Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Friday, 24 February 2012

Is anyone writing just fiction anymore?


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 Breaking Badclassifiable: 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.

green_lanternThe 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?’

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.)


who said...

I think I know what you mean. Sort of like your your title, like a work of fiction that "accidentally" got published and publicized as non-fiction.

Like one of my favorite Slayer songs starts out asking a person to stay a little while, he says he promises that he won't keep you long, which "technically" according to some peoples view on life and their personal spin on how they choose to define words, terms and concepts it can be viewed as not being "dishonest" per se. But the next line he finishes the 'I won't keep you long' by adding, I'll keep you forever.

to me full of shit is full of shit

scott g.f.bailey said...

One reason so many "literary/classic" novels are published is because they're out of copyright, the authors are dead and all of the editing has been done. You can just lay out a book, print it up and sell it without having to pay an author or market the author to readers. Everyone already knows who Jane Austen is.

Anyway, I write general fiction. Good books for people who like reading good books, I guess. I aspire to literature by working with form and attempting to write beautiful, fresh prose. Though this morning I had a chat with a publisher about one of my early novels. He thinks it's genre fiction and I think it's literature. Maybe it's just a question of marketing at some level; I am not at all sure. I do know that most living writers seem to be writing to the market, no matter what people are actually reading, because "the market" turns out to be the publishing industry, not the reading public. Which is vexing and amusing, alternately.

Scattercat said...

I often will become engrossed in a general fiction book once I pick it up (assuming it's good), since what I really groove on is, as you said, character and theme rather than plot and action. However, general fiction doesn't catch my eye in quite the same way. I'm a genre writer through and through despite the fact that what I like to read and write ends up closer to lit-fic than spec-fic. I find the possibilities for intense thematic examination and metaphorical play to be so much broader when you CAN have the father's ghost in the room, y'know?

If I've proved anything, though, in my brief career to date, it's that I'm definitely not writing stuff just to be marketable. :-P I just like to write some of the magic I see in the world into the page.

Brent Robison said...

Thanks for this, Jim. It captures very well my own orientation, or perhaps I should say disorientation in the clangorous genre-land of current publishing. Like you, I'm drawn to quiet fiction and that's what I write (as you know). I was glad to read some astute descriptions of what I like (Jan O'Hara), and I hope you're correct about the audience for such work, although I don't feel much hope in that regard. I'm learning to accept my status as dinosaur or oddity.

Art Durkee said...

"General Fiction" generally means "literary fine art fiction," or "literature," which basically means what the critics and novelists who claim "not to write in a genre" write—ignoring of course that it IS a genre. Every so often one of these lambasts science fiction as inferior, or dismisses mystery novels as merely "genre," completely ignoring that they themselves are writing in a "styleless style" or a "genreless genre." I find such pretzel logic laughable, but it seems to work for the literary giants who would like to distance themselves from "genre" fiction.

Which is why when a mainstream literary fine arts novelists writes "speculative fiction," it's never called "science fiction," even though it is. Such as Audrey Niffenegger's "The Time Traveler's Wife." (Which is a very good novel, BTW.) Such as Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale." Both of these are considered great novels. But Ursula K. Leguin's "The Dispossessed" or "The Left Hand of Darkness," which are great novels on similar SF themes, are dismissed out of hand as lesser novels simply because they're published AS science fiction.

I don't write general fiction. I have written a couple of science fiction stories, and I have a novel idea I've worked on for years, stalled, and maybe someday I'll get back to it. But to be honest, fiction isn't my thing. Which is odd when someone calls one of my prose-poems science fiction. LOL

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, who, I think I follow you. Like biographies that are marketed as fiction and vice versa. I don’t particularly trust marketers. They sell us shit but they don’t have the decency to call it shit. I hate the expressions pommes frites and French fries. It’s chips for god’s sake. Why try and make them sound so ruddy posh?

You’re quite right, Scott, about the out of copyright classics skewing the figures. I wonder how many people when they first got their Kindles immediately downloaded a pile of old books they felt they ought to read and probably never will? (Yes, even I did that.) I’m struggling to get reviewers for my new novel at the moment. The fault is mine because in my e-mail I’ve presented it as a literary novel, a metafiction no less, inspired by a lesser known novella by Samuel Beckett and it is; it is also a funny novel about two Irish layabouts who end up running away from home by accident. I think a lot of the time people see ‘literary’ and imagine ‘hard to read’ which can be the case but it doesn’t have to be the case.

I think all you have to do is look at book covers to see how publishers try and mislead their audiences. My copy of the feminist classic The Yellow Wallpaper has a naked woman on the cover and I’m pretty damn sure no naked women ever appear in the book. I suspect that’s another reason why my books don’t sell: the non-figurative covers. Personally I’m drawn to covers like that but I guess I’m in the minority there.

I know exactly where you’re coming from, Scattercat. When I incorporated the character of Truth in my first two novels I wasn’t thinking I could market these as fantasy novels, no, he was simply a literary device to make my life easier; I wanted my protagonist to face up to the truth about his life and what better way than to give Truth a voice than to give him a body too?

“Dinosaur or oddity,” yes, Brent, I feel that way too. I was only bemoaning the fact to my wife before we fell asleep last night. I’m on a bit of a downer at the moment and having real trouble shaking it. I should be out there with the fixed grin on pushing my book but I’m finding it very hard to motivate myself at the moment and I don’t really know why because everyone who has read Milligan and Murphy so far has loved it. I love it but I really don’t know what to put in my e-mails to encourage people to review it.

And, Art, this brings us full circle. I had a friend who used to work in a camera shop and he proved to be quite a good salesman because he listened to what the customers said and tailored his spiel to suit their preconceptions. He would see the same camera two different ways to two different people. If they thought is was heavy then heavy was good; if they thought it was a bit on the light side then light was good.

I never considered for a second how I was going to market my books when I wrote them, not for a second. I also never considered that I was writing any kind of genre fiction. To my mind people who wrote genre fiction were writing to supply a demographic and deliberating tailoring their work to meet the needs of others and not their own need; they were telling stories and that’s fine but that was not what I was all about.

My wife and I were trying to decide if films like Twilight would be called horror films these days or whether or not they’d be more likely to be reclassified as fantasy. Just thinking about me makes me tired.

Wolf Pascoe said...

Provocative piece & discussion. I'm trying to sort these things out for myself as well.

I was struck by this sentence is what you wrote:

" I write about people but I’m more interested in ideas."

Why write novels then? Why not write essays? What is it about exploring ideas through characters that makes you want to do it?

Jim Murdoch said...

You make a good point, Wolf. The simple answer to your question is that I never thought about it but the fact is that I need the people to reach the ideas. I never set out to write a novel when I started working on what would become Living with the Truth. Up until then I had only written poetry and when I looked in the mirror in the morning that’s what I saw, a poet, albeit a poet who hadn’t written a thing for three years. I thought I was done with poetry but the urge to write wouldn’t leave me and so I thought I’d try something else. I had no idea what I was going to end up writing but I knew I wanted to explore the nature of truth which I’ve always had issues with and there seemed no better way to do this than to make Truth a real person. I didn’t have any answers at this point but the writing provided a means for me to get to the truth about truth, if I can be flippant about it. I had written dozens of poems about truth by this point and the aphoristic nature of my poetry is the closest I’ve come to writing actual essays apart from some of the blogs I’ve composed over the last four years but even there I rarely feel confident enough to lay things out with the clarity and order that, to my mind at least, essay writing demands. In the novels I muddle through until it comes clear to me what the point is. I never start off with a point I want to make. If I had one I’d probably write a poem and save myself an awful lot of work because novel writing is not easy for me. I didn’t realise what the point of Living with the Truth was until the last few pages. With Milligan and Murphy that moment of clarity arrived in the second chapter. In my last novel I started out trying to explore my experiences of grief—or lack thereof to be honest—but that became very much a side issue in the book. The book I ended up writing was nothing like the book I imagined I was going to write but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a book worth writing.

Ideas on their own are all well and good but to mean anything we need to see them explored and tested. One of the truisms I grew up with was that there was a reason for everything and I would dig away at situations looking for the ‘reason’ why: everything had an ulterior motive and it usually involved selfishness at its core as evidenced by this poem:


        It was there.
        She knew it would be
        if she dug deep enough.
        But she seemed disappointed.

        What did she expect to find?
        Nothing smells very sweet
        this far down.

        28 July 1989

In Milligan and Murphy I had two characters do something on the spur of the moment and then watched them struggle to find the reason why they did what they did. The answer—at least the only answer they ever get—comes from a conversation with a priest who explains that there are no reasons for unreasonable things and really the whole book boils down to those six words. What the two men don’t realise—although they begin to suspect something along these lines—is that they are actually fictional characters and are being manipulated by an omniscient author so the book also takes a look at the nature of the creative process and the relationship between characters and their author. Again I could have written a dry essay about that but better to explore the process from the inside.

Thanks for your comment. You gave me a lot to think about.

martinipen said...

Well said. I lie awake in the shower on every morning commute with similar concerns.

Seriously, as a writer of "general" fiction, I thank you.

Claire King said...

Excellent post. People ask me all the time what 'kind' of book I have written, and seem vaguely disoriented when I tell them it is just a story. Fiction. Not a romance, not a thriller, not a crime novel. Literary or contemporary are labels that don't seem familiar to many. And 'general' does sound rather 'general'.
I'm also an author of one of those 'quiet' books. And I can tell you that, of the publishers that turned it down, about half cited the reason that it was too 'quiet'.
Fortunately it found a lovely home, where quiet is not seen as a bad thing. So I'm busy writing quiet, general book number 2...

Jim Murdoch said...

You would think in this hustley bustley world, Claire, that there would be a definite niche market for quiet art: quiet music, quiet paintings, quiet books. Oh, yes, you can buy CDs of music to relax to but it’s always the old favourites. Ambient music does exist, of course, but I never know what to buy and a lot of the stuff I have heard isn’t nearly as relaxing as you might expect. Seriously though, after a long day in the office or down the mine who wants to sit down to a doorstop of a novel? Not me. I’m glad your first book found a home and I’m glad that there’s someone out there not giving in to popular demand. Thanks for leaving a comment. Always appreciated.

And, Tim, thanks too for letting me know that I’m not alone. I think that’s what I was really wanting to hear here. I’ve been feeling a bit swamped of late by all the enthusiastic new authors all of whom seem to be acutely conscious of the demographic they’re writing for and I’m not saying there’s not a market for that kind of book because obviously there is. I regard a piece of writing as something natural that finds its own shape which is why you’ll never read a sonnet or a sestina by me because I would never sit down to write a poem in a particular form. All my poems have a structure but the structure makes itself apparent in the writing. And the same for my prose. Some people divide writers into two camps—planners and pantsers—but I’m not really comfortable with being called a pantser because of the connotations that come with an expression like ‘writing by the seat of your pants’. There is nothing urgent or panicky about my writing. It’s more like walking through a minefield, carefully testing the ground ahead to see which is the best way to proceed. You can’t plan ahead in a situation like that. All you can do in advance is make sure you have the tools available to do the job.

Jennifer Nolan said...

Hi there,
I've enjoyed reading your blog posts and I have added your link to my blog. I wonder whether you might do the same for me? I feel awfully cheeky, but hey we don't get if we don't ask...

Jen x

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for letting me know, Jen, and consider yourself added.

Kass said...

Your reviews, fiction and poetry stretch me and I enjoy the excursion into unfamiliar territorial writing.

I read what you write for the same reason I push myself to buy new classical music, or any kind of music, for that matter.

Jim Murdoch said...

Most of my posts stretch me, Kass. That’s a big reason why I do this, to share what I myself have been discovering. As for classical music I’m a huge fan with very broad tastes. I’ve actually written a post about it and I’ve started a second one on soundtracks to write to. Christ knows when I’ll get round to posting the first one but watch out for it.

Ping services