Thursday, February 05, 2009

Literary vs. Commercial Fiction Round 247

So at this point in the life of the blog I am seriously tempted to just write "go away" to people who send in the usual "why is there so much trash in the marketplace while my literary opus isn't published?" email. I decided to make an exception for this one.

Hello Ms. Rejecter,

The dynamic for agents is to find that compelling work that is salable, not an easy task I'm sure. For me some books that are considered page turners are often so empty and the characters so thin I don't care what they do and the plot so mundanely crime-ridden or romance-ridden or horror-ridden that I don't care what happens. I could give many examples of such profitable books with their suspense page turners in different genres that the only reasonable thing is for the characters to self-destruct. Good luck to those writers. I do not envy or begrudge them anything, for life is too short for that. Maybe these books are a kind of therapy in their escapism for readers and agents are part of the therapy business. However, maybe there is kind of writing that tries to sustain us by illuminating the real world.

Now, the dilemma is, do the vagaries of the the marketplace where escapism literature is easily identified and dominate reduce the marketplace need for compelling stories that deal more authentically with the real world?

First, a confession. I had to look "vagaries" up. I don't know everything. It turns out it means "an extravagant or erratic notion or action" or something like that, which I feel really further obscures the meaning of the sentence than if I hadn't looked it up, but fine. Learn something new every day.

Now, there's the standard argument as to why the market is what it is:
(1) People buy books they want to read.
(2) Publishing companies watch sales and take stock of what was bought.
(3) Editors are encouraged to buy new and exciting things in genres that people are actually buying and reading, plus a little "more of the same" to be on the safe side. The company doesn't want to go under or anything.

In other words, if the public for some reason completely stopped buying books about vampires (in a wildly unlikely alternate universe), editors would be less interested in publishing books about vampires, knowing they wouldn't sell. Eventually there would be no new books about vampires aside from a couple companies hoping to buck the trend, because people don't like to publish books that they know won't sell. Publishing is a business, people. A slightly more altruistic business than, say, investment banking, but nonetheless a business.

From browsing the shelves by yourself, using whatever definition of "literary fiction" you want to use, you will probably come to the conclusion that most people don't buy literary fiction, as most things on the shelves aren't literary fiction. And, by the way, it has always been this way. There has been no time in history where people have only read "great literature."

Now, the dilemma is, do the vagaries of the the marketplace where escapism literature is easily identified and dominate reduce the marketplace need for compelling stories that deal more authentically with the real world?

I want to spend a moment for the good of mankind taking apart this sentence.

I'm going to assume that "escapism literature" means "genre fiction" so we don't spend all day discussing. Normally I would just assume that the latter half of the sentence refers to "literary fiction" and just direct you to the explanation above, which is that the buyers dictate the market, not the other way around, but hold on a second. What are "compelling stories that deal more authentically with the real world?" Because generally in publishing, stories that take place in the "real world" are stories that could possibly happen somewhere at sometime, even if they didn't, and if they actually did it's called "non-fiction." So, that eliminates alternate histories, stories that contain ghosts, stories that contain whimsical creatures who are just metaphors for things, and actually most things that are on the shelves, except maybe romance fiction, because people do occasionally have sex with improbably hot guys. Also thrillers happen in real life, but they usually end up with the protagonist dying in a ditch somewhere or never finding out who was chasing him because that's what happens to most spies.

Your given definition of the literature you want to see more of, if interpreted strictly, would knock out most "great literature." You know, like:

All of Greek literature
All of Arthurian literature
Most Shakespeare
Beloved (though I don't know how "great" it is, in my opinion)
The Old Man and the Sea
And a ton of others I'm thinking of right now because I have to get to work

So, you might want to rethink that.


Shannon said...

I absolutely agree with your basic point--I can't STAND genre snobs--but I'm going to nitpick a little bit. An insistence on realism wouldn't knock out "Ulysses." If you just take the events that happen in Ulysses, they're absolutely mundane. The story is *told* fantastically, but the plot is just about a couple of guys going about their day.

