The general "fiction" section of the bookstore … can be a very lonely place – Donald Maass
A while back I joined a writers’ group on Facebook. It’s a friendly place, bustling with activity. Some authors are slogging away on that first book, others are there promoting a whole range. So, a whole mixed bag. Almost all of us have websites and blogs and although our primary reason for being there is to promote ourselves, as is the nature of the Internet, there is a general willingness to help each other out in whatever ways we can. One way is providing book reviews. We expect someone to review our books so it only seems fair that we review a few too. To help people out, someone cobbled together a list of all the members who were willing to do reviews and what their preferences were: sci fi, horror, romance, chick lit, YA etc. Not one of them listed general fiction, let alone literary fiction, and so I asked and one nice lady said she’d read just about anything. But this started me thinking. I began to look at the kind of books that members of the group were writing. There were paranormal romances, historical fantasies, psychological thrillers, prehistoric fantasies, gothic horror, campus murder mysteries but nothing that looked remotely like plain ol’ General Fiction. And I wondered why.
I subscribe to a number of writers’ websites, some published, some still trying, some not that bothered, but very few of them produce work that doesn’t fit neatly into one of the many, many genres that are out there. There are definitely still writers who don’t work in a genre because I get offered their books to review. Arguably many of them might be classified as literary novelists; I’ll come back to that.
Until recently I had never read any historical fiction. I got historical fiction mixed up in my head with historical romances. The few I have read since have taught me not to judge. These are serious novelists who do an astounding amount of research so that what we get to read is as accurate as possible and yet they’re classed as genre writers. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought the word ‘genre’ was a disparaging term akin to ‘pulp fiction’. No matter how much research an historical novelist does I can’t imagine one winning the Nobel Prize for literature. But who was the last fantasy author to win it?
In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell envisaged novel-writing machines churning out populist fiction for the proles. Give the people what they want. Look at our recent TV schedules: House (medical), the various incarnations of CSI (forensic detective), The Event (science fiction), Rookie Blue (police procedural), The Good Wife (legal), True Blood (horror), Gossip Girl (teen drama) – and you could add and add and add to these lists, but how many plain ol’ dramas? I can think of a few that are so easily classifiable: The Big C, United States of Tara, Hung, Breaking Bad and Treme, but by comparison to the rest they pale into insignificance and two at least have been cancelled after only a couple of seasons. The UK’s schedule is no better, although I think it’s more clogged up with soaps and they’re not exactly written with the cognoscenti of Great Britain in mind.
All of these have their place – I can enjoy a sitcom like The Big Bang Theory and I’m a huge fan of Family Guy – but I do get tired of shows like Castle which Carrie and I watch and get a kick out of deconstructing every week. Seriously, you would think some of these shows were written by machine.
Which brings me back to my initial question, only now I think it’s the wrong question. Writers want to be read – or, in the case of scriptwriters, they want to see their work performed – and the general idea is that people will be willing to pay a modest amount to read what we have written. There are two ways of approaching this problem: 1) do your own thing, do a good job and hope that people will be willing to pay for quality, or 2) write what people want to read. At the moment a lot of writers are going down the second route, in droves in fact. And the flavour of the month is YA. Post-Harry Potter people have suddenly sussed that young adults are capable of reading and actually willing to do so, and the same thing is happening now as happened with the silent movies: there has been a sudden surge in demand and so anyone who can string two sentences together is in with a shot. This is not a bad thing. It’s not a good thing either. It’s just an inevitable thing.
I have it on good authority that I can string a sentence or two together so why don’t I write the next werevamp romance? Firstly, I have no interest; secondly, I have no ability – just because I can write doesn’t mean I can write anything – and, lastly, the market is already flooded with similar products. What I really need to do is work out what the next big thing is going to be and write that before anyone else gets their foot in the door. Seriously, ten years ago would anyone have thought that wizards and pirates would be dominating the cinema?
General Fiction is simply that: General. It doesn't fit in any genre category. Part of our problem these days is too many genres. When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein I bet she thought she was writing a literary novel. Genre is not new. It’s been around since the time of the Greeks. Plato divided literature into the three classic genres accepted in Ancient Greece: poetry, drama, and prose. Poetry was further subdivided into epic, lyric, and drama. Using that logic then ‘novel’ is itself a subgenre, a type of prose-writing which makes science fiction et al subsubgenres.
