Pub Rants

Defining Literary

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STATUS: I accomplished a ton of stuff today. I powered through a lot of client reading, which was great. I usually don’t get to read during the day.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? THE MUSIC OF THE NIGHT by Michael Crawford (from Phantom of the Opera)

Nothing dooms a query faster than mislabeling the genre of your work. If a writer has a serious tone for his/her query with a lot of darkness only to wrap it up with “and this would be a perfect fit for the chick lit market,” I’m understandably going to be confused.

Or better yet, the queries that highlight that the work is every genre under the sun, including the kitchen sink, because then all bases are covered. (i.e. My work is a mystery, women’s fiction thriller that will also appeal to young adults—or what have you.) That’s problematic as well because it’s clear that the writer doesn’t have a clear vision of the market.

But nothing is tougher than trying to figure out whether your work is literary or not.

I wish there were a quick and dirty definition I could give you but there’s not. It’s often like porn. I know it when I see it. It’s pretty clear.

I can at least make a stab at defining it though. The term literary refers to the level and quality of the writing. The language itself is art. It also refers to the level of complexity in the story. So works like THE CLOUD ATLAS or GILEAD are definitely literary.

The writing itself has a beauty that’s palpable. Now, these works can also tell a good story (which both do by the way) but when you sit back in awe at the tightness of the writing and the sheer scope encompassed, then you know it’s literary.

Commercial fiction can certainly have literary leaning. Works such as COLD MOUNTAIN and SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS come to mind. Jane Smiley (THOUSAND ACRES) and Jodi Picoult (MY SISTER’S KEEPER) also strike me as walking that fine line between the two but ultimately I would call their stuff commercial. (Okay, I might really say commercial fiction with a literary bent to show that the writing is above the ordinary.)

And yes, folks might disagree with me—hence the dilemma between what is literary and what is commercial.

25 Responses

  1. Don said:

    I’ve noticed that many book stores don’t bother with the distinction any more. In the 80s and early 90s it was pretty common for there to be separate sections labeled “fiction” and “literature” (and I used to torment bookstore employees asking them about the distinction) as well as the happlessly mis-classified “classics” section (properly speaking, classics refers to Greek, Roman, and perhaps near-Eastern works written before, oh, 500AD or so, and Dickens, being English and a millenium and a half late is not a “classical” author). Now, it seems that all the fiction, whether commercial, literary or written by guys so dead their bones are dust are in one big section labeled “fiction”.

    I suppose what I write is lit fic, but I find the title to be a bit presumptuous to claim for myself.

  2. kathy said:

    Here’s what I heard…
    Comercial fiction is plot based,ie charcters move with the plot.
    Literary fiction is character based and the plot revolves around the characters take on things, their feelings, etc…

  3. Kimber An said:

    I’m so glad I don’t write Literary because of this. Thanks for helping to clear up the issue! I don’t pay much attention to labels as a reader. Usually, it’s the title that snags my attention and then I speed-read the first few pages.

    As a writer, figuring out what to label my novel in the query letter was the single most difficult issue I faced. It wasn’t until I read an interview of Linnea Sinclair at Sequential Tart in which she described Science Fiction Romance and related labels that it suddenly all made sense.

  4. farrout said:

    While this was a clarifying post regarding literary work, it was another “clarification” that fired me up.

    In addition to writing a book, perfecting a query, i’m also supposed to study the market and objectively determine the market for my book?

    Maybe i’m jaded, but i’m rather clueless about this. And, i’m reading “only the knowledgeable may apply.” There is a repeated theme throughout the agenting world that refers to knowing your market, and very little on how that’s determined.

    Further, the request to define, by pinpoint, potential readership seems categorically stiff and stifling.

    I’d love to see an entry about thisi topic, Kristin.

  5. Patrick McNamara said:

    The distinction of literature appears to have fallen apart after a poll was taken and Lord of the Rings was considered to be the best literary work of the 20th century, even though many refused to consider it literature. I would that “literature” itself has become a genre, typically filled with attacks on conservative ideas and people dying at the end. And if Jane Austin was writing today she’d probably be classified as a Romance writer, not a literary writer.

