• Literary Fiction: Category or Style

    I often lament over the distinction of categories for fiction, constantly quavering over what some of them mean. Literary, contemporary, commercial, mainstream: Is there any working man’s definition for these to navigate safely around? We can all figure out what falls within categories like romances, fantasy, science fiction, and the like; but it gets pretty murky when publishers and agents list literary, contemporary, commercial, and mainstream as their catch-all preference for fiction. I’m left wondering whether to include these people in the list of possible publishers and agents to submit a work to. Is it just an editor’s highbrow manner of deflecting writers of category fiction from submitting their work? Or is it a snub at writers of category fiction.

    What is category fiction, you might ask. It is a broad term meaning fiction that can be sequestered into an identifiable category like science fiction, mystery, thrillers, and such. It generally excludes ambiguous fiction like literary, contemporary, and mainstream works. I have often discovered that some elitist editors use this term in a derogatory manner, as if there is something lacking in works that fall within category fiction. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth because the writer’s work has already been judged just by placing it in an identifiable category. These editors feel it is beneath them to give this type of fiction a read because it hasn’t been labeled “literary.” Shame on them. How could they possibly know that the style of writing in category fiction isn’t beautiful and important to the writer if they don’t even read it.

    Let’s explore what the industry considers to be literary fiction. Works that can be classified as literary are those where the writer values the quality of style and writing above the story itself. In literary fiction, the writer applies imaginative techniques to his writing style over and above developing the appeal of the story. Literary fiction claims to have an elevated sense of artistry. To me, I find this to be a failure on the writer’s part. I would think a quality piece of fiction is one that meshes artistry with a great story. Why should readers settle for half of the whole thing? Why can’t a mystery have been written with the same “literary” flare found in a flagging “literary” novel? I’ll tell you why. Because publishers and agents demand that you categorize your novel before you submit it to the proper editor. You’re stuck saying your mystery is a mystery. Or your science fiction work is science fiction. Or your romance is a romance. Your category fiction may have a strong theme, well-developed characters, a good pace, and an exciting plot. And, in addition to that, your work may be exceptionally well written, with great care given to infusing vivid imagery, fascinating relationships, and beautiful narrative into a fascinating story. Yet you get snubbed by editors because you have been forced to classify your work as category fiction. I find this to be a travesty not only to writers, but to the industry as a whole. These exceptional works of literary art will never get a chance to shine in public because elitist editors refuse to recognize them for what they are.

    However, category fiction editors will often acknowledge the merit of the types of works they prefer to review (mysteries, romances, thrillers, etc). These editors should be applauded for accepting category fiction in their repertoire of materials to consider. One of my most favorite writers comes from the fantasy category. Kate Griffin’s Midnight Mayor fantasy series is an amazingly entertaining volume of books written so beautifully and artistically that they should be listed as literary fantasies. These books were published by Orbit, a premiere publisher of science fiction and fantasy works, both of which are category fiction. In addition to that, these books are found in the Science Fiction and Fantasy section of Barnes and Noble, a section most often relegated to the back of the store, behind the fiction and literature shelves in the front, where most fiction readers browse for new releases. A shame that Ms. Griffin doesn’t get the meritorious declaration of artistic work by being placed in the literary section, where her work might attract more interest by the casual browser.

    In The Wolf Pirate Project’s Writer’s Class, we strive to give writers an understanding of what publishers and agents are looking for in writing. In both the Beginning and Advanced classes, there is a lesson about “purple prose.” The majority of editors frown upon the use of purple prose, yet I contend that this is exactly what literary-favoring editors are asking for in literary fiction. Taken directly from the lesson in the Beginning Writer’s Class, purple prose is “a literary term used to indicate flowery, elaborate narrative that overextends itself in terms of portraying the story. This type of writing focuses on the writer or the writer’s ability, not the story itself. It is self-glorifying on behalf of the writer. Moreover, it suffocates the purpose of literature. For all intents and purposes, literature is intended to be a gift to readers, not a platform for the writer to extoll himself of his skill with words. In this respect, purple prose is a blight on creative writing.”

    If it sounds like I am against literary fiction, you would be half-wrong. I am in favor of beautiful writing in all types of literature. I am wholly against the rigid categorization of writing that excludes artistic works of category fiction simply because they have a definable plot. I applaud any writer who can spin artistry and style into telling a fascinating story for the purpose of entertaining readers with the enjoyment of that story, not because he’s created a swill of words that sound melodic but lead nowhere. Why can’t the “literary” writer bump up his skill level to create a stunning story with his beautiful prose? Why is it the category writer who is the one who’s deemed subpar? I believe it is because of the pretentiousness of the art world.