The other thing that I’m noticing more and more are people writing series. You know when any blockbuster appears in the listings before anyone has seen it they’re already planning the next one and the one after that. X-Men was never going to be one film, Spiderman was never going to be one film and you can bet your bottom dollar that Thor and Green Lantern will spawn sequels in due course, even if Spawn didn’t (although there was the cartoon). There have always been sequels but never like nowadays. Cervantes wrote a sequel to Don Quixote. Nowadays the two books always appear as a single volume but the fact is there are two books and if you’ve read the first there’s nothing really worth reading the second one for; I gave up on it, one of the first books I never finished. I know I wrote a sequel to my first novel and I did so because my public (okay the handful of people who read the early drafts of Living with the Truth) asked for it, but although the sequel ends on a cliff-hanger, I had no plans to write a third book and can’t ever see myself returning to that universe. All my other books were designed to stand alone.
In an interview with Michael Neff, the literary agent Donald Maass was asked:
NEFF: What exactly is meant by "general fiction"? Is it harder to break into than SF or mystery, e.g.?
MAASS: General fiction, to my mind, is the stuff that doesn't fit into any category, or is written on such a scale that it "transcends" category. Have you noticed how mystery writers, say, who hit the bestseller lists no longer have the word "mystery" printed on the spines of their books? Instead the hardcover edition will simply say "a novel." Funny about that. Actually, category lists and category sections in bookstores can be great places to grow. There are dedicated readers, magazines and awards to help build an author's career. The general "fiction" section of the bookstore, in contrast, can be a very lonely place. – Michael Neff, ‘Only the Best’, Algonkian Writers Conferences
I’m content for my books to be classed as General or Contemporary Fiction but I still think of myself as a literary novelist. And, as such, that means I want to play with the big boys but as soon as I imagine myself standing in a line-up with the usual suspects – the likes of Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway – I suddenly want to scurry back to the safety of the General Fiction shelves, but the fact is at least two of my novels are hard to classify as anything else: Milligan and Murphy is a metafiction inspired by Beckett’s short novel Mercier and Camier and The More Things Change contains huge monologues, pages and pages long, and is basically about a bloke hanging around a park for forty years thinking about how crappy his life has been. Not exactly bestseller material; even I’m willing to admit that.
So, why write them?
Because those are the books that interest me. I look at so many of the books my contemporaries are churning out and I feel like such a snob but I simply cannot imagine reading any of them. Or writing any of them. I think perhaps if anything qualifies me as a literary writer it’s my approach towards my writing. I’m not interested in telling stories, I’m not interested in entertaining people, I’m not that interested in selling books (a few would be nice, mind) but I am interested in working things out through my writing. I write about people but I’m more interested in ideas.
A definition then, although not a definitive one:
Literary fiction tends to focus on character development over plot, and explore philosophical issues and ideology. In comparison to mainstream fiction, it often contains more introspection and exposition, and less action and dialogue. It is often said to challenge the reader. There may be layers of meaning beyond the surface story. The story may be about something "bigger"—more universal—than the story being explicitly told. Multiple reads are usually necessary to absorb all of the meaning embedded in the story. Literary fiction is most likely to break traditional fiction conventions, e.g. endings may be upsetting or ambiguous, plots may be next to non-existent, the writer may forego punctuation rules such as placing quotation marks around dialogue. – ‘Fiction: Genre vs. Mainstream vs. Literary’, Toasted Cheese
Okay, I would never forego punctuation rules but apart from that I can relate to that. That is what I aspire to. I was actually a little disappointed with Left when I finished it. It’s the best I was going to be able to do with the subject but I definitely felt that I hadn’t stretched myself. I simply couldn’t get my original idea to work on the page. It would work as a stage play; in fact if you’ve ever seen an episode of the short-lived American series Raines that is very much what I was going for. Wikipedia describes the premise as follows:
The series focused on Michael Raines (Jeff Goldblum), a 'mentally haunted' LAPD detective, who interacts with imaginary manifestations of dead crime victims in order to solve criminal cases. Raines must deal with his unique, unintentional method, as it causes problems with his co-workers and in his personal life.
And that is what I wanted, a daughter going through her father’s things who talked to an imaginary version of her father (not a ghost) and so was only privy to what she knew before he died or discovered while rummaging around his flat. It’s a good idea but I couldn’t make it work on the page. What I ended up doing was using the format of a mystery novel to tell the story, even if I handle it in a most unconventional way.
