Thursday, May 28, 2009

On Literary

The word "literary" is really starting to annoy me. I've put off writing this post because the word makes me squirm and cringe. I talked to a friend yesterday who said she doesn't come over here because it's about literary stuff. Imagine my forehead hitting the keyboard . . . afjaklreioqu9

I wrote a post back in February on my writing blog about literary. Reading it now, I'm groaning about my own words. This is what I've thought in the past:

Literary is exhausting. Literary means you look smart, but only appeal to a small group. Literary means you'll never be a hit.

I went on to explain that I know I'm wrong in these assumptions. Of course I'm wrong. When I emailed Scott and Davin about doing a post on "literary" they both said the same thing: It's a pointless discussion. Well, perhaps it is. Scott sent me this in his response:

I like the term "interpretive fiction" rather than "literary fiction" because it emphasises the purpose of the writing rather than the form. Or at least that's what I tell myself. I stole that term from the book "Story and Structure" by Laurence Perrine; it's the text I had in an "Introducion to Fiction" class back when I was a college freshman. He divides fiction into "escapist" and "interpretive" classes, one for entertainment and one for edification, more or less. Naturally, there is overlap between the categories (what's the Iliad, for example?).

Davin has not sent me an explanation yet of literary. Davin, I don't blame you. Nathan Bransford describes literary fiction as:

In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.

He explains that literary fiction moves the conflict and climax in a story through the character's hearts and minds - internal, even if there's external forces. Genre fiction moves the conflict and climax in a story through external forces. "The things that happen are pretty much on the surface, and thus the reader can sit back and watch and see what happens."

Can a book have both elements? Well, of course it can. In fact, most literature that I love has a good mix of both. That's why I'm picky about what I choose to read and why I'm finding it so difficult to write my own book.

So what's with the snakes? Well, literary fiction often seems like one huge pile of snakes, if you ask me. Many people back away from it. It appears inaccessible, frightening, and oftentimes to those who don't wish to untangle it all, a pointless dangerous endeavor better left alone. Maybe for some, it is better left alone, but for others, those snakes can do some pretty cool things, especially under the influence of an expert. You know, one of these guys:

My husband took that picture when he was India a few years ago. I looked at it and said, really? They actually dance to the music? Yep.

In my opinion, literary can't be defined. And I don't think it needs to be. To some people it's a snake - inaccessible and frightening. To some it's a fine chocolate - savored and appreciated. To some it's a report on how a rocket works - just plain confusing and boring. And why is this? Because literary means lots of things applied in many different ways. In the end, to me, literary simply means going beyond the surface. That's it. Some books go deeper than others. Some use more literary conventions than others. The end.

So I should ask my friend if she might be more inclined to come over here if we renamed the blog The Writing Lab. Because that's what literary is - just another convention of writing. And it doesn't have to be scary. Really. Just pick chocolate over snakes.

~MDA (aka Glam)


  1. This is a great post. And I'm so with you. I hate the term literary and that we have to discuss books in terms of genres. It seems everyone has a stereotype about genres (including me), and that just means people don't try to read some awesome stuff because of the category. And, most of my favorite books seem to encompass many genres, and they have literary and commercial elements. I also hate the term commercial. Sounds like if you write commercial fic, you're just selling out. Not true!
    So, I guess the point is to read and write whatever you like and not worry where it fits.

  2. Great post . . . but did you have to include a picture of snakes??

    I absolutely love Nathan's definition, and normally use it in describing what happens in my writing.

    Literary doesn't necessarily mean dull and boring, though that is pretty much the ideal people have of the term. Go figure.

    Thanks for the post and making me feel better about how/what I'm writing.


  3. I always understood the term Literary Fiction to define a work that has more than one layer.

    Danielle Steele, god bless her, is only telling stories.

    A good "lit" book tells a story but subversively tells us something about ourselves.

    If Lolita was written any other way by any other writer it would not be considered one of the greatest novels of all time, it would be considered pornography. And it was for many years.

    I spent five years in an institute of higher learning earning a degree in lit theory so my brain turns to mush whenever I try to define what makes something literary.

  4. Literary has a fuzzy boundary just like everything in this business. It seems very subjective.
    And how funny on the blog name. I never gave it a thought, but I wonder if people do get misdirection.

  5. Literary and snakes? LOL Great post. I agree. When I hear a book is classified as literary fiction, I stay away from it. Nightmares of my lit class in university still haunt me. UGH!

    Lynnette Labelle

  6. Boucher's definition rings true. Like onions -- layers for deeper readers to peel back, and maybe even shed a few tears over?

    I found this helpful too:

  7. I've been developing a new definition for myself, because this is something that I think about often. For me, both literary and non-literary fiction engages the heart. But, the different is that literary fiction engages more of the brain, along with the heart. On the other hand, non-literary, or popular fiction, engages more of the solar plexus along with the heart. It gives you more of that adrenaline rush. I think that's why literary fiction feels more intellectual and popular fiction is more "entertainment."

  8. If a story doesn't both entertain and enlighten me, I'm not interested in reading it--or writing it! The either/or false dichotomy-ish attitude I often hear about that annoys me. I don't think either of those terms should be used to define "literary fiction" anymore than they should be used to describe other genres; those words should be genre-less and story-more.

    Flatness of tone, dialogue and character is my primary complaint about what's commonly called literary fiction. It seems most of the creators either don't have any passion in them so can't write passionately, and/or they polish any passion out in their later drafts, like the writing is terribly overworked. Whatever the cause, the resulting passionless aura both bores me and turns me off.

    I don't pay attention to genre when writing. Each story does its own thing, has its own demands based on the particular story. Only one time did I intend to write a story TO a genre, in science fiction. If people reading want to assign genres to what I write, then that's their prerogative. Some things I leave up to others to do what they feel comfortable with--I'm not about controlling other people's responses. I think declaring a work has a genre more heavily influences how the work will be received--even before the actual text is read.

  9. Davin: That sounds really good, Davin. And I agree. I also think that there's different levels of literary fiction. Some involves different percentages of what you're talking about, I think. Like with Monarch, it's more popular than literary, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have some of those elements that can engage more of the brain. And I also think that good literature works on both levels - some readers choose to focus only on the popular layer and ignore the literary layer. Good fiction, I think, allows a reader to do that. It works on all kinds of layers. If that makes any sense at all.

  10. Reason: You said, "Flatness of tone, dialogue and character is my primary complaint about what's commonly called literary fiction." What's ironic is that this is the complaint readers of primarily literary fiction level against genre fiction. Do you have any examples of "literary fiction" that live up to (or down to) your complaint?

    I tend to think of literary fiction as that writing which is rich in character, tone and dialog.

  11. Michelle: I think good literary fiction, like good genre fiction, must first and foremost be good fiction, by which I mean there has to be an engaging story. Both Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler and Rowling's Harry Potter draw the reader in with the story telling. Calvino adds layers of gorgeous language and threads of imagery and questions basic assumptions of the reader's relationship with the text while telling his story. Rowling concentrates more on asking us to imagine a world of wizards among muggles. They both work as good fiction in the same basic way, but the Calvino book does more than tell a story and has multiple layers of meaning.

  12. Scott: The problem is that readers differ on what an "engaging story" is. I talked with a friend today who thinks The Great Gatsby is an absolutely boring storyline. I think it's fascinating and engaging. Go figure. So, in the end, she thinks The Great Gatsby is overrated and not good, and I think it's brilliant. We're both right because we like what we like. I think this is where we get to the Pointless Discussion area...