An insistence on realism would however knock out Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, and other such wonderful writers whose works, while sometimes fantastical and always engagingly creative, do an immense amount to illuminate the real world.

Inkpot said...

Who wants stories that deal more authentically with the real world? Not me. I live in the real world. The reason I read and write genre fiction is because I want to escape! I'm glad the market reflects that.:)

Anonymous said...

As a dedicated genre reader and writer, thanks for your well-written defense of "escapism." It really ticks me off when people try to put down fantasy. Humanity has been creating fantasies for a long time. It's a powerful part of the human experience.

LorelieLong said...

Good luck to those writers. I do not envy or begrudge them anything, for life is too short for that.

Translation = You write shit, but have a nice life anyway.

It must be exhausting being that elitist.

Marissa Doyle said...

Sigh. Why is it that some people think it reprehensible of other people to enjoy escaping into a book that ISN'T "illustrative of the real world"? For a lot of people, real life is boring or terrifying or deeply disappointing, and that escape to the genre fiction of their choice might give them a bit of a reprieve.

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream."
That's the first sentence of Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House". Fabulous opener.

Jolie said...

Urrgghhh. I love literary fiction, but I can't stand people who think this way about books and the publishing industry. If you want to blame someone for what books get published, point your finger at the consumers rather than the publishers. That is, if there's anything blameworthy about what books people like to read/buy.

The Rejecter said...

Okay, the comment about Ulysses is fair. I've never read it. I read Th Dubliners, a few other short stories, and Potrait of an Artist as a Young Man, but not Ulysses. I've just read ABOUT it.

Unknown said...

Why can't we writers stop looking down our noses at one another or making snide remarks based on what type of material we write? No genre is inherently better or worse than any other. Any genre can contain a great story or sink to bubble gum pop levels depending on how and with what skill it's written.

Genre or literary, it's a matter of taste for the author and the reader. Fussing over the differences and which is superior is a waste of time and energy best served writing and revising.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your lengthy response.

I did not suggest nor use the word trash when I referred to escapism literature. I read mysteries too! I have no objection to it. I was saying that the preponderance of pure escapism literature seems to be very heavy and questioning whether it is crowding out literature about the world we live in with its successes, failures, injustice and fears.

Non-fiction does not cover everything to do with the world we live in and besides authors for many reasons cannot use real names. One of my favorite writers is Sommerset Maugham. He traveled around the world staying weeks in a place and learning about the people he met and observed. Later, he wrote about it. Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, a great book, was based on an actual Cuban fisherman. Hemingway wisely chose not to write the story as non-fiction because it would not have worked as well as his novella.

Lastly, it seems you mistaken believed that I demeaned all writing that was not literary fiction. I did not define literature that "knocked out" all Greek literature which I like very much. I think you read too much into what I wrote and speculated on my one question.

I do appreciate the economic presures of agents and publishers in deciding what works and sells. And I'm sure it's very difficult.

Anonymous said...

I agree with A. B. England. It's all in how skillfully a story is told.

Anonymous said...


I sympathize with your sentiments, but I think you phrased them badly. To most of the commenters here (including myself), it appeared that you were knocking most anything that wasn't Capital-L-Literature. A lot of people in the genre world have a real sensitivity to that. The ivory tower's been alternating between indiscriminately dumping crap on us one year and co-opting our best stuff as better than "mere" genre work the next for so long that a lot of us are quick to counter-attack any perceived incursion from the dreaded literati. You have to be careful to make it clear you come in peace when you discuss these issues on the Internet.

none said...

I have favourite authors, too, and one of the reasons you know they're my favourites is I can spell their names.

Perhaps you could give actual examples of this 'escapism literature' that eschews "successes, failures, injustice and fears". Because I have no idea what books you're talking about.

Mark said...

"We must vote on these decrees," Molly chirped.

"These decrees will not give us the power we need to battle the upright worms," Mindeo hooted.

I don't know Uniski, what part of the "real world" does this portray?

Anonymous said...

Haha. I love people who think that because their stuff hasn't been published, there's something wrong with THE ENTIRE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY. Do they never think that maybe their writing's just not good enough? (Looking at this person's letter/response, I reckon there's plenty of evidence for the latter.)

