Does literary have to mean dull and boring?

Looking for likely publishers for my pile of finished mss I came across one that looked promising, asking for ‘adult literary fiction’. As per the submissions guidelines, that precluded only children’s, YA, and poetry. That’s okay, I thought. I have adult work to submit, I write pretty decent sentences, grammatically correct with the odd lyrical flourish. I had always assumed that literary denoted a quality not a genre. Sadly, I was very wrong. ‘Literary fiction’ means something that could never be accused of being ‘genre fiction’.

Since authors are obliged to fit their work into a genre when pitching it to publishers and agents, or just to sell it on Amazon, many hopeful authors were asking questions on this author’s submissions page about which ‘genres’ would be accepted. Reading through the answers, it turns out that books with protagonists under age 25, romance, or paranormal elements, if the book could be called ‘women’s fiction’ or it simply didn’t fit into an Amazon category, were automatically disqualified as not being ‘literary’, as if ‘literary’ means what’s left over when you take out all the sparkle.

Paradoxically, the answers made me think of one book in particular: Wuthering Heights. Obviously it wouldn’t have been considered ‘literary’ enough for this publisher, but I think it illustrates some of the shortcomings, prejudices and failure to think outside the box that make life difficult for us ‘genre’ writers.

I know publishers want to be selective, and I agree, there is a huge amount of rubbish around, but why are they so frightened of judging a book on its merits and look first at the label the unfortunate writer has been encouraged to give her/his book? In the label ‘genre’ writing there is an implicit sneer. Sometimes though, great writers could be accused of writing stories that don’t fall into the strait jacket of ‘literary fiction’, where things happen that are not exactly…normal. I mean like when this bloke wakes up and finds he’s turned into a giant beetle!!!!!

Garcia Marquez and other South American writers have been attributed their own acceptable and exclusive genre by the literary establishment—‘magical realism’— which avoids having to admit that this is essentially fantasy writing and as such, one of the most despised of the ‘genres’. I think Marquez and Kafka probably count as ‘literary’, but I could be wrong. And any agent looking for ‘magical realism’ outside of South America hasn’t read the right articles on the subject. Kafka is a notable exception, but purists tend to argue that ‘magical realism’ is a product of the South American experience and we in the west have lost the ability to link to the magic in our culture. Our magical realism is just plain fantasy. (I wrote that with a sneer).

Why can’t we go back to the good old days when there were just books and children’s books? I like to think I write books. I don’t like the implication that they are so similar to other people’s books that there is a handy tag for them. If I’d wanted to join the pack I’d have given them one-word, suggestively angst-ridden, preterite titles for a start.
How about Ruptured, Busted, and Knackered, the three volumes of the Banjaxed Trilogy?


The Author Hot Seat with David Higgins: We didn’t have genre when I was young

David Higgins is my guest today, a short story writer who has found that the problem of fitting into the category straight-jacket is amplified when your short stories aren’t all in the same style. Here’s how Dave copes with the conundrum and gives us his take on the genre monster.

Dave - Mugshot

Genre didn’t exist when I was young.

While I became aware of genre later (and that other people might be more guided by it) I never let it constrain my reading choices. So it came as a surprise to me when I planned my first release, quite how obsessed the publishing and distribution industry was with genre. And that, for every issue novels faced due to genre, there were twice as many for short story collections.

When I say genre didn’t exist when I was young, I mean of course that I had no reason to care about it when I was a child. The Children’s section of the library in my home town was divided into picture books and other books: the Hungry Caterpillar was separate from Anne of Green Gables; but Enid Blyton was on the same shelves as Andre Norton. I have a vague recollection of a Young Adult classification, but as a sticker on the spine not a defined set of shelves.

My first encounter with genre was when I moved into the Adult shelves: some of the authors who wrote books on both sides of the quasi-arbitrary Adult/Child line were shelved in a special area; others weren’t; and some were shelved in more than one place.

In the decades between moving into the Adult shelves and preparing to publish, my sense of genre as a limitation had almost entirely died. Therefore, it came as a surprise that the most common advice I received when I mentioned publishing to other authors was,“get the genre classification right: books listed in the wrong genre or without a strong genre don’t sell at all.”