  13. If you three write literary fiction, keep the blog title "The Literary Lab." "Literary" isn't a bad word; Wordweb defines it as:

    Of or relating to or characteristic of literature; knowledgeable about literature; appropriate to literature rather than everyday speech or writing

    That makes sense, juste? Plus, "Writing Lab" doesn't pack the same (alliteration) punch.

  14. Justus: Thanks for your input. I was kidding about changing it to The Writing Lab. That would require me to design a new header, and we can't have any of that.

  15. So, you're saying I didn't get your joke, huh?! Well, you are, or, your picture, those snakes aren't real, anyway!

  16. Annie: I'd like to throw genres out the window, but I think that would be throwing some good guidelines and rules out the window, too. In the end, genres help guide us into a certain focus. Focus is good. Stereotyping is bad. I don't like to worry too much about where my book is going to fit. In the end, I just want it to accomplish what I intended and tell the story I imagined in the first place. So much easier said than done!

    Scott: Yes, I had to include a picture of snakes. I love snakes. I had them as pets as a child. Weird, I know. It's also weird that I love Kafka and Faulkner.

    I love Nathan's definition, too. It works for me on so many levels. If only I could magically debunk the idea that literary is always boring.

    BA: I really like your term about the story telling a good story but something subversive about ourselves, as well. And yes, my brain turns to mush writing about all of this, too. That's why I just had to include the snakes.

    PJ: I didn't give the blog name a thought either until my friend said something. It really is all very subjective!

    Lynette: I hope you're willing to try and give "literary" fiction a few chances in the future. I promise some of it is entertaining and fun.

    Angie: LOL! Yes, onions and layers and literary fiction can all make me weep.

    Reason: Do you feel that genre gives any focus at all? I mean, if you were to walk into a bookstore and all the books were just categorized by alphabetical order, you must admit that would be really confusing and hard to find something you love.

    I think that holds at least some sway over how we write, too. I think it has more to do with considering our audience than anything else. Which, for some people, I suppose, doesn't matter when they're writing, but probably means the world when they actually publish and marketing comes into play...

    I agree with Scott B. in his questions for you. Do you have any examples? I think Scott might be addressing this a little bit in his post on Friday, too.

  17. Justus: The snakes in the first picture are wooden. The snakes in the second are real. At least my husband swears the are. He's the one that took the picture.

    I'm sure you got my joke, Justus. You are too brilliant to miss something like that. :)

  18. Justus: How would you describe what type of blogger you are? Because I know you can't possibly fall into any of the categories you listed on your blog. Since I'm sure your last comment is poking fun of that. *soft chuckling*

  19. I can't answer that, unless you ask it on my blog; it would horrify me to take over this post.

  20. Justus: Yes, no taking over. *stern look* - I'll head over to your blog sometime today.

  21. All writing is literary in my humble opinion. Some writing may be more so, but in the end, it's all literary. Hey, guess that means, I write literary MG fiction. COOL!

    Just because some writing has a more commercial feel to it, it still all relates to writing, which is Websters definition of literary.

    Oh and the snakes are just too gross. UGH! :)

  22. I read some literary fiction and, depending on who writes it, I enjoy it. I do not aspire to write literary fiction, though. In fact, I have NO desire to!

  23. It seems a lot of people think authors of literary fiction write to impress others with their command of the English language.

    It seems a lot of people think authors of genre fiction write to entertain others with their cardboard characters and scenes.

  24. ...Yes, I've got examples, take many of the literary works today and I could probably illustrate what I mean, even simply by counting up the usual lack of any punctuation except periods and commas, the lack of adverbs, even adjectives, the lack of much of what makes the English language so versatile, so descriptive, so exciting. Exclamation points are seemingly the greatest heresy--oh the horror! A writer with an actual circulatory system that bleeds when cut--send her to the gallows!

    When sentences are all constructed similarly, with the same punctuation--there's less variety across works, different writers start sounding alike, and each particular work's sentences begin to bleed into another and the overall tone flattens. When characters talk vaguely and never directly as if they're sleep-walking through life, they flatten. When (U.S.) characters all hold the same political views and all live in the same areas (wealthy areas w.r.t. literary fiction) of the country (like N.Y.C., where I'm from BTW), they flatten.

    I do not consider a work's having gorgeous language automatically = a work is literary. To me, literary writing could be writing based in ideas.* A mystery could use gorgeous language, but it could still be mystery writing and not literary writing. I think a significant number of classics don't have what's typically called gorgeous language (e.g., Lady Chatterley's Lover, Good Morning, Midnight), but I still consider them literary works because of their ideas-focus. Literary writing has become waaaaay too much about polishing sentences and waaaaay too little about writing thoughtfully, and using the "best-fit" of language to express that thoughtfulness.

    This is where I disagree with Davin, as I think most literary works today are brain drains, not brain fillers. I don't find them anymore intellectual than commercial bestsellers. Davin's posts indicate a lot of idealism; at this point, I have practically none left!

    But my going into too much detail is outside the scope and tenor of this blog, which is generally pro-literary fiction. I'm not. I'm not pro any genre really. I think they're all flawed, or at least most of the writers writing in them could do better. I have very specific writing tastes; I truly like only very little of what I read.

    I used to write detailed analyses of all this and much more, and they mostly they went unappreciated. Now I work on writing actual fiction more than I talk about writing fiction. At times in the past, I spent too much effort on the latter, to the detriment of my actual work.

    *If more literary writing were based in ideas, I'd read more of it.

  25. Reason Reanimator, I'd like to say that I make a HUGE distinction between modern literary fiction and classic literary fiction. When I say literary, I'm often being too general, and what I should be saying is classic literary fiction. I would tend to agree with you that most of the modern literary fiction I read today is unimpressive. Characters are flat. Writing is mediocre. There are some great exceptions, that I think we disagree on (Everything Is Illuminated, being one of them), but for the most part I'm very underwhelmed by much modern work.

  26. Interesting. This must all be completely subjective, because I find literary fiction engaging and genre fiction less so. That doesn't mean there isn't overlap.

    I think boring literary fiction is bad literary fiction.

    And I have to admit that in my most recent creative writing class, at the beginning, the professor asked how many wanted to write genre fiction, and like half the class did, and she said, ok, you can, and I remember thinking, "Huh? why wouldn't they be able to? What's wrong with genre fiction?"

    But by the end of the class, I literally said to one of my friends, "Now I understand why most professors don't let students work on genre fiction in their courses."

    The literary stuff we workshopped touched on these encompassing human themes, while the genre fiction talked about half human half wolf people climbing cliffs and sword fighting.

    As the professor said, gently, that first day, "The reason some people don't allow genre fiction is because it tends to be more plot focused, neglecting heavy character development."

    I think I agree, in general. Like the lord of the rings movies, which I absolutely detest, and have since high school. I always said, "one thousand fight scenes, one thousand main characters, and no character development."

    But literary fiction can lack character development, in which case I think it's bad writing. Just like Genre fiction can have it, and be good writing.

    I think the distinctions are important, but will always overlap, just like in all art. Most bands these days describe themselves as Indy/alternative/punk or post-progressive/experimental/indy,

    when every single one of those words has 10 different meanings. we use categories to organize our own world and thoughts, so I think they are useful, but what is important is to keep an open mind.

