Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Selling Literary Fiction

Dear Ms. Rejecter,

You must help me, for I am incredibly saddened after reading over your archives, notably the Wed. October 11, 2006 entry concerning "literary fiction," which you call "unpublishable."

If I had to classify my work, it would certainly fall into the category of "literary fiction." I do not write Fantasy or Sci-Fi or Romance or Dan Brown-style commercial novels. I want to write literature; and I say that without a pretentious bone in my body.

For example, the novel I'm working on now is set in the Arab world and follows the relationships between multiple families just before the country's revolution, touching on political and religious themes. It is highly influenced by "Anna Karenina" - at least in my own mind. Can this type of literary fiction be published?

If not, how is it that people like DeLillo, Pynchon, Roth, Morrison, Updike, etc. - all contemporary authors whose work is by and large considered "literature" as opposed to commercial fiction - being published? How do Jonathan Franzen and others make it happen?

This is the part where I backpedal and try to explain the huge generalizations I usually make in an attempt to answer unanswerable questions. I've contradicted myself probably half a dozen times by now (Uh, please don't go actually counting...). Nonetheless I will foolishly attempt to answer your question.

As your last paragraph seems to imply, we'll go with the basic assumption that there is a clear definition between "commercial" fiction (here, meaning genre fiction) and "literature" that will be read and discussed and analyzed by lit majors for generations to come. I'll be honest when I say I don't think anyone in higher education will be pulling apart the symbolism in the Dragonlance novels, so you have a point there, but that line is really not terribly clear. People cross it all the time.

The direct answer to your question is not that "literary fiction" or "literature" is unpublishable. It clearly is. You just named six authors who publish what is considered "literary fiction" by people who make these considerations and who have been rather successful financially in the past two years. It doesn't mean all those novels are great - some of them were really riding on the author's reputation for sales more than their particular quality - but they were high lit and they sold, even if they might have had rambling and confusing contemporary/weirdo non-contemporary plotlines or no plotlines at all.

That said, great literature is very, very hard to write. It's even harder to publish. For all they're worth, the Dragonlance novels have a built-in set of readers who are going to buy the next book. A new author does not and is going to rely on the publishing company's faith in him/her and put a lot of money behind publicity to even get it noticed. And of the ones that do get noticed, they're usually noticed because they're so high quality that they win Pulitzers (Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections lost to Empire Falls by a couple votes. I know this because I know someone who was on the Pulitzer committee that year. It was in the final round).

Taste aside, these people are good. These people are, arguably, the best writers in our generation in terms of "high literature." Not necessarily in terms of plot, structure, comprehensibility, or reader enjoyment, but they are what "the literary world" deems as the best of the best. And they're the only literary fiction writers you've heard of.

That's how hard it is to make it in literary fiction. Good luck.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections lost to Empire Falls by a couple votes."

Interesting. It should have lost by a landslide, IMO.

Richard said...

I think it really boils down to, Give people what they want, not what you think they need or want.

It doesn't really matter if it is for the mewling masses or the snotty nosed elite, they will only indulge themselves with what they want, not what you want them to want.

With that in mind, I think The Secret is probably the sequel to The DaVinci Code - a lot of pap wrapped up in conspiratorial suppression. I predict the next runaway bestseller will be the titled:

When the Truth is Found to be Lies
(and all the joy within you dies.

A story which reveals the conspiracy, by shadowy organizations, to keep you misinformed about everything. And what I write will not be true, it will be all made up, thus furthering and reinforcing the truth of said conspiracy. You can trust me, I'm lying.

Dr. Hack said...

Literary fiction is for losers who like crawling around on their knees eating other men's meat twinkies at dreadful literary get together cluster fucks on the East Coast, where a bunch of assholes sit around congratulating themselves on what vapid twats they are.

Marissa Doyle said...

Don't forget Mark Helprin and Kazuo Ishiguro. They're considered "literary" but they're also intensely readable, and do have plot and structure and comprehensibility that are breathtaking (Helprin's prose style is unparalleled, IMO. I'd sell my soul to write like that). Their work speaks to the human condition in general through the medium of story. They also sell well. So where does that put them?

This has been a popular topic in the writerly blogsphere, hasn't it?

Kanani said...

I read the gamut.