As my first publication was Fauxpocalypse, an anthology of short works set after a predicted global disaster didn’t happen, this proved to be quite a puzzler: some of the contributors had written thrillers; some had written horror; some had focused on the external effects of the oncoming threat; some had focused only tangentially referred to social upheaval.

Fauxpocalypse - Front Cover 72dpi

With some retailers giving me only one space for category, I felt real pressure to pick the best fit. But going through the classic genre and sub-genre options, I almost immediately realised it didn’t quite fit most of the options: it wasn’t all horror, or all sci-fi, or all mystery, or all anything.

The options that did fit the entire collection didn’t really seem utterly helpful. It was a fiction anthology, but what did that actually tell the reader about it? Was there any purpose in using up my one chance at finding readers who did confine themselves to a few shelves by defining it as a ‘short-story collection’?

In the end, the best fit was Post-Apocalyptic fiction: in the hope that readers would find similar interest in a world that didn’t end.

The overall experience of publishing Fauxpocalypse having not put me off writing all together, I went through my list of work to decide on a new project. I had a number of short stories that had been published in obscure places where I had the anthology rights. Having read many collections of authors’ republished works over the decades, I decided to release An Unquiet Calm, a collection of my own work.

I assumed it would be easier to publish a collection entirely of my own short stories. Ironically, listing it was much harder, for more than one reason.

Where Fauxpocalypse was defined by a common world that would – potentially imperfectly – fit a genre, An Unquiet Calm was defined by all being written by me. There were themes that were common to my writing, and personality types I favoured slightly for characters, but the tropes and settings were varied.

The high church of Literature aside, there are no categories for an author’s specific perspectives on life redrawn as fiction.

And many people who divide fiction into Literature and not, use the division to mean ‘proper fiction’ and ‘speculative fiction’. Thus, as I do write in worlds of science-fiction, fantasy, or horror, Literature didn’t seem ideal either.

Even splitting my collection into science-fiction and not, or any other genre and not, I couldn’t build a collection long enough to be more than a pamphlet.

I was rescued from this metaphysical headache by the discovery of an unspoken rule about genre: “if it sort of fits it might be fine”; my collection would not fail utterly if it was in a genre that didn’t fit one of the stories.

With two collections fitted into the boxes of genre, I thought I had a handle on the issues. So I expanded my reach from the established distributors to more innovative start-ups: lenders of eBooks, and crowd-pricing sites.

With the issue of a physical book having to be in a single place at any one time not present, and the massive power of search engines to leverage, I expected these online models to offer both readers and publishers a new flexibility, and some did.

However, I also found a new set of mandatory boxes: What is the romance level of the book? What is the profanity level of the book? What race is the protagonist? What religion is the protagonist? Where is the book set?

Some apply as easily to a collection as a novel: the profanity, gore, and sex filters are much more likely to be activated by people who wish to avoid them, so can be set to the worst case of all the stories.

But the religion or setting of the book? One of my stories deals with a man wrestling with God’s goodness in an imperfect world, so might be of interest to people who include Christianity in their search; but the remainder of the collection isn’t Christian, so isn’t necessarily what people who exclude Christian protagonists are seeking to avoid. And the locations and time periods are even more diverse: modern day Yorkshire, 1950’s West Country, fantasy Northern Europe, &c.

When I first mentioned I was writing short stories, several people commented it would never produce a career because people don’t read collections of short stories. Having published two collections, I am lead to wonder whether it is not a dislike of short stories but an inability to find them that is stopping the collections being read.

As long as libraries and book shops have a physical presence (and I hope it this will be a long time), there will be a need for a label to physically sort books, but by taking the genre model into the realm of detailed searches and extending the constraints rather than the options, distributors make it harder for authors and for readers.

So I hope the vast potential of online distribution will allow a return to that innocence of childhood: when we can find adult stories about a princess who is both a ninja and an elephant as easily as stories about a space captain who is different but not too different from the space captains of other books.
* * * *

Thank you, Dave for adding another point to the growing list of problems writers have with the publishing industry’s mania for classification and sub-classification. Short story collections start off with the handicap that everybody *knows* nobody reads them. Tell people that often enough and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’d be interested to hear how you get on with promoting your work. Thanks again for an entertaining and instructive article.

Dave Higgins has worked in law and IT for both public and private sector organisations. When not pursuing these hobbies, he writes poetry and (mostly) speculative fiction.