  27. Okay, Davin--then I guess we agree more than I'd thought. I didn't mean to strawman you there, but I wound up doing that--duh. I just really thought you believed that about most of today's literary works, going on many of your posts. I apologize that I assumed something untrue.

  28. C. Elliot,

    It's only fair to bash the Lord of the Rings if you've read the novels. I know, you're saying you don't like the movies, but I'm still saying what I said (assuming it's possible to be saying what one's said).

  29. "Ours in essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We've got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen."


    "The train rattles forward, jostles from side to side, its engine making a sound like the propeller of a plane. The whistle blares intermittently in a minor key. He sits on the left side of the train, the winter sunlight strong on his face. Instructions for removing the window in the event of an emergency, in three steps, are pasted to the glass. Snow covers the straw-colored ground. Trees stand like spears, dried copper leaves from the previous season still clinging to a few of the branches. He sees the backs of houses made of brick and wood. Small snowy lawns. A solid shelf of winter coulds stops just short of the horizon. More snow, possibly heavy, is expected by evening."

    I think both of these examples are beautifully written, and both novels (and both novelists, I dare say) are full of ideas and humanity.

  30. W.r.t. half-human cliff-climbing characters, I look at it this way: that so many writers create characters like this should tell society something, namely that people are longing to break free of the restrictions society often imposes--and they themselves impose--on their behaviors. Humans are animals. We're locked into physical bodies. Some can deny and repress this all they want, but that won't change the reality that will come out somewhere regardless. Whether the creators intend these themes to be in evidence, they do come out in genre fiction quite a bit.

    I typically don't enjoy reading stories like that in specific because they're violent, but in some writings "depth" is less obvious because heavy plotting hides the depth. But that doesn't mean those works don't contain some universal truths or something.

    I've sometimes used Sydney Sheldon's A Stranger In The Mirror as an example; it's full of the usual materialism, shallowness and sexism his books contain, and the plotting moves superfast (I like this actually, and he's one of the few commercial writers I can read repeatedly because his writing rarely slows down and bores me). Nevertheless, I think it's a book above its genre; the story's creepy and unexpected. Reading it gives you a weird feeling--at least it gives me one.

  31. It's possible that there's a lot more "why" in literary fiction and a lot more "what" in genre fiction.

  32. Davin: I think a lot of current books in general aren't very good. Such an observation might tempt one into making claims about the state of writing today, but I think it's just the attribution heuristic in effect: because we can see that there are only a few good books of whatever genre among the piles of bad books today, compared to the list of great books from the past, we think it's significant. But we aren't taking into account that, in Tolstoy's day*, his books were surrounded by crappy books in the shops, too. 100 years from now, nobody will be talking about Stephanie Meyers or Danielle Steele. Only the good stuff will be remembered, and people in 2109 will look back at us and envy our "golden age."

    It's also important to remember that terms like "literary fiction," "commercial fiction," "women's fiction," "science fiction," "historical fiction" and the rest are marketing terms to make lives easier for publicists and bookstores (and likely for book buyers as well).

    All that having been said, I think it's still pretty clear that there is a general distinction between books written primarily to entertain and books written primarily to explore the state of humanity. These classes of books privelige different things, which is not a measure of worth.

  33. "On Literary" or "Watch as I open this big Can O' Worms"


    I like Scott's approach with escapist and interpretive fiction, and I don't care who he stole it from, I'm giving him credit because he is cool.

    It seems that literary writing can be qualified in part by the amount that is not written, i.e. what is left to be inferred by the reader. But we have to draw a line somewhere so we don't relegate Literary Fiction to the writing's version of abstract art.

    My novel is commercial fiction, but there are literary elements to the story, primarily because the themes warrant more thought that what is told directly in the story. Someone once told me that it was "too literary" and that really took me aback!

    The Wikipedia entry Angie posted is very good, I like how it suggests "literary" as a work that could be worthy for a contemporary literary award.

    Or you can go with Cormac McCarthy's viewpoint:

    His list of those whom he calls the "good writers" -- Melville, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner -- precludes anyone who doesn't "deal with issues of life and death." Proust and Henry James don't make the cut. "I don't understand them," he says. "To me, that's not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange."

    (This from a man who once said "teaching writing is a hustle")

    McCarthy info came from this article:

  34. *It's been days since anyone mentioned Tolstoy.

  35. Cashew Elliot, I think you bring up a lot of good points. And, there is good and bad literary writing, just as there is good and bad genre writing. Perhaps we like the genres we like because we are more acquainted with them? I'm sure if I read one hundred science fiction books, I'd think more highly of the great ones, just as when I read one hundred literary fiction books, I think less highly of the bad ones.

    It is subjective on a certain level. I keep get stuck on that, though, because somehow people tend to agree on which books are literary and which are not. It's because of that agreement that I think there must be some sort of definition for the term.

    Reason Reanimator, I think I should be more specific when I talk about literary fiction and stress particulars, whether they be the classics, or the great modern writers who, for me, include Jhumpa Lahiri, Cormac McCarthy, Don Delillo, and Alice Munro.

    Scott, care to cite your references? :)

    Justus, I think you make a good point with your short definition.

  36. Scott, Yes, I'm in total agreement that time has filtered a lot of bad older writing. My favorite critique Harold Bloom says that the only way you can judge the quality of a book is through time. That, at best, we can only guess about modern books. When I talk about the classics, I mean the ones that have lasted and are, perhaps, popular classics.

  37. Davin,

    It's why you call me Genius Bowman. Watch this:

    In literary fiction, ten pages lead up to one sword fight. In genre fiction, one page leads up to ten sword fights.

  38. Yes, Scott, to your first paragraph--I've often pointed out this numbers-thing myself, on both this issue and many others as it's a common general problem when making scientific observations, the self-limiting nature of sample pools being the only pools when the actual total pool population may be much larger. Extrapolating between the two populations, the smaller and the larger, and drawing conclusions about their natures, may be very inaccurate.

    But here's the problem with that idea w.r.t. writing: if you look at even the crappy books from years ago, and compare the quality of that writing to today's writing, those older crappy books were still better than most of the books being published today, at least to me they are. Yesterday's crap is often better than today's good. And I think that's sad.

    But I also think people labored over their writings more; they had no choice. They didn't have computers to make typing them easier. They probably chose their words more carefully. They also didn't have as many distractions for entertainment. They probably were more focused, and therefore more competent.

    For a number of reasons, I don't think much greatness can and will be produced from today's society, in whatever field. But I don't know--maybe I'm wrong. We'll see how society plays out!

  39. Rick, that's a really great point about what's unseen in literary fiction. That's a new way of thinking about it for me. I had read McCarthy's comment before. It was tough for me because I love McCarthy and I think very highly of Proust!

  40. Davin: The first excerpt is from D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover. The second is from Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake.I agree that there is a set of qualities that most acknowledged "literary" novels share. Those are the qualities that usually draw me to these books. The lack of many of those qualities is what keeps me away from a great lot of genre fiction. This all may have more to do with Why We Read than What We Read; we read for different reasons, so we seek out different types of books. Most people read for a variety of reasons and thus read a variety of types of books. But most of us, sadly, will point to types of books we don't read and say, "Ugh. Boring."

  41. Scott, you forgot to mention my brilliance. Also, since you asked, I prefer the excerpt from Lady Chatterly's Lover.

  42. "His list of those whom he calls the "good writers" -- Melville, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner -- precludes anyone who doesn't "deal with issues of life and death. Proust and Henry James don't make the cut. "I don't understand them," he says. "To me, that's not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange."