I agree that much of what is classified as literary fiction today is stuff that's pushing the boundaries. It isn't necessarily enjoyable to read, have a good plot line or compelling characters, but it does play with language and structure.

Thomas Farber, Don Delillo, poet Jeffrey McDaniels, playwright Jose Rivera are some of those who follow their own internal beat. This doesn't even include the influence of editors like Gordon Lish.

We need these writers because they take risks, they provide an alternative example of what can be done (think of what has come from the efforts of TS Eliot in "Prufrock" or William Carlos Williams in with "Red Wheelbarrow," or Ginsburg in "Howl").

Sooner or later, someone writes in a way that is literary fiction and becomes not only popular, but readable: Christine Schutt, Joan Didion, Hariet Doerr, Gabriel Garcia Marquéz. Like the studio arts which encompass everything from Rockwell to Rothko, writing encompasses everyone from Shakespeare to Steele.

But the issue of saleabilty, well, it's a mass market culture out there. All we can do is diligently write the best book we can with the right mix.

But to the poster I would say this: if the only book you can compare yours to is Anna Karenina, then branch out a bit more and make sure that the tone of the novel is going to appeal to a modern ear and eye. Also, start submitting your short stories to literary journals. You'll find an ear there as well.

Anonymous said...

I love Kazuo Ishiguro so much - he's amazing; possibly the best writer today. He needs to get more credit - don't you guys agree?

lorra laven said...

"Never Let Me Go" by Ishiguro is one of my all-time favorite books.

Don't you think the literary/commercial fiction thing is difficult to delineate since books that might be classified as one or the other actually sit on a continuum, not to mention beauty, or literary, is very much in the eye of the beholder?

Truth be told, I enjoy a lot of different types of fiction and I don't really care how it's classified. I just want to enjoy what I'm reading.

Biby Cletus said...

interesting stuff you have got here keep up the good work.


regards

Biby Cletus
Kerala,
India

Anonymous said...

I have to point out that no one knew 100 years ago - what was going to be discussed, disected etc. They just wrote.

Dickens wrote serial soap opera novels with padded word counts. Austen and Bronte (the good one - Charlotte) wrote romance novels.

Why do we study them? Why should we? Because they were wonderful storytellers and they told us something about the time they wrote in.

Yes - you've got your "literary fiction" that I can't make head nor tails of that is considered classic. - Someone please tell me what the hell Woolfe is actually saying.

But I think it's the stories that live. The good ones. The well told ones.

People scoff when I say Grisham will be read. Roberts will be read. DeMille, Gaimen, I could go on. My point is I can't try to predict what people will go back to 100 years from now. But I can tell you that much of classic literature - is classic because people liked it. And wanted to read it. Again, and again, and again.

Anonymous said...

That's true to a degree, but only with regards to some of the classics. What makes the classics last in my opinion is the same thing that makes literary fiction "literature" today - focus on a higher use of language and theme as opposed to ridiculous storytelling. It is Tolstoy's prose and construction that makes "Anna Karenina" great; it is Dostoevsky's dark psychological exploration that makes him a master; it is Melville's symbolism and thematic rederings that make him endure. Its that simple - "The Corrections" has more to say than "Dragonlance", even if it is less fixated on a plot. That is what draws the line between literary fiction and genre fiction.

Tommi said...

I am so happy, as a writer, to not be part of this WWF-like krapp. I'm all for people not trying to raise the bars and for "publishers" setting the "standards". Now go make some Enron money like all the rest...
But seriously. Who needs to get published these days? I prefer living in a tent at a trailer park anyway. -tgs-

Anonymous said...

Keep in mind that Hemingway, James, Melville, Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Crane, et al, are still in print and still sell. I agree with the folks who say that good storytelling sells, but I disagree almost completely with the choices I see for "literary" writers in the e-mail you cite and in the comments here. Updike is about the only exception, but consider Updike is no Cheever, and Cheever is no Steinbeck. The others aren't even Updikes.

I tried to read a Joyce Carol Oates the other day. No hook, so I was already wondering why I was reading this. Then she kept going on about how thirteen year old girls are physically mature and even have breasts. Not just once, either, several times. Wha, are we in a seventh-grade personal hygiene class? Then she throws in random similes that have nothing to do with plot or character. Just felt like putting em in.

I keep repeating that choosing good stories is part of doing good business. The editors in past years knew this. Somehow they've lost the knack. It's not literary fiction that's unpublishable, it's what the publishing houses throw at us and call literary fiction that should be unpublishable.