-- Poetry Editor

Anonymous said...

PS: I do just want to point out that choosing lit fic -- and particularly the great lit staples -- is nothing to snark at. This guy is being snobby about genre fic -- don't stoop to his level by trying to make a case against Hemingway. Apart from anything else... there aint one, really.

-- Poetry Editor

Bitterly Books said...

You can't just say the market is based on what people are buying and have that be the end of it. The consumers are not 100% responsible for the current selection in bookstores.

Bookstores aren't presenting everything that's out there on an equal footing (think Co-ops, Amazon's BxGy promotions, and other marketing efforts). I feel that it's more accurate for your point #1 to say "people buy books they think they'll enjoy," and the publishing industry spends a lot of time and money trying to influence the way they think (not that they're always successful, just that they try).

True, the biggest in-store display in the world isn't going to force people to buy a book they don't want, but if it's a choice between book A and book B, and book A is on a table at the front of the store, the sales figures for book B will suffer.

I'm not passing judgment on the value of what's available (or selling well) right now, I'm just saying that you can't proclaim that the titles out there are based on the will of the people alone.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Rejecter. Well said.

Unknown said...

Oh, I also wanted to add something that I don't see mentioned very often, which is the possibility (and I think it's a reality) that at least some of the people who read genre escapism also read literary fiction. The wall that's so often erected is actually pretty porous.

Anonymous said...

I like a literary novel now and then, but if all I ever read was literary, I'd surely go insane :P

I like my novels to take me out of my current world and into another (which is why I tend to gravitate towards historical fiction). Sometimes we need to leave our real lives and take a break.

Of course there has to be some level of realism in it; it can't be completely illogical. But if all books followed what life is really like, there certainly wouldn't be many readers out there. Sure, there are also plenty of books out there that I wonder how they ever got published, but that's my humble little opinion. Most of the time, it's just because I don't like the how the story is portrayed, but for every person like me who doesn't like a book, there's bound to be another who does.

Anonymous said...

No, genre fiction isn't going to kill literary fiction, because there's an audience for it, too. (University students, English professors, those books they make you read in high school, you) It's just most people prefer the fun, easy adreneline rushes (good) genre fiction can give them, rather than literary fiction (which can get quite dry and slow and often depressing).

Anonymous said...

"vagaries of the marketplace" is actually a commonplace phrase among the literate.

The Rejecter said...

troll, GTFO

A common saying among the internet literate.

Elissa M said...

Ooo, fun! Whack-a-Troll. Go get 'em, Rejecter.

wealhtheow said...

What Carolyn said.

I suspect that the number of people who read only literary fiction or only genre fiction is smaller than most people think (and the number of genre-fic readers who read in only one genre even smaller).

Agents and editors are people (and readers) too, and, as well as knowing something about what's currently selling, they have their own tastes and make their own judgements. No agent is going to represent a book s/he doesn't like, and no editor is going to buy a book s/he doesn't like, and so inevitably a lot of books don't get published. I think, though, that the number of books currently being published in the world every year probably means that pretty much every reader can find something s/he will enjoy.

If you've got something you're trying to sell and it hasn't sold yet, the two main possibilities are that (a) you haven't found the right person for it yet or (b) it isn't very good. (I'm agent hunting right now, so I know the drill...)

Rick Chesler said...

If the original poster subtituted "human condition" for "real world," it would be closer to what they were going for.

Fran Caldwell said...

Boy, do you guys bristle at the word 'Literary'! I can't help wondering why.

Oh, and if The Rejecter had to look up the word 'Vagaries', we're all in trouble with our submissions.

Anonymous said...

I will post this as "Anonymous" to try and be a voice for the wonderful faceless mass who actually spend the dollars to make any writing career possible. Call me "Constant Reader".

A large amount of what passes for "Literature" these days is try-hard drivel. Not worthy of the name literature. So it's back to the genre fiction until someone writes something worth spending $29.95 - and more importantly a week of evenings - to wade through.