    --His list also precludes anyone not possessing a penis. Typical. (Though the sexist NYT could be partly responsible there.)

    But then I don't think much of McCarthy's writing either--we do disagree on particular writers, Davin!

    Melville's and Faulkner's writings have never done anything for me. Dostoyevsky does a little though.

    And, to me, strange usually equals good. Why the hell do I wanna read the same-old unstrange stuff all the time? Give me something bizarrely uniquely good to wake me up from the cruel moronic nightmare the real world is! Transport me!

    Geez, what the hell has happened to society? It's like real-life existing in The Night of The Living Dead. Only the living are the REAL dead. They're deader than dead.

  43. Great distinction. I appreciated hearing your thoughts on that. I wouldn't say that I write literary fiction, but I would say that my stories go beyond just pure entertainment value and hopefully carry a message. I would think many books fall into that in between category, and therefore can appeal to a wider variety of people? Maybe, maybe not?

  44. Uncle, I shake my fist at you as I laugh. Fear my puny physique!

  45. Reason: Have you read Burroughs' "The Soft Boys" or "Nova Express?" That's some truly original stuff by a man who could write and had no fear as a writer. It might seem cliche now, as people have been influenced by his work over the years, but he and Brion Gyson did amazing, weird stuff in the 60s and 70s. Though it might be (it's been some time since I read it) really misogynistic. Burroughs didn't think highly of women, as I recall.

  46. Mr. Bailey is too smart for me...I had to read his response to you three times before I understood it - lol!

    Yes, I have a hard time w/ that word because if I tell my friends that my book is 'more literary' they think I'm being a snob and saying it's fancier than it is. *sigh*

  47. No--I haven't read their works. I'll give them a try; I can't know if I'll like something till I try it out. I do make the rare (very rare) exception, like D. H. Lawrence's stuff can be misogynistic, but it's normally a more minor part of his writing. Mostly he writes about beautiful things, love and nature, in beautiful sensitive ways. I'll forgive him a bit of idiocy.

    I did read a bit of Proust's writing at Davin's suggestion, and I liked what I read. But I had to bring the book back to the library and haven't had the time to get back into it. I need longer days--ship me to Venus!


    Robyn: Yes, snakes can be gross. Rest assured the ones in the first picture are not real.

    That's an interesting take to call all writing literary. I don't know if I would go as far as to call ALL writing literary. But I can say that I will usually dig as much as I can to find something literary in everything I read.

    Jill: It appears that you have the aversion to literary that I see most people have. But I'll bet you use some literary techniques in your own writing. ;)

    Justus: "It seems a lot of people think authors of literary fiction write to impress others with their command of the English language.

    It seems a lot of people think authors of genre fiction write to entertain others with their cardboard characters and scenes.Yes, I think it could be seen that way.

    Yes, I think that's a valid distinction.

    Reason: Am I understanding you correctly when you make the claim that most writers these days produce only dead writing? So should I whip out my typewriter to instill some life into my writing? Perhaps I should follow Scott's example and write by hand. I used to. Maybe my writing was better then.

    I think, in the end, it really is all subjective. If a book sells and people read it and the author is happy and the readers are happy, then great. I used to get really angry when I thought about Twilight and how much I hate it, but there's millions out there who love it. It angered me to see how something so mediocre (in my opinion) could do so well - not to mention what it says about our society. Nowadays, I have to stop complaining about it because the anger wasn't getting me anywhere. Who am I to judge Twilight? I’m not making millions, that’s for sure.

    At least with all the BAD writing (what we deem to be bad and is obviously bad) out there, the good writing shines that much brighter - literary or genre fiction, it doesn't matter. Both have the potential to be good.

    C. Elliot: The LOTR movies don't do much justice to the books by way of literary elements, in my opinion. I think many epics might deal with the problem you're bringing up about tons of fighting and not much character development. I think there is some great character development in LOTR. Once again, as you say, subjective.

    And yes, keeping an open mind about all of this is essential.

    Scott B: All that having been said, I think it's still pretty clear that there is a general distinction between books written primarily to entertain and books written primarily to explore the state of humanity. These classes of books privilege different things, which is not a measure of worth.

    I couldn't agree more.

  49. Rick: I think, like abstract art, as you bring up, there's some literary fiction out there that some look at in awe and some say "my five year old could have done that" - it is, as Scott states in one of his comments, what stands the test of time that will be considered art. Of course, even nowadays, people will argue about whether or not classic art is really art.

    Perhaps it is what we see and don't see in writing that makes a difference, as you infer. The more we don't see that is inferred, the more we as a reader must actually think. Imagine that. That's why I like Scott's example of escapist and interpretive fiction. And in the end it's just a matter of taste. I won't say anything about being the correlation I see between laziness and disliking certain genres. My lips are zipped.

    Jody: Absolutely. I do think that most books fall into the middle category. It seems natural for things to settle in the middle. That's probably why I don't fall in love with most fiction I read these days. I like a lot of fiction, but love? I think most of the books I get passionate about are classic literary fiction.

    Tess: Sadly enough, I get the same responses from people. Somebody recently stopped me in the middle of a conversation and asked with her nose all scrunched up, "Well, what IS literary then?" I resorted to my layers analogy and left it at that. I didn't dare point to the book she was holding and tell her it was a good example of what literary isn't. Who am I to claim that, you know?


  50. I think there is great potential for cross-over success between literary fiction and genre fiction, just as many country singers have had success in pop markets.

    Please note: I did not just equate country music to the literary works of the music world. At least not intentionally. Thank you.

    The genre depicts the nature of the story, and the literary quality refers to the nature of the prose. It's possible to write in a genre with the surface appeal / pacing to attract a mass audience but still have enough underlying meaning to satisfy the long term pondering of the more astute intellectuals.

    Every category has the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is as true for literary works as it is for genre fiction (and for music, movies, and other art forms).

    What's more, the rating of good/bad/ugly is largely subjective. I think the Cormac McCarthy quote I posted demonstrates that. No one is going to de-list Proust as literary based on his opinion (did I just hear Davin sigh with relief?).

    Although I don't think anyone could seriously argue that TWILIGHT or THE DAVINCI CODE are literary. I said largely subjective, not entirely...

  51. Rick: Believe it or not, I've been subjected to discussions that argued the literary qualities of Twilight. I have tried to push these discussions completely out of my mind.

  52. The genre depicts the nature of the story, and the literary quality refers to the nature of the prose. It's possible to write in a genre with the surface appeal / pacing to attract a mass audience but still have enough underlying meaning to satisfy the long term pondering of the more astute intellectuals.

    That's exactly what I try to do with my writing. I used to think it was a unique idea. Now, not so much. Oh well.

  53. I once word-processor first-drafted four novels in one year (two could not be saved, the other two were in revision for a long time after that). How someone could do that by hand or on a manual typewriter--that seems kinda impossible to me.

    I used to think writing that came too slowly usually wound up as bad writing. Now I think that writing should ideally come neither too slowly nor too quickly. It should take a moderate, almost regular amount of time for each writer; I guess I approach writing more like a science than an art because of my background.

    I think the best writing is and was labored over, like a lot. Computers generally make writing too easy--and too clinical. Don't get me wrong: if you've got health issues, computers are fantastic.

