manuscript and then you start researching agents and the markets, you'll start to learn how to pitch your book to agents. If it's literary fiction, you call it that; if it's a mystery, you call it a mystery (genre). Labeling it simply "fiction" to literary agents is not real helpful.

It's not black and white, I know. But that's the way it is. You learn as you plod along. That's why belonging to a writer's critique group either through your school/library/bookstore can be so invaluable so you can learn from others' mistakes.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, What are the top genres right now (if you know)? And has this changed over time?

Writer X said...

Andrew, I would say that the science fiction genre is probably as strong as it's ever been. Mysteries continue to be popular. A subset of the Mystery genre might be anything to do with forensics (e.g. think BONES). Juvenile Fiction--particularly Young Adult and Middle Grade--are en fuego. Last, but not least, Romance as a genre is also red-hot, but I don't think that genre ever falls out of favor.

Unknown said...

WriterX: I like historical novels that border on fiction. I guess that would be genre fiction, right? I'm thinking of the Thomas Costain type of novel. My favorite collection of his books was the four-part series "The Plantagenets."

AndrewPrice said...

So you're saying this is not a great time to write a book about Polish road signs?

Is the young-adult stuff a new "hot" area? I remember as a kid that there was some of that -- Hardy Boys, etc., but it certainly didn't seem like anyone was writing a lot of those kinds of books.

Writer X said...

LawHawk, most historical fiction is considered genre fiction. I like historical fiction as well. I'm a fan of Diana Galbaldon's OUTLANDER series. I think I've mentioned that before, not sure.

Fiction based in fact can give a story a little more authenticity. Of course, the writing has to be great, too.

Writer X said...

Andrew, with non-fiction, the more bizarre, the better it seems. I say, go for it!

I think the success of books like TWILIGHT and HARRY POTTER have gotten kids hooked on reading, maybe more so than before. Maybe some of those kids wouldn't have become such avid readers if not for those books. While other kids will always be avid readers, regardless of what's on the shelves. Regardless, it's a hot genre at the moment.

HARDY BOYS? I loved those books. And NANCY DREW, of course. I remember many a night huddled underneath a blanket with a flashlight, reading till I got bleary-eyed.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, Believe it not, I wasn't a big reader as a child. That didn't really happen for me until college.

Unknown said...

WriterX: I'm with you on the fiction making the history more interesting. What was interesting about Costain is that he only filled in blanks. One blank he filled in was in the "Princes In The Tower." His research led him to believe that Richard III was not the actual villain he was made out to be, and that he may not even have been the one who had the princes murdered. Today, that theory is accepted by many straight-up historians. His pure fiction was fun, too. "The Black Rose" was made into a movie with Tyrone Power as the star. Unlike Andrew, I spent way too much time reading everything I could get my hands on when I was a kid. It's a good thing I love the beach, or I might never have gotten out of the house.

Writer X said...

LawHawk, Andrew, although this is only my opinion, it does seem that young adult readers (12-18)are mostly girls than boys. Don't know why that is. Young adult books, in fact, cater mostly to girls. Just take a look at the book covers. Middle grade books (9-12)are more even and in fact most MG and chapter/series books appeal to both boys and girls.

Anyway, I spend a lot of time at book stores and libraries. I could probably count on one hand the last time I saw a teenage boy in a bookstore. Again, this is purely an opinion. That said, I come from a family where the men love to read so go figure.

Unknown said...

WriterX: I think part of the thing with boys is that so much of what is written today is aimed at girls, women, or could be considered "girly." SciFi might be an exception, but with all the sci fi and fantasy in movies and computer games, where's the need for boys? It's a shame. For me, I read the historical novels because they had swords, battles and epic sagas. I had already read everything I could find on the Peloponnesian wars by the time I was ten. Of course it didn't hurt that TV at the time was black and white, small-screen, and mostly boring local programming.

MegaTroll said...

Thanks Writer X. I guess literary fiction is in the eye of the beholder?

Writer X said...

MegaTroll, yes, unfortunately, sometimes that is true. It is not as black and white as we'd like it to be.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, It does not surprise me that more girls than boys read. Every girl I knew growing up read all the time, but few boys did.

I tended to skim books more for a long time -- which ironically seems to have helped my ability to reassemble evidence that I get out of order.

The first book to really catch my attention was The Hobbit. That got me into Lord of the Rings and some of Terry Brooks's works (Sword of Shanara and Magic Kingdom for Sale). Which somehow got me into early Stephen King and people like Asimov (The Foundation).

But I didn't start to take reading "seriously" until the end of high school when I started to appreciate Shakespeare and Hemmingway. And then in college, my interest in reading really took off.

Writer X said...

Andrew, there are still more women YA writers than men. Perhaps teenage boys read less is simply because there is less for them to read (that captures their interest).

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, That could well be true. I have similar thoughts about how education works (or doesn't), but that's for another time.

FB Hink said...

Writer X,

I can attest to Harry Potter inducing kids to read again. Both my son and daughter really caught fire with those books. My wife decided to read them to see what they were all about and finally I got hooked. My son in particular has become an avid reader. At 17, he just asked to borrow my copy of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. Thank you Harry Potter.

Writer X said...

FB, the HARRY POTTER books are those wonderful kind of books that adults and kids can both love. Boys, in particular, seem to love Harry Potter. I'm all for getting kids hooked on reading because once they start they won't stop.

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