    Literature is art, no doubt about it. And just like in every medium of art, there are elitists who try to elevate themselves by giving credence where credence doesn’t necessarily exist. They perceive more into a piece of work than there is. They use ostentatious words (like ostentatious) to extol the superiority of a writer. They state with definitiveness how other readers should view the writer’s work. They even interpret the work for other readers who might enjoy the work and come up with their own interpretation for what it means. In other words, they take the fun out of reading. Come on, guys, stop complicating things and just let the rest of us enjoy the story. You’re making it seem like literature is beyond the common man.

    But let’s get back on track. The point of this rant is to encourage writers of category fiction to evaluate their work for quality in writing and style. Don’t sacrifice that for the sake of the story. I know I have already lambasted literary fiction writers for elevating the quality of their writing in lieu of crafting a good story with that writing, but I don’t want to give the impression to category fiction writers that they should settle for bland narrative just because they have a fascinating story to tell. The Wolf Pirate Project exists to help writers do that. Do yourself justice. Show the world that your great story is conveyed through stellar writing. Insist that in your queries to all publishers and agents. Extol your writing as well as the plot. Attest that you may have to categorize your story in a rigid classification such as a romance, fantasy, or mystery, but it is first and foremost written in an artistic manner. Reinforce that with samples of your writing. Don’t let elitist editors thumb their noses up at you because your story fits into a category.

    Secondly, I want to chide literary writers for losing sight of what storytelling is all about. Yes, I applaud you for your ability to write beautifully. That is a skill not many writers have. But unless you are giving just as much attention and effort into creating a fascinating story, you are doing only half your job. Literature is not about you, the writer. It is about entertaining the public, giving them enjoyment for investing time and money into reading your story. When I pick up a book, I look first and foremost at the blurb on the back for what the story is about. I’m not swayed into putting down hard-earned money on a book in which the blurb on the back babbles ambiguously about a story that goes absolutely nowhere but is beautifully written. I might as well read poetry, if that’s the case. If the back blurb tells me the gist of an exciting story, I’m going to buy the book. If I then read it and discover the narrative is written beautifully, I consider it an extra bonus and the story will stick forever in my mind. I will remember it fondly and refer it to others. So, you can see how an artistically written category fiction book will have more return value for the reader than one of either half the accomplishment.

    Lastly, I would like to scold the literary editors in the position to make or break writers for how they judge works of fiction. Shame on you for prejudging a book without its cover. Shame on you for forcing writers to make a choice of how they classify their book. Shame on you for giving writers of category fiction the impression that their work isn’t up to par because they don’t list it in the ambiguous category of literary fiction. Shame on you for falling into the rut of categorizing anything. You are right in demanding quality work from writers, but you’ve forgotten what literature is all about. It is not about the writer hyping himself up on how well he can put words together. It’s about entertaining the readers, giving them the enjoyment of immersing themselves into a story that holds them entranced for the duration of the book.

    People, remember what the point of writing is all about. It is to please the readers of the world. No matter how large your audience is, writing has to satisfy the demands of those people who will pick up your work. That means giving them a world they can escape into for a short time, living vicariously through your writing. Should writing fail to do that, you will see the number of readers begin to dwindle, and you’ll only have yourselves to blame.

    1 Comment

    • 1. Mar 4 2014 3:25AM by Craig Crawford

      I find a lot of the "categories" ambiguous anyway. I know I spent time early on reading in the glossarys of the Writer's Market Guides, just trying to figure out the definition of a particular category or style of literature. I'm not saying I don't get the gist of it, but there came a time I wanted to know what the industry's definition of said categories was.

      I'm also not a fan of categorizing someone's book--though I know you have to do it to know where to stock it on the shelf, but especially these days, a book can cross a lot of lines. I've read mysteries set in an urban fantasy world: Simon Green's Night Side series to name one. It was a blend of sci-fi, fantasy, mythology, mystery with a good ole fashioned hard boiled detective at the core. Since sci-fi and fantasy tend to get tossed into the same aisles at your favorite bookstore I guess it's easy to designate, but if you sat five fans of those around a table, what would you ultimately label the book as?

      My guess is that whatever drew you most to the books would be your final prognosis. As for me, I just liked the sound of the blurb on the back and it intrigued my interest enough to buy the first and then shortly thereafter all of the rest.

      I happen to like stories that cross lines and boundaries. It's like adding new flavors to your favorite salsa recipe.

      Concerning literary fiction...I'm not even going there. I've read some really good literary prose and I've read some stuff that put the "P" in pretentious just for pretentious sake. Enough said. It's like any other genre, and if you make it interesting to me, I'll read it no matter how it's billed.


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