Anonymous said...

The only literary writers we've ever heard of? Nonsense. I could name at least fifty, whereas I'd never heard of writers like Janet Evanovitch (sp?), Sophie Kinsella, or Lee Child until I started reading publishing blogs.

Anonymous said...

I've read a lot of the "classics."

One of the saddest things to hear is a bunch of writers who want to be published and all they can do is talk about books published 50 years ago or more.

Not that they shouldn't be able to have a healthy discourse on Dostoyevski, or Anna Karennina. They should and those are often wonderful convesations.

BUT if you're going to get published TODAY, you'd better have an idea of where your book might be placed in relation to others who are also getting book deals right now.

So yes, if you're thinking your books is going to be 'literary fiction' then by all means, read what's being published today. Be able to discuss current literature with anyone and everyone you meet in the writing and publishing world.

Anonymous said...

So 9:04, who do you think is a good "literary" writer making deals today? Since you're a qualified reader, how would you place them among the writers who passed away 40-50 years ago -- Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, T.S.Eliot? Do you feel they're just as good? Can you mention several whom you'd place in that class and very briefly explain why?

Anonymous said...

No, many literary fiction writers --even those who win National Book Awards -- have to do other things than simply write books to make a living.

They teach, the publish short stories, they edit. And lucky you if you can get into one of their classes. But you know what? Literary fiction writers have always done all those things. Go through the papers of Dylan Thomas and you'll see him pleading for money.

Do I think Steinbeck is as good as Lily Tuck? Yes. Do I think TS Eliot is as good as Mary Oliver? Absolutely. Hemingway as good as Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Yes.

Why? IN GENERAL TERMS BECAUSE THIS AINT A COLLEGE COURSE: Because they write a compelling story, their characters are complex, there is depth to their message and their use of language and imagery is clean and original.

Like I said, compare your works to what's on the shelf and being published now. If you can envision where you want your book to sit, then you'll have an idea of where it fits.

Anonymous said...

Why would I be lucky to get into a Joyce Carol Oates class? Apparently she doesn't feel the need to put a hook on her stories because -- well -- she's Joyce Carol Oates.

Actually, I think there's a different economic model operating for creative writing profs who publish novels. They never make money off their books, but that's not how they get paid: the faculty compensation committee gives them a big raise every time they publish a novel (or short story, or whatever). The deal is that Joyce Carol edits review A, and she publishes stuff from a guy who edits review B, who in turn publishes Joyce Carol.

Think about it. Steinbeck, Faukner, Hemingway, most of the others, made their money by selling books (or selling scripts to Hollywood). The folks you mention make money by teaching creative writing classes to kids who ought to be told to grow up and find a way to earn a living.

Tommi said...

I just had to write my own little comment on this post. It's so motivating...

http://worstwriter.wordpress.com/2007/03/24/rejecting-genre-what-is-lit/

-tgs-

Anonymous said...

What gets overlooked is how many "commercial" fiction authors studied literature at Ivy League universities. A disproportionate amount. The folks who think literary fiction is boring will have a hard time competing with them.

James said...

An intimate look into the lives of families living through a revolution is great hook. Why couldn't this book be marketed as contemporary fiction, or political drama? Surely there must be some permutation of publishing genres that could get this thing to the book stores that is more descriptive than "literary Fiction", particularly when the middle east setting is so topical.

Anonymous said...

The current literary business model is wrong. It's trying to sell to the young audience who buys used book when it should be courting the baby boomers who can afford to buy new.

Robert Gardener said...

You are an interesting fellow. The thing about writing is that to do it in order to do it poorly or well, one does not have to put much of an investment up - unlike photography. I bet you are just inundated with rubbish, and the occasional gem that you let slip through your fingers because you are looking for the next Dan Brown, or Danielle Steele. I'm delighted to know that Hemingway actually experienced war, before he wrote about it. Really its best to just write, and not have any hopes and dreams that you literary ravens and maggots would even deign to land on my fetid corpse. Wasn't Mark Twain self published? Edgar Allen Poe - who died penniless in the Baltimore gutter? Nietzsche? John Jacques Rousseau? You can call it vanity publishing all you want, but you are doomed.

Robert Gardener said...

Keep printing escapist garbage.