    At the same time, a writer must keep in mind that text can be cut-and-pasted with ease, revisions can be done in seconds, and I think this too often leads to overpolished passionless and, yes, dead works. I'm speaking from experience here as I long ago noticed what would happen in my own writing when I wasn't careful and it was in revision for forever. Computers make that in-revision-forever state too easy for too many writers.

    I prefer flawed diamonds over flawless diamonds; it's just the way I am. Flaws often create uniqueness.

    Whenever I hear people say "Writing comes so easy to me," I feel like screaming at them. Writing should be TOUGH, period. If it's not tough, you've not gone deep enough.

    At least this is my opinion and experience: almost always, the best responses to my own work, the highest praise came on the toughest stories to write. I thought and wrote my butt off, and even contemplated suicide sometimes during the works; this kind of crap is why I don't like writing very much. I mean, I do it because it's an addictive fever now and I have no choice, but writing rarely makes me happy. I think it's hard work for which a writer rarely gets paid. Most days I ask myself: why do I bother anymore?

  54. Michelle:

    I think this can o' worms has a lot of nutritional value. This is one of the most active threads I've seen on this blog since started following it. It's a topic that will never have harmonious agreement, but should it? Part of the fun is to intellectualize the merits of an unattainable answer, you know.

    Imply vs. Infer

    Imply refers to the meaning the writer intends the reader to pick up on, infer refers to the actual meaning the reader derives.

    In effective communication and genre storytelling, they should line up 1 to 1 - you infer what I implied in my writing.

    What many seem to crave out of literature is a 1 to Many relationship, where the implication is there, but there are many ways one may infer adjunct meaning from a work.

    In bad writing, the reader missed the implied point entirely. Or that could be an idiot reader, it depends.

  55. Reason: Thank you for some good points on the technology end of things. I agree. I never thought of the computer as being the reason many writers are overpolishing and overediting their work. But I think it is a valid point to consider. I know that I edit more now than I did back in high school when I had to edit everything by hand.

    I do have to address one thing you say, though - about having no choice whether you write or not. Are you serious? I get annoyed when people say stuff like that. Of course you have a choice. It's not a bodily function, by any means, although many writers say that it's as essential as breathing. But I think that since it is THAT important to you, you love it more than you're letting on here. If it truly made you miserable, why on earth would you keep doing it?

    Okay, sorry, just questions we can discuss further in emails. *grins*

  56. Lady, I know what you mean when people say writing-is-like-breathing, but that honestly doesn't apply to me as that's not what I mean. Seriously: I've repeatedly tried to quit writing and I. cannot. quit. At this point I really do have no choice but to keep writing. If I said I could stop, I'd be lying! The evidence that I can't make myself stop is all over the place.

    Honestly, I wish I could. For brief periods I worked just as hard at quitting as I'd previously worked at writing, and I almost quit...but I just couldn't do it permanently. I know some writers have been able to quit for forever--only they're not me. And vice versa.

    I'm serious when I use the word addiction; I think writing can become an addictive response just like anything else in life. It seems I need to write for certain psychological reasons, but I just don't enjoy having the need. Nor the process very much.

    But you may be right--maybe part of me loves it in some ways. It is just hard to see those ways.

    Yes about email being better for this stuff--don't want to talk about me here. I'll get back to the general discussion now! I mean if I have anything else to add....

  57. It's splitting hairs in some aspects. White Oleander was considered literary fiction because of the art of the prose and clearly it had a distinctive plot you could boil down into one sentence. 'A girl goes into the foster care system after her mother is imprisoned for murder." Some novels are character driven and some are plot driven. The literary title can be given to both. Just because you have a plot driven storyline doesn't mean you can't use beautiful, thoughtful or artistic words.

  58. Gawd...that snake looks like it was after your hubby! I would have taken the pic from across the street with a telephoto lense. Yikes...

  59. I like snakes. Snakes have a bad reputation that is, for the most part, undeserved. Sure, some are venomous and may bite you if you invade their personal space, but the same can be said for some people. I'm starting to think literary fiction has a similarly undeserved bad reputation, and I wonder why that is.

    I wasn't very familiar with the term before Michelle sparked this debate. If I'm reading you all correctly, the general concensus is (in very broad terms) literary fiction is brain food, while genre fiction is brain candy. I think I understand it better now, and I thank you all for your insights.

    I have questions. Why is literary fiction avoided like a snake pile? Why would someone be afraid of it? Are they afraid they won't understand it, and don't want to feel stupid? Is it that hard to read? Or is it because literary fiction caries a stigma placed upon it by education? We were forced to read it by teachers, so it must be bad? *scratches head*

    Is this a pointless debate? Heavens, no! Was a definitive conclusion reached? No, not so much, but that doesn't matter. Opinions were formed and shared, some people (me included) learned something new, and that is never pointless. Thanks for opening the can of worms/snakes/whatever! I appreciate it!

  60. Reason: When you say it's an addiction, that does make more sense. It's not like there's therapists or help out there to get you off of writing if it's ruining your life (is there?) Like heroine or something. Yikes. I hope it's not THAT serious. I see that you posted over on your blog about this. I'll go check it out a little bit later.

    T. Anne: I agree. Nate made this point in his lovely post - that no plot doesn't mean literary and vice versa. That's a silly ridiculous notion to think literary means dry and boring and all character driven. That's not the case that I've seen in my reading. Just go look in the literary section at the bookstore. In my opinion, there's all sorts of exciting work in that area. My heart starts pounding just thinking about it... yeah. So now you see why I avoid the book store. It's to benefit my already empty wallet. :)

    Traci: He did take it far away. He was on a bus. Hehe.


    Why is literary fiction avoided like a snake pile?

    I used that analogy because as you can see, there's some awfully strong feelings for the subject. Some people really hate literary fiction - or what I think they THINK literary fiction is: dry, boring, inaccessible writing that if approached too closely might cause some sort of harm. Seriously, I see people react this way. It's weird.

    Why would someone be afraid of it?

    Because they don't understand it.

    Are they afraid they won't understand it, and don't want to feel stupid? Is it that hard to read? Or is it because literary fiction caries a stigma placed upon it by education? We were forced to read it by teachers, so it must be bad?

    Yes to all of those. Either they don't understand it or they don't WANT to. Or it simply doesn't appeal to them. Many people read to escape. And when you're faced with a piece of writing that demands you to think in order to enjoy it, that's no fun at all.
    Well, to them.

    Actually, I sometimes wish I was like this. If I could just enjoy straight genre fiction more and turn off my brain - stop digging for more layers and meaning - I might enjoy reading a lot more stuff. I'm sometimes very jealous of people who don't read or write what I describe as literary fiction. This is my own fault, as I decided to be an English major and get even more passionate about classics and literary stuff. It's in my blood, I guess.

    Literary fiction does NOT have to be that hard to read. Really, if it's well written, you can go as deep as you want and enjoy it at any level.

    Yes, to the last part of your question. I think that literary carries a huge stigma placed upon it by many educational systems. "We have to read Macbeth? AND understand it? AND write an essay? Well, crap, that's no fun." And bam, suddenly all fiction that even looks remotely like someone could write an educational essay on it becomes bad. This is, of course, my own opinion after a long day of frying my brain.

  61. Rick: Those are excellent points. I never expected to reach any sort of consensus on this topic. I just thought it would be fun to get up a discussion and actually have something to link to when people ask what literary means. I can say, "Here, go read all of this. Have fun deciphering it all!"

    I believe literary is hard to define because it means so many different things. And it is also very subjective. Anything like that is bound to get heated arguments and confusion.

    I like your comment on inferring many different meanings from a work. That, to me, is one of the most exciting things about reading a literary piece of writing. I can bring so much to it and take as much from it as I like. There's always something more...

  62. When I read the Hobbit at a very young age (elementary school) I really liked it.

    when I read the first book of the Lord of the Rings as a high school student I liked it somewhat, but less so. Then the movie sealed the deal.

    But this pretty much shows a trend for me away from one genre and toward another. I grew up reading genre fiction. It's not that I grew "out" of it; I just got into other stuff.

  63. C. Elliot: As much as I hate to admit it, I don't like much fantasy writing at all. Something about imagining myself in another world that's not MY world here just turns me off. I have no idea why. However, I'm trying to read more and more fantasy, and even a little bit of sci-fi. *gasp* I'm always willing to try a nibble.

    You nibbled Tolkien and didn't like it. If you don't like it you don't like it. So what is the other stuff you got into? *wonders if you love the same stuff I do...*

  64. Lady, when you say "Yes to all of those. Either they don't understand it or they don't WANT to."--I think when you keep emphasizing this, it sounds as if you're faulting readers. That may not be your intent, but this reminds me of the big problem I think many people have with literary fiction: literary writers must stop blaming readers for not "getting" works, for not liking them, and start blaming the writers themselves.

    To me, readers aren't obligated to understand anything; writers must convince readers to understand. 75-90% of the work in reading a piece of writing should be done by the creators of that writing, NOT by the readers. I think more writers should heed the maxim/quote that easy reading is hard writing and hard writing is easy reading. If writing is too hard to read, the writer probably didn't write hard enough. Talking down to readers won't necessarily make them look up to writers.

    I've done advanced math and physics. I get tired of the implications that because I (and others) think Ulysses is really overrated, I'm just not smart enough to understand it. How about I can't understand it because it's not understandable, because it's largely gibberish, because maybe Joyce missed the goals he set out to achieve? I think that like others of its kind, this work has been dubbed "genius" simply because it's not understandable to so many. But gibberish disguised as genius is still gibberish.

    When you say you can't imagine yourself in something that's not your world--all fiction is fake by definition, all fictional worlds are fake. Why is one kind necessarily better than another?

    If you can imagine yourself in Crime and Punishment or Kafka's The Trial, you should be able to imagine yourself in Primary Inversion, Frankenstein, The Illustrated Man, or whatever other good science fiction book. Use the same principles for reading both types. Both Crime and Punishment and The Trial have fantastical elements to me because of the abnormality of the worlds, because of their one-sided-against-the-protagonist distortions. Fantastical worlds tend to be skewed like this thematically--well, GOOD QUALITY fantastical worlds.

    Oftentimes in the universe, if an observer is looking for something, she'll find it. If you (impersonal) don't believe nonliterary writing will have depth, you'll be less likely to find any depth there. Approach this writing with a more open mind. Each book is its own world; first open the cover and then see how it speaks to you.

    In my opinion, for what it's worth, that commercial writing is easy writing is a myth just like there are myths about literary writing. Writing in a pared down simple fashion that moves forward at a brisk pace without sidetracking-philosophical, all while being highly entertaining--that writing isn't easy. There probably are more good literary novels than there are good commercial novels, not because literary writers are necessarily better writers but because commercial writing may be tougher to execute well by nature.

    I think commercial writers could learn from literary writers, and so could literary writers learn from commercial writers. Most of each don't seem to though. This is why I'm more inclined to read works that fall outside these genres and into their own kind. Or the rare works that combine both.

  65. I think literary is wonderful in that everyone can interpret it differently. Great post!

  66. CashewElliot Quote: "As the professor said, gently, that first day, "The reason some people don't allow genre fiction is because it tends to be more plot focused, neglecting heavy character development."

    This reminded me of why, as a writer, I refused to enter an MFA program, and am seeking a degree in History instead.

    To equate all writing with Writing Deep Characters is flawed; it unnecessarily narrows the purpose of prose. Certain genres do not ask what does it mean to be Mr. Joe Specific Brown, but rather, what does it mean to be human? This is no less deep a question, but it is tackled in a completely different form, disguised, perhaps as, wolf-men scaling cliffs, or hobbits destroying a magic ring.

    (An aside: If Time is a Test of greatness (though this is disputable), I believe Tolkien has passed. Perhaps a mere six decades is not long enough for some. I am willing to bet that his work will still be beloved ten centuries from now.)

    Multiple methods of inquiry are beneficial, I think. This goes beyond saying tastes differ. I am saying I think we, as readers, should actually push ourselves to read outside our comfort zones. I often find it ironic that fans of literary works deride readers of genre fiction for being too shallow and superficial, yet quickly put down an sf book because the concepts are too difficult to understand all at once.

    Here, I'll take the devil's advocate position to Reanimator, and say, maybe literary writers are right to accuse readers of being lazy. Ask yourself as a reader, honestly: isn't there a difference between putting a book down because it is too predicable, and putting a book down because it is too challenging? The fault of the former lies in the author, but the fault of the latter? But what's good for the goose is good for the gander.

    I admit, it took me a long time to appreciate the value of literary fiction, perhaps because, as a lover of epic fantasies and sf, I was so defensive against attitudes like those in MFA programs, I adopted preemptive contempt. And, to be fair, perhaps I WAS lazy, preferring my own comfort zone rather than a challenge.

    This was my loss. There are, I now believe, certain themes, certain perspectives, which do require a literary approach. Deep character development may be one (although I believe not even all literary is focused only on Character stories).

    Indeed, one of the strengths I see in Literary, as a genre, is precisely its elastic nature. One could write a literary story which, on the surface, also fits some other genre. (Just as one could write a Middle Grade story in any genre.)

    I suspect, Lady Glamis, this is ultimately the approach you are angling at for Monarch; one which I, personally, would be most appropriate, given what you've said about finding your voice and your goals for the novel.

    Davin and Justus: I loved both of your definitions.

  67. Lady Glamis: "Something about imagining myself in another world that's not MY world here just turns me off. I have no idea why."

    I find this fascinating, actually, because it feeds a theory I've been nursing. Ooooh, I feel a post topic coming on. Have you filled your Epic Fantasy slot for the blog yet? *waving hand wildly* Me! Me! Pick me!

  68. Reason:

    I apologize for posting this 3 times. Blogger and HTML hate my formatting apparently, and I found a few things I wanted to edit. Here we go:

    I never meant to talk down to anybody. You said:

    If writing is too hard to read, the writer probably didn't write hard enough.

    I said:

    Literary fiction does NOT have to be that hard to read. Really, if it's well written, you can go as deep as you want and enjoy it at any level.

    What I said in my comment to Becca seems to be the very thing that you're explaining in an attempt to prove me wrong? Change my opinion? I'm not sure. Either way, I hold to my claim that literary fiction goes beneath the surface. And based on this opinion, I believe it requires more work on the reader's part to appreciate it on ALL of its levels.

    When I say that readers are afraid of literary fiction because they don't understand it or don't want to understand it, I don't mean to talk down to readers. I phrased it in a poor manner, yes. Sorry. What I mean is that I think readers back away from what they don't understand - the premise of literary fiction. Not the fiction itself. The stigma. The confusion. The ENTIRE can of worms displayed today here in the comments section.As you say, readers aren't obligated to understand anything they read. But if you're implying that writers should write their works in such a way that they shouldn't pose any sort of challenge to a reader, I'm disturbed. I believe that good literary fiction can be easy reading on one level and a challenging read on another. Challenging, as in giving me something to sink my teeth into. Going deeper. Giving me more and more to discover every time I read it.