He was born in Wiltshire, England. Raised by a librarian, he started reading shortly after birth and has not stopped since. He currently lives in Bristol with his wife, Nicola, his cats, Jasper and Una, and many shelves of books.

More details on Fauxpocalypse, An Unquiet Calm, other publications, and free samples of his work can be found here.

He can also be found on various social media:
Twitter: @David_J_Higgins
Google+: +DaveHiggins
Pinterest: davidjhiggins


Guest post from Aderyn Wood: What came first – the story or the genre?

This post has been graciously offered by Aderyn Wood, a writer I have got to know through her novella The Viscount’s Son which I delved into because it sounded interesting. Yes, it has vampires in it. No, I wouldn’t count myself a positive fan of vampire stories. But, as Aderyn quite clearly points out in this article, when you are looking for a good story, being a fan of one thing or dismissive of another doesn’t make any sense. It’s the story and the writing that counts.
Take it away, Aderyn.

What came first—the story or the genre?

Unlike that chicken or egg conundrum, the answer here is obvious.

Of course the story came first.

Our caveman ancestors didn’t create murder mystery cave paintings, or tell fireside stories of cyberpunk dystopias. No. Most likely their stories had elements of all our genres – romance, mystery, fantasy (although probably no cyperpunk!).

The thing I’m interested in exploring is what comes first for writers and readers. What should come first? Now let me be honest here …

I hate genre.

Well, I mostly hate it, and I’ll try to explain why.

Genre creates prejudice

Prejudicial statements about genre are everywhere. They’re all over writing and reading forums, on review blogs, and in general conversations about books. Statements like ‘oh I don’t read fantasy/horror/romance/suspense’, or ‘I don’t read books about werewolves/zombies/claustrophobic clowns’. I have a friend who loves politics and history. She recently asked me why the world had gone Game of Thrones crazy. I told her “you know, I think you’d like it, it’s highly political”.
“I don’t read books about dragons,” she said. I blinked. I once had a reader contact me because she was interested in my novella ‘The Viscount’s Son’. She told me she liked the historical focus, but when she realised it was a ‘vampire book’ she stopped reading and informed me that “I don’t read vampire books!”
My point is that sticking to a select group of genres and ignoring others can prevent us from enjoying a range of reading experiences. I myself have fallen victim to prejudice when I used to think I didn’t read zombie fiction. I’m glad I changed my mind when I picked up Nessie Strange’s ‘Living Dead Girl’. – a book that will have you laughing at the characters just as much as you care for them. Now ‘The Walking Dead’ is one of my favourite TV series. That story has more to do with human relationships and the way we construct our societies than any other Television series I can think of. So I am very happy I overcame my own prejudice.

Genre has been nurtured by the big publishing houses

You only have to visit a publisher’s website or stroll into a bookshop to see this as a truism. Books are organised in a system of categories entirely based on genre. At my local book store I can go directly to the fantasy/sci fi section or the young adult section or the thriller/suspense section or the historical fiction section. Or that ambiguous, largely unattended section called ‘Literary Fiction’. Fellow genre-hater, John Banville (also Benjamin Black) wishes bookstores didn’t have the genre of ‘literary fiction’ at all. “Bookstores may as well have a neon sign saying ‘don’t read this stuff”. It’s because the big publishers have nurtured genre, by having well known categories become more well known, publishers have made it easier to market novels. Categorisation provide readers with a sense of security in knowing that if they invest in a genre book they will find X, Y and Z. As a fantasy lover I do appreciate this at times, but has this ‘security’ measure actually restricted possibilities and opportunities for readers? Has it also treated readers as not intelligent enough to choose a story by themselves without the big hand of GENRE pointing them to the right section? Banville states that his ideal bookshop “would have no sections, just alphabetical, and not fiction, but all the books next to each other. You would discover things.”

Genre = sales

As I mentioned above, the big publishers have nurtured the idea of genre to help with marketing and trends. The more zombie or vampire novels they can sell to a hungry (pun intended) market, the more dollars. Now, as an author, I’m not going to bag the idea of making a profit, except to say that doing it through the prism of genre can prevent readers from discovering something new/different/wonderful. But this prism is deeply entrenched in the book-buying mindset of readers. Acclaimed indie author CS Lakin discovered some hard proof of the power of genre when she experimented with writing a subgenre that she had been told “sells itself”. Her experimental genre novel is now making more money and sticking higher on the rankings than her usual non-genre fiction. Certainly, some writers can (and do) see this as a recipe for success. However, aren’t these genre ‘rules’ just creating more of the same?

