Literary Fiction as a Pejorative

November 19th, 2008 • Kate

I recently sent an email to the good folks over at AgentQueryasking them to update my listing on their site. They got most of the details correct — name, preferred method of contact, email address, special interests — but under genres represented they included “literary fiction.” And yes, if you look at my submission page, you’ll see it says “brilliant, funny, original middle grade and young adult fiction, both literary and commercial”, but please do note the bullet point. I’ll admit, I’m not interested in adult literary fiction, no matter how many awards it wins, for many of the same reasons that kt literary client Catherine Cheek enumerates in her recent blog post. In fact, I had a conversation with my uncle when I was back in NY, who told me about the recent Oprah pick he’d read, and how disappointed he was in the ending. Though I admitted to not reading it myself, I told him almost without fail that I preferred commercial fiction to literary, because in commercial fiction, the primary focus is the STORY, with beginning, middle, and satisfying end, not just a beautiful collection of words on paper without meaningful direction.
I want pace. I want adventure. I want romance. I want a story.
Can you imagine tucking your child in at night and telling them the bedtime adventure of a man struggling to find himself? No! Kids want excitement, they want plot, and that, I think, is another thing that separates YA and middle grade literary fiction from its adult counterpart. You’ll never see a YA character, as Catherine writes, taking “40 pages […] to cross the street.” Children’s literary fiction is much less divided from the commercial side because almost all children’s fiction IS commercial. If you want kids to read it, then you better make sure there’s a driving story. It may be literary in tone and style, but there are commercial elements. Look at recent winners or nominees of notable Children’s awards like the Printz, Newbery, or National Book Award. They may be the best of the best (although that’s fodder for another whole blog post), but I believe they are sold in higher numbers, comparatively, than their adult prize-winning counterparts.
And that, I think, is because so-called “important” books for kids still are complusively readable.
So I asked AgentQuery to remove “literary fiction” from my list of interests. Chalk it up there with self-help books and political thrillers as genres that get an almost automatic decline from me.
And with that said, I have more reading to do.

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13 Responses to “Literary Fiction as a Pejorative”

  1. Tami Says:

    And that's also exactly why I spend more of my time in the YA and children's section of the library than in the adult section.
    An hour's worth of searching in the adult section may yield one or two truly engaging, readable books. Maybe. They might just be highly rated but have an ending that'll break an escapist's heart. Or they may sag in the middle like a tired old plowhorse.
    An hour in the children/YA section of the library gives me ARMFULS of bright, interesting, fascinating, and incredibly readable material.
    If that earns me some disapproving looks from a few stuffy library patrons, I pity the fact that they're missing out on all the incredible stuff I get to read by tossing my age out the window and reading whatever pleases me instead of what my driver's license says I should read.

  2. lotusloquax Says:

    And another hearty "Here! Here!" I agree with Tami completely too.
    I had always read classics and literary until my oldest started reading and then I wanted to read the books before she did to make sure they were appropriate for her age level. What I found was a treasure trove that I never had really considered as something for me.
    There are so many amazing YA and children's books out there. I've almost given up on reading those written for adults. I got the Sawtelle book and have been reading it and it's pretty good so far, but at this point I still don't really care about the characters. It keeps losing my interest. I think I've read about 4 or 5 other books since I started it. It's just easy to put down (for me at least). Oh well, give me YA anytime. They make me happy, even when they're sad.

  3. lotusloquax Says:

    sorry about that double do over! I can't figure out how to delete it either.

  4. Kate Says:

    I fixed! I have mad internets skillz!

  5. suzanne72 Says:

    You know it's funny, in college, when I was learning to write, it was all about trying to write in the most literary style as possible. I even had an ex-boyfriend who, also a writer, wouldn't read the stories I published in teen magazines because they weren't "literary enough." (Yes, I said "ex"!)
    And the thing is, all of you are right. The beauty of YA fiction is the story. That kid's journey through whatever it is he or she is dealing with. That's what I want to get sucked into. Because whether the reader is 13 or 36, we can all relate to a piece of it. Whether it's that awful feeling of sitting alone in the cafeteria or that amazing high of your crush finally calling you.

  6. Sleeman Says:

    I like what I read to create a movie in my head. Not the critically acclaimed type movies that win awards either; I'm talking about the kind that you don't mind paying $20 to see in the theaters. Which is one reason why I don't like when authors plagerise a thesaurus. If what you write can't be understood by a majority of readers, what's the point? It's like wearing make-up to bed: sure you look good, but seriously…

  7. lotusloquax Says:

    Kate, You rock! Thanks for bailing me and my spastic internet skills out!