    So, sure, the reader isn't OBLIGATED to dig deeper. But that certainly does not mean that the depth can't be there. Perhaps some of the problems we see in literary fiction today is that some of it is all depth and no easier layers. That, I must agree, is a problem, and usually does merit some question on whether or not the writer is laying down gibberish, as you say.


    You said:

    When you say you can't imagine yourself in something that's not your world--all fiction is fake by definition, all fictional worlds are fake. Why is one kind necessarily better than another?

    Why is one kind necessarily better than another? I NEVER said that. I just said I didn't like that type of world - the one that's not my reality here on earth as it is now. Real-life fiction. Whatever you want to call it. Fantastical worlds rarely intrigue me. That's my opinion. I never said that one type of world is better than the other.

    I happen to like and appreciate both Frankenstein and Crime and Punishment, and I do use the same principals for reading both types of worlds. "Opening my mind" is not the issue. It's just a matter of liking a world more closely related to my own than another, and that's it.

    And just to clarify: I don't believe I, or Davin or Scott, ever claimed that literary fiction is better than any other kind of fiction. Or that's it's easier to write. It's just a type of fiction. Period.

    I believe, just as you are entitled to value certain genres (or non-genres as you stress) over others, we're entitled to value literary fiction over other types. It's just what we like, so of course we're going to be more pro-literary here.

    Reason, I just want you to know that I really do appreciate your comments over here. You make me, at least, think twice and more deeply about my opinions and thoughts and words. Thank you for all your comments today. :)

  69. Tara: It is way too late for me to answer intelligently to your comment. But I did read it, and I agree with your points. I also think that, yes, this is exactly what I am angling for in Monarch. And it's a huge challenge.

    And yes, I'll just say it here an now that I think laziness has a little bit to do with people not liking some literature - whether it be literary or not. I admit I was lazy all through high school because I hated Shakespeare and was too lazy to figure him out. Now I'm married to somebody who quotes him all the time and knows his plays inside and out. Well, I appreciate it now. I got over that laziness quickly.

    Oh, your post about epic fantasy should be good. Just understand that I mean that I prefer real-world stories to fantasy stories/worlds. I don't mean to say that one is better than the other. It's like a food preference. I love green olives and hate yogurt. *shrugs*

    BJ: Well, that's the point I wanted to make. Thanks for stating it so succinctly!

  70. Don't worry, Lady Glamis, I know you are not the sort to engage in genre bashing.

    I feel the exact inverse: it's harder for me to work up interest in a story set in "Mundania" (fantasy nerd slang for the Real World) than in another world. Why is this? I don't blame books set in the real world; it's something in me.

  71. Reason, I think you missed the point. I was asking why *readers* shy away from literary fiction. Glam merely answered my question. If you like, I'll ask some questions about writers of literary fiction so Glam can fault them, too. I'm an equal oportunity faulter. :D

    Also, ~*TOLSTOY!*~

    That's for you, scott g.f. bailey!

  72. 74 comments? Apparently the name isnt scaring off as many people as you think. lol.
    I say write what you want you snake charmer you :)

  73. "Just understand that I mean that I prefer real-world stories to fantasy stories/worlds."

    I'm almost offended by this (perhaps unreasonably so). First, the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings took place on Arda (i.e., Earth); second, I think when droves of "fantasy" authors turned to Earth for assistance, it drained their creativity and their readers' imaginations.

    Recently I told Bailey how C.S. Lewis used alien races and alien settings to shed new light on humanity. I was referring to his novel Out of the Silent Planet, but he may have done the same with Narnia and other novels. I wouldn't know.

    If we accept fantasy at all, let us accept it fully.

  74. Justus: Oh heavens!!!!!! I never said you or I can't accept fantasy fully! Where did you get that from? I actually really LOVE LOTR. But I'm not intrigued by much fantasy or sci-fi. Why is that such a big deal? If it doesn't fascinate me, I can't really help that too much. I'm still trying to like it. I just prefer to read about stories that aren't set in a fantasy or sci-fi world. It's a preference. An opinion that I'm entitled to.

    Please don't get offended that I don't love fantasy and sci-fi. I don't get offended when people don't like what I like.

  75. Imagine me with teeth and claws. Scared yet?

  76. Tara: Well I'm glad you're not getting offended by my preference. Yay!

    Karen: I knew this would happen. Scott and Davin warned me. But I don't think this has all been in vain. I thought I was pretty clear in saying that I think "literary" applies to most writing. It has been interesting to see the reaction to that.

  77. Ha ha. Perhaps I should have said "fangs," since I already have teeth. Man, I blew my chance to intimidate you.

  78. Your terror pleases me. But keep in mind I never said you offended me; I used one of them there adverb fellers for a reason.

  79. Justus: Okay, the adverb clears you of all fault. "ALMOST" and "UNREASONABLY" are quite clear. I'll keep my claws retracted, thank you. :)

  80. I forgive you for nearly tearing me to pieces, for my eyes did witness the recent assault on your character: the "schizophrenia" ordeal.

    The reason I almost felt offended (ha ha) is because of how many times I've read "only accepts urban fantasy," "not interested in fantasy stories requiring a map," etc. Darn those insular agents!

  81. Justus: Okay, that makes sense. I like some fantasy over real-world fiction. I like most real-world fiction over fantasy. In the end, it just matters if I like the setting and characters and prose. If it all works together there's a chance I'll love it. Of course, the writer doesn't have much control over whether or not the reader will love the setting. I can't stand most stories set in a high school setting, fantasy or real-world. Because I hated high school and would rather not even go into that realm of my brain and memories.

    Anyway, yes, I can see why you get uptight over so many agents not accepting sci-fi and fantasy, or specific types of it. It doesn't seem fair that they judge the genres right off the bat. I think that's one of the bad sides of genre - it can invite blind judgment so easily. Although I'm sure those agents have received enough of one type of submission that there's a reason they say no up front. :(

  82. Justus: But I also must ask you why you get uptight over agents only taking specific types of fantasy? Is it because it's not your type? They're just selling what they know they can sell, I'm assuming. I don't think it's a blatant stab at other types that they don't represent. Still, I see why it's very frustrating. I have a feeling I'll have a very hard time finding an agent to represent my work because it's not going to fit into a specific type of genre. At least I think it won't. I might be proved wrong. :)

  83. I suppose their stance makes sense; it's not as if The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia did well when filmized. Durn 'em!

  84. I think a lot of agents are unwilling to accept high fantasy for the same reason they are unwilling to accept literary fiction: it might tax readers' brains. I mean, oh my flip, what if they have to imagine places other than New York City, London, Paris, etc.?!

  85. Lady, my post wasn't an attempt to prove you wrong, but to explain something, and make you question and then try something else--that's all.

    From Tara: "Ask yourself as a reader, honestly: isn't there a difference between putting a book down because it is too predicable, and putting a book down because it is too challenging?"

    --No, not to me. Books aren't marathons. I want to be enlightened by them, not exhausted by them. But if I want to be exhausted intellectually, I'll pick up a textbook because that's what textbooks are for. Fiction writing shouldn't masquerade as nonfiction; fiction will probably never cut the mustard there! Fiction masquerading as nonfiction is poor writing to me (and vice versa). These are two entirely separate writing ways with different demands, the latter actually making the most demands on both writers and readers, in my opinion.