Genre = more of the same

A frequent lament of rejection letters is that the manuscript doesn’t fit neatly into a genre. Put another way, it would be too difficult to market/find an audience for. Publishing houses have strict marketing budgets and this is why genre can be so convenient, and economical, as it guides readers en masse. A quick google search can bring up all sorts of well known best sellers who were rejected because their stories differed too markedly from the genre rules and expectations of the publisher. Here’s three of my favourite famous rejection lines –

• “Too radical of a departure from traditional juvenile literature.” L. Frank Baum’s ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’. – has sold 15 million copies
• “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” Stephen King’s ‘Carrie’ – sold over 1 million in its first year
• “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch 22’ has sold 10 million copies.

I thank the great Book God in the sky that Heller didn’t listen. ‘Catch 22’ is one of my favourites – it is so different from everything else I’ve read. And that’s my point. Too much adherence to genre rules gives us the same old plots, characters and clichés that we’ve seen everywhere else. I’ve been checking out quite a few book blogs recently and I’ve come across more than a handful of reviewers complaining that they’ve seen this character type or plot point too many times. They’re crying out for something different, new, refreshing. Well thank the Book God for indie authors, I say. They are not fettered by the chains of genre rules. – well not as much. Amazon still requires authors to categorise books according to genre, but at least they can choose across genres.

The Story should come first

Genre has its place. Remember I said I mostly hated genre? I think it’s a 90% hatred. Only because it has been allowed (and encouraged) to become such a dominant influence in the way we choose our books. As an author and a reader, it does offer some usefulness (about 10%). It gives us a platform to discuss elements we enjoy in stories. I, for example, enjoy fantasy. I know that means elements of magic, imaginary characters and settings will be included in the story – and these elements give me a frame of reference to both write stories and discuss what I read. My latest book ‘The Borderlands: Journey’ is a Contemporary Fantasy (well, I think it is). It certainly has magic, mystical settings and fairytale creatures – all set in our modern world (mostly anyway). But it also has elements of other genres. It is an adventure story, a drama, a young adult and a coming of age novel. If I was to dig a little deeper, I think it also has elements of a mystery novel. When I first thought of it, it was the story that gripped me most. I didn’t think of a genre and then set out to write a story that matched its rules. I wrote the story I wanted to and then scratched my head about which genre I could squeeze it into. Remember, this is not what you’re supposed to do if you want to make a truckload.

Many writers and readers will read widely and not restrict themselves by sticking to one particular genre or avoiding others. People who love books will often pick up anything if it is a good story, and it is those readers and that mindset that I admire most.

Aderyn Wood is an indie author who enjoys reading and writing a wide range of stories – although she mostly adheres to fantasy. Her latest book is the first of a trilogy – ‘The Borderlands: Journey’.

Thanks for that very lucid analysis, Aderyn. I couldn’t agree with you more that by limiting our reading to somebody else’s definition of a particular genre, we miss out on a mass of good literature.
I’m adding a link to Aderyn’s blog. Hope it works for that small, insignificant part of the world that isn’t French 🙂

Lit fic versus genre

Inspired by an article pointed out to me by Mary Meddlemore, I thought I’d resurrect the debate about genre versus literary fiction, and whether there is a difference at all. One of the suggestions made in Friedman’s article was that literary fiction is more difficult to write because all of the situations have to be invented by the author; she can’t rely on tropes because for literary fiction there aren’t any.

There are several things here that needle me. Leaving aside the rather arrogant assumptions behind it, who says that tropes only apply to ‘genre’ fiction? And how is it easier to write a good story that falls into a ‘genre’ category? The last point is slightly more metaphysical, but isn’t there a case for arguing that all fiction falls into one genre or another?

No tropes in lit fic? How about the battered wife, the abused child, the quest for self/fulfilment/the meaning of life/paradise/some other navel-gazing quest? How about the family saga? The marriage breakdown? Unhappiness in all its forms? Once you get your head round the notion that it has all been said before, usually by Homer, it’s easy to accept that if you scratch deep enough you find that one writer’s original subject is another’s trope. A trope is after all just the use of figurative language. Irony, allegory, metaphors, literary devices, all clichés fit into the definition.