  8. Sarahlynn Says:

    I read (and write) literary fiction. I also read (and write) genre fiction. My current WIP is a middle grade novel with some unmistakable fantasy in it, and my last was a mystery.
    I don't get this (common!) derisive attitude toward literary fiction as a genre. Sure there's some stuff out there in every genre that's lousy. And there's some stuff out there that's simply not to my taste. But I think it's vastly over-generalizing to suggest that literary fiction is "just a beautiful collection of words on paper without meaningful direction."
    Some of the best, most famous, and most read stories of all time, with incredible pace, adventure, and romance, are literary fiction.

  9. Jeanie W Says:

    40 pages to cross the street? It shouldn't take more than half a sentence. Sounds like someone needs to petition the city council for a new traffic light.

  10. beth Says:

    I agree entirely. I was just complaining about this very same thing actually–how a book that has a fun, adventurous plot is almost always in the kid section.
    Re: Sarahlynn:
    I think it's not so much that there's a common derisive attitude toward literary fiction, but that there's a tendency for literary fiction to be much more about the internal journey of a character than an external adventure. That does result in a different type of book–and for people (like me) who are more concerned about the external adventure, the pace of a literary novel–which is naturally much slower due to its internal nature–is not as appealing.

  11. Sarahlynn Says:

    Beth, I'd argue that not all literary novels are slow. I found The Time Traveler's Wife to be a page turner that kept me up all night, for a fairly recent example (also Middlesex and The Lovely Bones, both with strong story) and historical examples abound.
    I also think there's a big difference between saying that literary fiction is a different kind of book, perhaps not to one's personal taste, and using the word "literary" as a pejorative, or calling literary novels "just a beautiful collection of words on paper without meaningful direction," which is derisive. This is an attitude I hear frequently from my romance and mystery writer friends, and I think it's a little ugly.
    This discussion reminds me a bit of how I feel about our current political discourse. When did "ivy league" become a pejorative? "New England?" The horror! (And I live in "real America!")

  12. Kate Says:

    Sarahlynn –
    Thanks so much for commenting. In fact, I read and loved The Time Traveler's Wife, and yes, of course, not all literary novels are slow. For my purposes, with this post, I wanted to enumerate some of the reasons why I didn't want to represent literary fiction, not why I don't read literary fiction. I do still read some, or have in the past, but as I said, I much prefer commercial fiction.
    I probably should have gone with my initial instincts and added that question mark after the title of my post!
    I hate the idea that I'm adding to the current political discourse with this post. I really do. I will admit that my addition of "without meaningful direction" was harsh and unnecessary. Much literary fiction has direction, of course, but to me it often lacks the page-turner quality of commercial fiction.
    I also want to put a question to you: when you think of historical examples of literary fiction, as you mention above, how many of them do you think were in fact published as commercial when they were released?

  13. Sarahlynn Says:

    Kate,
    Good question. I'm far from expert on the business side of trade publishing. (Health sciences publishing I know a bit about, but it's not nearly as interesting or controversial to discuss!)
    I think reading had a different place in society 50 years ago, one hundred years ago. I think there was far less of a divide between "literary" and "commercial" then, in writing patterns, buying patterns, speaking patterns, etc. I think the market has really changed in that regard. And I think today's literary fiction is a mix. Some of it I love, some of it I hate, most of it I think has merit.
    A few summers ago I attended a Writers Institute where one of the visiting faculty read from her new novel . . . in which there was literally no plot, no structure, no consistent POV, no grounding in a real or fantasy world I could define, no obvious connection between the "chapters." It was the weirdest thing I'd ever heard, and I don't mean that in a good way. I guess I'm glad that there's a place for stuff like that in universities, though I can't imagine much market potential for it . . . not even one comprising students and a required reading list. That sort of experimental writing seems completely different to me from what the big houses are publishing as literary fiction.
    Two of the most recent books I read were PREP by Curtis Sittenfeld and SWALLOWING DARKNESS by Laurell K. Hamilton, in which one of the characters is a fey dude nicknamed The Darkness and the title refers to exactly what it seems to. So I hope I'm not coming off like a lit snob; my tastes are pretty eclectic.
    I absolutely get and respect not wanting to represent what you don't love. I'm just sensitive about dissing literary fiction in general terms, probably because I've been through some unpleasant discussions on this subject with romance and mystery writers.
    Thank you for being so cool with my prickliness!