    The arts can be waaaaay too arrogant. I really think fiction writers need to get over themselves and stop thinking their doing rocket science when they aren't. The world probably won't end if whatever story doesn't get read a certain way, but many people might get killed if engineers make design mistakes.

    I try to keep writing in perspective; it shouldn't be a contest to figure out who's a more serious writer, who's more devoted to "the word," whose writing is deeper, and all that kind of crap. Writers should just write and readers should just read. Reading and buying art is a choice people make--and today people probably have fewer choices because economies around the world are tanking and discretionary income is lacking. Insulting readers is unlikely to make them read more.

    And I still object to this "too challenging" notion. I always assume readers are smart enough and eager enough to handle anything I could push their way. At the same time, if I want my meanings to be clear, I must write clearly. Even genius readers can be tripped up by crappy prose. I shoot for my doing 90% of the reading work inside my writing; when I've gotten responses on my fiction, I've typically gotten thoughtful ones that made me think, and often from people who weren't "intellectuals." People have repeatedly told me my writing has made them think, my nonfiction writing too. It just doesn't always make them think positively towards me--that's been my biggest challenge.

    But this is another thing I think too much fiction is about and, yes, literary fiction seems more guilty of this: writers thinking they can outsmart readers. Like because they want to be dubbed misunderstood geniuses, some writers don't want readers to understand their works, so they intentionally try to write "above" readers. I find this silly. Technically, fiction creators are always above readers with respect to creations because creators have inside knowledge readers don't possess. Reading this arrogant writerly rank being pulled inside actual text--that really turns me off. I bet it turns off other readers too.

    Again, keep things in perspective. Writing a story where you (impersonal) make all the rules and explain all the ideas and are in the driver's seat--this doesn't automatically show intellectual superiority, or even intellectualism. It does show control-freakness. And inside knowledge. Not that I mean writing a story isn't hard work--it certainly is, especially writing a decent one! But I disagree with the seeming notion (mostly bandied about by the arts) that writers tend to be intellectual, more intelligent. I think writers tend to think about life more than less creative people, but that doesn't necessarily mean writers think more logically or have more wisdom.

  86. From GlassDragon: “Reason, I think you missed the point. I was asking why *readers* shy away from literary fiction.”

    --I didn't respond to you, so I don't get what you mean here. But, anyway, I gave reasons why I think some readers avoid literary fiction. I keep giving them. If people don't agree with those reasons, they don't agree....

    One last thing. Sometimes the more meaning you try to give a written work, the less meaning it winds up having because that work becomes too convoluted, too busy. There may be upper limits to how many levels sentences, paragraphs and whole works can be written on before they devolve into too ambitious overwritten gibberish.

    I'm a very allegorical writer; I've always got multiple issues going on in my works. However, I control this: I intentionally create upper limits because I'd rather have fewer levels done very well than more levels done not so well. Sometimes it's true that less really is more!

  87. I think this is the key: fantasy, literary, sf, these all tax readers brains, albeit in different ways. And some readers find the taxes higher than they're willing to pay. Nothing wrong with this.

    I used to take the approach I would submit to any agent who expressed even the remotest interest in fantasy; as long as they didn't expressly say, "No fantasy or sf, please!" or "Anything but elves and spaceships!" I'd send it in.

    Now I take the opposite approach. I want an agent who genuinely enjoys and undertstands the genres I'm comfortable in. I'm *glad* agents are honest about their preferences. Readers have preferences, and agents should too.

    There are certain fantasy settings which I've seen so often they bore me now, and others I've never cared for to begin with, so I have no trouble sympthathizing with someone who might feel that way toward the entire genre. There are entire genres I actively avoid(Westerns, Horror), and others I just don't lavish money on.

    And tastes change. I used to LOATHE the Romance genre. Now I'm published in it. It helped when the feminist movement finally permeated the genre, so part of of it was a change in the genre itself, but part of it was my own changed understanding of what I wanted to get out of this kind of book.

  88. This "stop thinking their doing rocket science when they aren't"

    should be this "stop thinking they're doing rocket science when they aren't."

    I got like two hours of sleep last night!

  89. The thing is, Reason, no matter how clearly one writes about lifeforms on a neutron star (Dragon's Egg by Robert Forward), the reader is still going to have to invest in understanding enough about the nature of gravity and spacetime to make sense of the plot, or appreciate the coolness of the idea. Some readers just aren't willing to the mental work to do that. Obviously, hard sf like this is going to be more accessible to readers who already have studied non-fiction texts on the underlying subjects, but other readers can still enjoy it if they put some work into it.

    I'm not a physicist, but I enjoy hard sf. Yes, I do find it burns more calories to read hard sf than a Regency romance. I can read Barbara Cartland inattentively; I cannot so read Greg Egan.

    I don't think Egan is trying to confuse me. On the contrary, he labors to make difficult concepts as transluscent as possible. But difficult concepts are still difficult, and I, for one, would not want them dumbed down. This has nothing to do with authorial snobbery; I'm speaking here as a reader.

  90. Reason: I've tried to keep myself from saying this, but it's hard to keep myself from thinking that you want your fiction spoon-fed to you. That's fine for some fiction, I think, but the world be a sad place indeed if all the classic literary fiction on the shelves didn't present some sort of challenge to its readers.

    And yes, I think some of those authors actually wrote their fiction as a challenge - not to confuse and intimidate readers, but to help them grow as writers and thinkers and people. Their work, amazingly enough, has lasted through time. There's something to be said about that, I think.

  91. ...Tara, we're kind of talking at cross-purposes. I see it as some writers just aren't willing to do the mental work to write clearly and understandably. Both need to do work, readers and writers; I just feel writers should do the most.

    And just like I think people shouldn't live above their means, writers shouldn't write above their means. Some writers do not have the mental capability to write about astrophysics in either a nonfictional or fictional way.

    Too many science fiction writers do not understand real science, nor do they know how to explain it so have no business writing it. I have a background in science and even I don't feel comfortable writing science textbooks disguised as science fiction; I think doing that's irresponsible.

    IMO, the best science fiction writers, the ones who write the most character-driven, not-textbooks works--they tend to be those who've had real science experience. Catherine Asaro is one of them. John E. Stith is another. your post is kinda implying I'm juvenile intellectually as a reader? Do you not see what I mean about talking down to readers?

    IMO, more classics are enlightening rather than exhausting. Ulysses is on the exhausting end, but most are not like Ulysses to me. I generally find classics straightforward clear reading, and this is why I think they lasted--because they're actually very basic writing about life that could be read by humans at any time simply because they're human.

    I just don't find most classics very interesting because of their specific contents (e.g., they're often misogynistic). Nevertheless, most of my favorite books are considered classics.

    And there's a big difference between wanting to be enlightened but not wanting to be exhausted, and wanting to be "spoon-fed." If people can't see all the middles between those two extremes, then my discussing this is over.

    Actually, yeah, I'm done with this discussion. It does seem pointless now.

  92. Reason: Nope, not trying to talk down to you. I was just saying that your term EASY reading sounded a lot like spoon-feeding to me. Now that you introduce the word "enlightening" into the mix, your meaning makes more sense.

    Sometimes I like a piece of literature to exhaust me. But that's just me. :)

    Okay, pointless discussion over.


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