I have a similar idea buzzing around my head for my next book and I think I know how I can pull this one off, but it’s certainly not a commercial book. A part of me wishes I could come up with something a lot of people would like to read – the next Harry Potter, whatever – but I’d also feel like I was selling out, prostituting my art as I think Holden Caulfield would have put it.
Do I think that literary fiction is better than genre fiction? It depends what you mean by better. It suits me better. I like it better. And so, yes, I think it is better but I’m not here to proselytise, to try and convince you all to ditch your werevamp romances and write more literary fiction because there is already more out there than I will ever get the chance to read before I die, even if I live to a ripe old age. I have read some crime novels and marvelled at the writers’ abilities to structure them. The same goes for the spy novels of John le Carré. I could never in a million years come up with writing like that – and he is a damn good writer by anyone’s standards – so why try and denigrate what he does simply because it can be filed under ‘genre fiction’?
So where does ‘mainstream fiction’ fall?
Readers are interested in reading about people just like themselves in the same way that they are interested in knowing about the lives of their real-life neighbours. – ‘What Is Mainstream Fiction?’ Novel-Writing-Help.com
I think that assessment is basically true. I’m not a spy or a crime fighter or an alien or a monster or a Don Juan. I’m a bloke who lives in a flat in Glasgow with his wife who hasn’t done much different with his life than the girl next door or the couple downstairs. Why aren’t more people writing about people like us? I don’t believe the kitchen sink drama has had its day. There is still room on the shelves for modern versions of A Taste of Honey, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Room at the Top and Look Back in Anger. We are living in interesting times. There are so many issues that need exploring that don’t involve magic or horror or aliens or the ripping off of bodices. Who is documenting our times in fiction like these authors did theirs? Or are our times so bad that all people want to do is to escape from them into fantasies? Yes, they have their place, but writing is much bigger than that.
I discovered a new term a while back: quiet fiction. I like it. If there was a section in a book shop marked ‘Quiet Fiction’ I would definitely take a wander over there and have a shuftie. I learned the term when reading an article on Writer Unboxed by Jan O’Hara where she defines quiet books like this:
They tend to be about ordinary people facing ordinary struggles searching for extraordinary grace. The characters are warmly drawn, the world infused with subtle optimism. A good portion of the book’s magic comes via its themes and texture.
In particular, the holistic nature of their work defies the sound bite, the tweet, the tagging. Many times it baffles their cover artist. – Jan O’Hara, ‘But What about the Quiet Ones?’, Writer Unboxed, 19 September 2001
Another rough definition, this time in the Irish Echo Online from 2007:
Quiet books are usually called so because the joy we get from them is in the small things: a perfect emotional chord, the description of a properly-set table, the subtle power of emotional restraint. A handful of these things done well makes a quiet novel.
The more I read the more excited I get. Where can I buy these books? Who’s writing these books? I want to write one.
Orchestral music always sells better than chamber music. I have a huge classical music collection but it most definitely hinges on the concertos and the symphonic, the noisy pieces. I’m not saying I have no chamber music but I have to be in the mood for it. I’m the exact opposite when it comes to books. Big novels are hard work and the thought of anything epic is a complete turn off. But what classical music sells the best? Who, for example, hasn’t got a copy of The Planets or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in their collection? I wonder how many have a copy of Stockhausen’s Klang? And that’s the point. If you’ve bought the Holst or the Beethoven you’re more likely to move towards Vaughan Williams or Brahms. You’ll play it safe, stick to what you know. And that’s what happens with books. That’s why I’m rather glad I started reviewing books online because suddenly I was faced with books I would never have picked up in a bookshop, even in Bargain Books. It hasn’t changed my core tastes though.
The most recent sales figures I could find online were for e-book sales for 2010, a study conducted on behalf of Publishers World. The results surprised me. They may you. Literary/Classic fiction topped the study followed closely by Science Fiction which, according to what I’ve been reading elsewhere, isn’t doing nearly as well in paperback. People are still clearly attracted to good writing. One has to wonder why non-genre fiction is so hard to market because – clearly, the figures do not lie – there is a sizeable market there and someone needs to be writing for them.
(Not sure what the ‘20’ means – it’s not 20% because if you add all those numbers together you get 128.)