Show me the writing ... and I'll show you the money!

Jolie said...

Re: Fran's comment ... "vagaries" is one of those words that educated people recognize but sometimes can't precisely define off the top of their heads--and that's okay! There are plenty of words that I have to look up repeatedly until they finally stick; it takes a certain number of times reading and using a word before its definition becomes second-nature. That's how language acquisition works, especially as we age. Which is why I hesitate to use million-dollar words in my fiction. I don't want to make my readers stop and search for a word's meaning unless there's a good reason (besides showing off) to use that word instead of a more common one.

The Rejecter said...

"vagaries" is one of those words that educated people recognize but sometimes can't precisely define off the top of their heads

Right, exactly. I sort of knew the meaning, but as I had to make a lot of assumptions about what the guy was saying anyway, I decided to be super-sure about the definition.

Anonymous said...

Oh boy even i a teen who writes doesn't like the ones who put down fantasy and the escape from the real world in the world of books. i write well i am slowly writing what is to be hopefully my first finished writing. even i need to escape the real world from time to time if there was only the real world we all would surly go insane from all the mayhem in the world. i ask this if nothing was ever written but stories of how someone lived their lives who would buy it? some live lives close to someone elses it gets boring for some after a while .

Anonymous said...

also re: Fran's comment--do you also go into the houses of people you don't know well and put your feet up on the coffee table and criticize the curtains?

Why do so many people think it's okay to make rude comments on blogs? Sorry to be off-topic, Rejecter, but this just really irks me.

none said...

Okay, "human condition", whatever :D, but I'm still looking for the evidence that genre fiction doesn't/can't illuminate that. In vain.

wealhtheow said...

Buffy, I agree. I think the truth is that every genre -- lit fic included -- has its gold and its dross, and there will always be readers who see only the gold in their genre of choice and only the dross in other genres.

But those of us who can admit that while no genre is perfect, no genre is a complete loss will always have more interesting conversations. :)

Elissa M said...

The best genre fiction illuminates the human condition while it entertains. There are "classics" which are genre, but because they're classics, people say they're literature.

The fact is, there is no distinct line between genre and literature.

I get the feeling sometimes that people get snobby when they discover that the kinds of books they like aren't always the kinds everyone else likes. Or maybe even ANYone else likes.

Rick Daley said...

Great post, thanks for your insight!

I think different genres and different writing styles all have their place in the market, whether it be big or small, and each has its good, bad, and ugly.

Sometimes I like a book that is pure entertainment, and other times I like to read something thought provoking that challenges my intellect. The market needs diversity.

Anonymous said...

If "unisky" thinks that it's easier to get genre fiction published than literary fiction, I suggest he give it a try sometime. Surely some genres are more salable than others, but I can assure anyone that getting an agent to take on a fantasy novel is no cakewalk.

Joshua said...

This guy sounds like a purple prosed prick. I would actually LOVE it if you wrote him back and requested a sample first ten pages so we could see the wonders of his writing.

I understand people that don't like certain genre fiction, but I can't stand people who believe themselves to be undiscovered geniuses. These people tend to be the kind that show up on American Idol and flail about for a few minutes and are honestly surprised when someone tells them they suck worse than AIDS.


Anonymous said...

I agree with the overall sentiment of the Rejecter's post and with many of these comments. But I have to say... I'm also quite surprised that someone who works with words doesn't know what "vagaries" means. It is a common word. As someone else said, "vagaries of the marketplace" is nearly a cliche.
Yes, it appeared in this case in a letter from someone with badly inflated pompous prose. But Rejecter, I've got to tell you, I'm surprised and a bit concerned. Another poster protested that comments like this were rude... but I don't see how. We're discussing taste and judgment here, and I am genuinely surprised that someone who works with words, and who (I assume) reads a fair bit isn't confident of their understanding of a widely used word. Good on you for admitting that you didn't know... but still....
Plus, as Shannon mentioned, the weird and way off the mark reading of Ulysses... followed by a confession that you've never read Ulysses. Can you study literature at university and not read Ulysses? Or not at least know that it's about a couple of ordinary guys' ordinary day? And if you've not read something, isn't it a bit cavalier to include it in a sweeping general statement?
Sorry, Rejecter. Your blog is terrific. But this post has shaken my faith a little. I'm willing to bet that Moonrat and EA and Pubrants all know what "vagaries" means, and have all dipped into Ulysses. At least, I really hope so. (No doubt they'll set me straight if I'm wrong!)