Easier to write ‘genre’ because it’s full of ready-made tropes? LotR then was pretty easy-peasy as a writing effort compared with some of the more mind-numbingly boring productions of the nouveau roman, where the aim is to have nothing whatsoever happen at all. The point is surely that it is hard to write a GOOD novel, whatever category it falls into.

Everything but lit fic is ‘genre’? I’m not a philosopher, but from the outside, that looks like nonsense. Looks very much like another way of saying lit fic is a genre, but the only worthwhile genre. So, since most writers write about the epoch they grew up in, by the end of a writing career, they are often writing twenty or thirty years out of date. Does that make them historical novels? Is a fantasy written by an Oxford don somehow not a fantasy because he is a member of the intellectual establishment? Is Jane Austen really chic lit? She must at least fit into Regency Romance. Where do you put Shakespeare? The plays are all historical, alternate history, historical fantasy, paranormal fantasy, romance, comedy or horror. Yet they strike me a being pretty literary.

Much of this debate seems like a game of moving goal posts, depending on who wrote the story. Is C.S. Lewis a fantasy writer? Is García Márques? Lit fic people like to remind us that all books have to be pigeon-holed in a genre box for the sake of marketing, the sous entendu being that all boxes are inferior to the lit fic box. All of these genres (except lit fic) are broken into a plethora of sub genres, so within fantasy you can have a YA paranormal fairytale with vampires and zombie werewolf fantasy genre. Marketing on Amazon can get pretty specific, but the lit fic section remains vast, rambling, and inviolable.

Perhaps it would be more useful and logical to do away with literary fiction altogether. The argument then wouldn’t be about what books are allowed into the Holy of Holies, the literary fiction category, but which genre each aspiring lit fic book really falls into. If you look hard enough you’ll find that each and every one of them fits into a ‘genre’, and the names of some of those genres will not be very flattering.

What’s your genre?

I was reading an article on a friend’s blog today about that much-discussed subject: genre. There was a time when the classification of book types was sort of instinctive. There were books for adults and books for children. Within the adult books there was literature, books for the ‘serious’ reader, with sober covers; and there were the books for people who read books in much the same way they eat a packet of crisps, for the simple, easy, accessible pleasure of it. Often they had easily recognisable covers: pink for romances, black for crime, and great big font for airport thrillers. You knew where you were.

Not so anymore. Now there is a plethora of genres, and subgenres, and each is supposed to have its own market. They are not watertight; there is some leakage on either side, but each category is supposed to have its own target group of readers, and to approach them accordingly.

It makes things easy for booksellers. The author/publisher specifies the genre and the bookseller sticks the book on the right shelf, or under the same electronic heading. It makes it easier for readers to go straight to their preferred fantasy genre without having to plough through the nineteenth century classics, the spy thrillers or the bodice-rippers. The fans of epic fantasy aren’t distracted by the steampunk, zombie, or dystopian selections, and the legal minors will be safely diverted to YA paranormal and away from the adult vampires. For people who like sorting things, I can see the attraction, but to get to this kind of precision implies authors producing books that fit into a very specific category and have a very specific age group in mind.

Something that Mary Meddlemore said in her blog post about stories being stories, not genres, made me think that this analysis hits the nail on the head. Despite what agents and publishers require, that the author have a very clear idea of who their book is intended for, and know exactly which category it fits into, they are still just stories. They are inspired by all sorts of things, and pour out as they think fit. A story doesn’t hesitate on the edges of the imagination, undecided about whether it’s suitable for the under sixteens, or whether there is enough retro stuff in it for it to be considered steampunk. It just comes out and gets written.

Any insistence on the genre, the age group, or the fantasy type; pinning down into a definite genre a thriller/horror/paranormal/mystery, is to enter into the realms of marketing, and not writing. I know, who doesn’t market doesn’t sell, but there must be a better way of ‘selling’ a story that by sticking a label on it. ‘Ballet Shoes’ has a precise target readership of young girls who aspire to be ballet dancers. But it is rarely so easy. Where would you stick “The Call of the Wild” for example? YA dogs?

© Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak
© Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak