Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Yeah, Yeah, We Don't Like Literary Fiction

Dear Rejecter,

I am dying to know:
If "Gravity's Rainbow" landed on your desk, what would you make of it? I ask because, as far as literary fiction is concerned, experimentation is often a big part of enduring literature. How open are agencies to experimental work? Do they give it a close look over, or would this type of writing be an auto-reject. How would "The Recognitions," "Infinite Jest," "Ulysses" etc. fare coming from an unknown?


They would get rejected, by not by everybody. I don't care much for literary fiction, but I like to think that I know when a paragraph is just written well, or turns the craft of reading up on its head (as Pychon is known for doing, often contradicting himself, speaking to his readers, or doing historical fiction with known inaccuracies). Against the Day is hard. You have to think. And then when you're done thinking, you've accomplished something (hopefully). Perhaps my favorite piece of literary fiction is As I Lay Dying, but the only reason is because I was forced to read it line-by-line in high school and try to interpret it as I went.

Writing at the highest level has the trick of writing both appealing prose and putting substance behind it. In our hectice lives, we might not have the time I had to start pulling apart Faulkner's paragraphs and seeing how they were tragic and comic at the same time. We might just say, "No one will read this. Reject." Or the author might not know how to write a good query letter and might not send a sample page or two with it, so we'll never read them at all.

Literary fiction is very, very hard to break into, so generally agents don't make a lot of money on the first sale, so they're not entirely interested (especially if the text is above them - who wants to try to edit Joyce?) in this person as a client. That's the harsh business angle look at it.

I wouldn't say I wouldn't reject Pychon if I saw him labeled as someone else, but he would be noticable above all of the thrillers that start with the protagonist waking up too early in the morning and then complaining about it.


Anonymous said...

"Who wants to edit Joyce?"

Reminds me of what Nabokov said when asked about editors, "Oh, you mean proofreaders."

Anonymous said...

One thing a lot of aspiring authors forget when they seek to compare themselves to Joyce or Faulkner is that these authors' densest, most difficult works are not their first.

When you're completely unknown, you have to write something snappy and entertaining. This has always been true, and always will.

Judy Schneider said...

I enjoy reading literary fiction when it isn't trying too hard to be literary fiction. When an author adds ponderous musing after ponderous musing with the sole intention of, I don't know, putting forth beautifully crafted sentences, I close the book and move on to a legal thriller.

Shawn said...

We might just say, "No one will read this. Reject."

And in the case of Infinite Jest, you'd be right. Who'd have ever thought that so many people would buy a book they don't want to read?

Anonymous said...

I don't know why so many people automatically think of ponderous, pretentious, intellectual dribble written by wanks when they think of literary fiction. What about a book like THE HISTORY OF LOVE, which in my opinion is a beautiful, touching, funny, engaging (and readable) work of literary fiction? Maybe there should be several categories of literary fiction: the accessible stuff, the Pynchon/Joyce heavy hitters, and the people just trying really really hard to sound smart.

Anonymous said...

Or what about The Road. How would you even query it? It's a great book, easy to read, but goes next to nowhere. Its heart lies in its narrative eye. And constraint. If Cormack had to query that book, and even send sample pages, would it make it through? Sadly, I doubt it.

M.W. said...

Yeah--but if the world of publishing is so against literary fiction, why does it exist? Why do we have all of these fantastic books? Why do we have Franzens and Cormacs? I think writer's like to whine, but the truth is stuff gets out and thanks goodness it does.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous (4:41am) that's not always true. It seems like you just have to be lucky. The questioner mentioned William Gaddis' "The Recognitions" - that was his first book published; over 900 pages long; extremely dense; the American Joyce. It's all about luck, luck and persistence.

Anonymous said...

Some folks write what they want to write without regard to genre or the market--take it or leave it. Most of it is garbage, but some is gold.

I mean some of us are still writing poetry.

Anonymous said...

O, Rejecter, 'tis indeed most tragic. You've forgotten Meika, whose failure proves (at least to him) that a true innovator, someone who wants to rethink and re-engineer language, will be overlooked by the philistines in charge of guarding the gates.

susan said...

I found some great fiction book reviews. You can also see those reviews in Historical fiction

Anonymous said...

I don't know why so many people automatically think of ponderous, pretentious, intellectual dribble written by wanks when they think of literary fiction.

Because unless your books meet those criteria, they are sneeringly dismissed as mainstream, commercial pap.

If your books are readable and people enjoy them, you must be doing something wrong.

Anonymous said...

It's Pynchon, not Pychon.

Kanani said...

Recently, I had a weird insight while I was flailing away in my 30 week advanced novel class.

I absolutely could not get into the writers who were hellbent on creating art. There was distance between the reader and the characters, the prose was often stilted or shades of purple and the story went nowhere. Worse, they were pretentious and a lot of them used very weird metaphors and similes.

And so I decided .. I'm trying to create a museum piece here. I'm trying to tell a story. And boom... off it went and continues to trot.

As for Thomas Pynchon... it's how he writes, it's his style (some would argue that Gravity's Rainbow was his disability).

But I don't think all literary genre fiction should strive to walk along a homogenous boundary. No, many tell great stories in an unfettered way --such as Lily Tuck, Denis Johnson, Thom McGuane and Christine Schutt.