The Rejecter said...

I didn't know the PRECISE definition of one word and I have not read all of James Joyce's books. Jeez. That's the last I admit I'm a human being.

Penelope Ella Susan said...

Well said!!! As my daughter would say, "What's his problem?"

Elissa M said...

Apparently some people have the OED (or some other dictionary) memorized and are shocked to learn that some other folks occasionally have to crack open and actually USE their dictionaries.

I thank God every day that I have not read Ulysses and am not ashamed to say so in public. So nyah.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm way late to this post, but...

Why do people always say that what is most stocked in bookstores is "genre fiction?"

In my Barnes and Noble and Borders stores the "fiction and literature" displays (where non-genre fiction resides) are ten sections deep. Elsewhere in the store, "mystery," or "romance," or "thrillers" only comprise one section of shelving a piece, and half of that row are faced out "new" books, which are spaced so far apart there's only sixteen titles there.

Am I missing something? I've got to be missing something. What the hell am I missing?

Anonymous said...

It must be so nice to be so confident that the problem couldn't possibly be with your writing... it must be with the market or the publishers or the short-sightedness of ignorant editors...! I hear similar arguments from writerly friends, some of whom haven't even really tried to get published. I guess it's easier, and more reassuring, to complain about the publishing industry than to risk your pride by actually being open to criticism about your own work.

In Shannon and the previous Anon's defense, re Ulysses, I think what they were bothered by in Rejecter's post was something similar in spirit to the hubris of the author the Rejecter quoted. There are so many "classics" that we're all "supposed" to read, I guess there's no shame in not having read Ulysses. But if you haven't read it, there is something hypocritical and arrogant about including it in a grand over-arching statement. Isn't it the same impulse at work, whether you're dismissing "genre fiction" without having read the best examples of it, or enlisting Ulysses in your argument against realism without really knowing what the book is about or what Joyce/Modernism generally were trying to do?
Just a thought. I just reckon the arrogant, purple-prosed dude who ignorantly dismisses "genre fiction" and the blogger who ignorantly misrepresents (having not actually read) a seminal novel might be embodying the same basic vices. Namely, hubris and hypocrisy.

wealhtheow said...

Anonymous 7:18 -- Of course you can study literature at university without reading Ulysses. (Especially if you're not studying English literature.) You can also study (English) literature at university without reading "Beowulf" or "The Faerie Queene" or any early modern playwrights but Shakespeare -- I don't think you should, but you can.

I wouldn't have had to look up "vagaries" either; but what strikes me about the use of "the vagaries of the marketplace" in the posted text is that it makes no sense. The writer is not, in fact, complaining that the market for books is unpredictable, erratic, or capricious; he's complaining that it (in his view) is dominated by a type of book that he (a) hasn't written and (b) doesn't want to read. "The marketplace", on his reading, is monolithic; it's focused on providing one thing ("escapism literature", whatever that may mean); it's not open to a variety of voices and genres. (I don't think any of this is true, particularly, but this does seem to be his argument.)

I work as a copy editor; I frequently look up words whose meaning I'm reasonably sure of, in the interests of being very specific when I'm explaining to an author why the word he's used is not the best choice and what words he might wish to consider instead.

Dave Hardy said...

An old dude really COULD catch a very big fish. That he would sound anything like a Hemingway character is of course utterly impossible.

Anonymous said...

Wealhtheow, I'm the anon you're responding to (and, I'm sorry to admit, I'm also one of the subsequent ones), and you make several extremely good points -- about the looking up of words by people who know and love them, about "vagaries" in the letter we're talking about, and about English lit. My comment was inexcusably one-eyed and self-righteous. Thanks for hosing me down!!!
Rejecter, I was way disrespectful. Apologies. Please forget this whole thread! Or at least, please don't let it cool your enthusiasm for blogging!

The Rejecter said...


Thanks. Wow, I don't think anyone has ever apologize to me before.

No worries about the blog. Every once in a while it's good to have one of these controversies and bring interesting people out of the woodwork.

delia jones said...

The last time I tried to read "literary fiction" I was exposed to a long, Mary Sue screed about dysfunctional families and rape. More and more it seems to me that "literary fiction" is about
1. Wahh my family is crazy
2. Wahh I got raped
3. Wahh the modern world encroaches on my delicate constitution, why oh why can't everything just be perfect and wonderful for me all the time

And if I want to hear about that, I can just turn on the TV and get it for free. Now, if I want a good story about compelling characters in interesting situations, genre fiction has that for me in spades.

If lit fic wasn't so bloody self-obsessed and boring, maybne people would read it once they get out of school. But what do I know, I don't use the term "vagaries" daily.

Kieron said...

Well, vagaries notwithstanding (and applauding Rejector for even bothering) the adjective "anonymous" says a surprising amount about the veiled originator:

bearding, incognito, innominate, Jane/John Doe, nameless, pseudo, pseudonymous, secret, so and so, such and such, unacknowledged, unattested, unavowed, unclaimed, uncredited, undesignated, undisclosed, unidentified, unnamed, unsigned, unspecified, whatchamacallit, what’s his/her name, whatsis, X*, you know who

Kieron said...

Ok, I can't spell. Rejecter, my apologies....

Anonymous said...

The writer is obviously a literary snob. Besides the "vagaries of the market" doesn't directly result in all books that aare not genre-specific being ignored. Take Ishiguru for example. He writes literary fiction, has many devoted fans and will always be read by students at the very least. At the end of the day the book just has to be good. And if the story is compelling enough then people will read it, even if it doesn't provide them with a chance to escape.

It's entirely possible to write about the "real world" in genre fiction as well. Discworld novels are satirical takes on real world AND absolutely mindblowing fantasy novels.

Anonymous said...

I also wanted to add that the very desire to escape (into fantasy, historical romances, what have you) is a very literary one. It's Romantic with a capital R. You're sharing an impulse felt by the likes of Byron. You don't get much more literary than that.

angelicajulia said...

This post made my day. It's the kind of attitude that I get from people who find out I write genre rather than amazing works of literary masterpieces.

And like I always say: I hate reading about the real world no matter how cleverly it is written.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate this rejecter site as it truly puts things into perspective for me. I was trained as an English major to turn my nose up at "cookie-cutter" commercial fiction and concentrate on literary fiction. As wonderful a writer as I may be, I needed to hear the things mentioned on this site. Perhaps with all my new knowledge, I can actually attract a publisher and or an agent with a more commercial approach. Uhhhh!

Ashley said...

I think the problem that some "lit fiction" people have with genre is the massively overused formulas. I've been sifting through queries and submissions for the past 6 months now and I pretty much know that the YA is going to be something along the lines of "kidx always thought he/she was normal, until discovering this amazing power and/or discovering that this amazing power opens the portal to another world in danger which must be saved!" Thriller- almost always employs a protagonist who is/was a cop/fbi agent/ navy seal/ marine or something else highly unlikely and convenient.

I find it depressing.

I don't fault the genre on a whole, but can't we come up with something else.. please? I've gotten a few submissions that fit their genre without being overwhelmingly predictable, but as the Rejector says.. 95% of everything I receive goes by the wayside.

Silly said...

Interesting article. Well, books have to compete with Grand Theft Auto V, The Amazing Spider Man, Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Teen Wolf for consumer money. Most folks don't read books outside of school anyway, so there's an uphill battle for books. Books that sell will survive, while books that don't....well, they won't sell. Besides, I thought the commercial fiction sales supported the publication of the lit fic that nobody wants to read. So instead of blasting commercial books, these lit writers need to be thankful commercial books are out there doing all the work, raking in all the dough.