Literary Vs Genre Fiction: Literary

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So the first writer’s group that I tried to attend, I walked in with the first ten pages of A Guide to a Happier Life.  When people asked me what I had brought, I told them that it was ten pages of a literary fiction piece.  

This was a huge mistake.

I know that now.

I've done my penance and muttered my prayers to the great big absurdity in the sky.

So there’s no need to scold me. I don’t use that phrase anymore. The reason I’d used it in the first place was that it was the phrase someone else had used to describe the book (at that time a work very much in progress).

Half of the group, a total of three people, read through the selection.  One of those was Tina Shelton.  Two of those people gave useful and lovely notes.

The other three groused about words they didn’t know and that they didn’t already know what the story was about.

Well, of course you don’t. You didn’t read the damn thing.

Now, I want to make clear, this book doesn’t use a lot of purple prose. It doesn’t use a lot of fancy words. The characters in the book are modern characters and relatively plain-spoken. There’s certainly no language or grammar here that should be beyond the grasp of writers.

The moral of the story is this: never say “literary fiction.”

If I had told them that it was a contemporary action/adventure, I believe the reception would’ve been much different.

Literature has a touchy relationship with the modern reading public, and that’s largely due to fashion. These days, the fashion tends toward the page-turner, the book that sinks you into the tension and/or action immediately. The reason for this fashion is in part because of the savage conditions at publishing houses, and the cutthroat nature of competition in the slush pile. Junior editors will tell you that it has to grab them in the first chapter, the first ten pages, the first page, or even the first line.

So the conventional wisdom has been to grab the reader by the throat as soon as possible.

And people will tell you that’s what makes a good book. In a way that’s true, I mean the consumer is the arbiter of goodness, ultimately.  

This might all sound like I’m being critical of genre fiction.  I’m not, honestly.  I read both literary fiction and genre fiction.  I also write both.

Back when publishing was less competitive, and when our lives were perhaps not easier but less hectic, the fashion was different. Books were a little slower. Not just hoity-toity books.

That’s the part of this that a lot of people like to overlook. A lot of what we consider literature today was the pop fiction of yesteryear.

I’m not joking!

Plenty of very famous authors, such as Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Upton Sinclair, Tennessee Williams, William S. Burroughs, Jack London, and Arthur Conan Doyle wrote for pulp magazines.  Hell, even Charles Dickens wrote serial fiction intended for the working class masses. And a lot of these famous pulp authors wrote…

You guessed it.  Genre fiction!

Even Shakespeare, perhaps the most influential playwright in all of human history, was not creating high art.  He was writing plays for the great unwashed.

So why do we now assume that “literature” must be handled by MFAs with fancy degrees?

I sure don’t know.

A lot of what we now consider literature would have been classified as young adult fiction if it had been published recently.  So what's the difference?

What will be considered “literature” one or two hundred years from now?

I have no way to know for certain, but a little part of me hopes that it’s work by independent authors that today is selling for ninety-nine cents or cheaper.

One thing I do know.  I’m never saying “literary fiction” ever again.