    There are those works which are definately literature, but I think it’s not a black and white issue. It’s a matter of quality and that can vary. It really depends on the amount of effort the writer put into the work and the results they were able to achive. Good prose is a mark of good literature, but so is good character development.

    And then there are those literary awards which have been more inclined lately to award based upon the popularity of the author rather than the quality of the work. And it’s often not the best writers that are remembered as much as those who are commercial successes–and those who are read in school.

  6. Deb said:

    So if (perchance) you DO write literary fiction, with all the word-glory and the art, you’re also supposed to have the cojones to call it literary in your query letter?

    Gimme a break!

    How many agents, I wonder, have read queries for works labeled “literary” only to find the prose was commercial-fiction quality? How many writers dream of selling in the literary category, only to have their prose called less than high art?

    Even if my Muse did give me such words, I doubt I would ever have the confidence to call my work literary. Best I could do in any query would be “contemporary fiction.” I’d leave the “this is art” praise to others.

    My $0.02.


  7. Katie said:

    This is interesting. It’s actually something I’ve been thinking about a lot as I read lately, because I guess I’m reading (and writing) some plot-heavy material. Luckily, what I’m reading (and I hope what I’m writing) has character development along with a plot, but the thought keeps popping into my head that “literary” would apply if X, Y, and Z didn’t happen but the characters still went through the same development.

    I think the line is blurring and expectations are being upturned. You can’t imagine how surprised I was to find out that the character was literally on a boat with a tiger in “Life of Pi”. I totally had assumed that was some strange metaphor.

  8. Anonymous said:

    The accurate world for what people call literary fiction would be drama, since it deals with serious dramatic themes. All you have to do is imagine if the book were a movie what genre would the movie be in? If the movie version is a drama, so is the book. The literry value of a book is an opinion based on style.

  9. Anonymous said:

    Hi Kristin
    I love your blog and I love all your posts, but I was suprised by your post today. You wrote that literary is defined by the quality of the writing and the complexity of the story? Meaning, commercial fiction is lower quality writing and simple books? I’m so sad that an agent who reps romance actually believes that commercial means lower quality writing, and I’m so disillusioned to hear an agent that I’ve respected for a long time make that kind of sweeping, brutal generalization against commerical fiction. As you said, if the writing it awesomely tight, it must be literary? Because commerical fiction writers aren’t capable of writing tight, compelling, complex character driven prose? Wow. I truly had no idea you felt that way and I’m stunned. After all the grief romance writers take, do they also need to be cut down by an agent who reps them? I’m already agented, by an agent whose passion and joy for the genre comes through in every word she speaks and writes. Seeing your post makes me appreciate her even more, because she makes me feel special and talented, not second rate.

  10. Anonymous said:

    Well, I write cross-genre fiction, which makes slapping a label on it even more difficult. It *does* have a literary quality to it, but it’s more commercial fiction. It has paranormal elements, but it’s allegorical. Oh lordy. See my problem?

    What’s the market for this? People who like their paranormal fantasies a little on the high-brow side.

    Now, am I going to change what I write, stick myself in a nice safe category and make myself stay there? Gawd no. What a bore. But writing the way I do sure makes the first line of the query interesting.

  11. Anonymous said:

    I’ve heard many writers (good, successful writers known for having issues with the nature of the publishing biz) come flat out and denounce this need to quantify every single work, and worse, to quantify every single writer.

    *Where will it sit on the shelves?
    *How will people find it on Amazon?
    *How will we identify this writer to the market?

    Sure, these are valid questions, and yeah, they must be asked. But they should not be asked of the writer! If it looks like the writing is good enough to be called “literary” (which I think is pure, unadulterated bullshit), does that mean it can’t sit next to other romances, fantasies or vampire stories?

    This is the kind of thing an agent should be required to figure out… not the poor schmuck who wrote it. I’d have to assume that if they queried an agent who reps fantasy, the writer thinks it’s a fantasy, fair enough?

    It sounds as if Agent Kristin is perplexed when something arrives that doesn’t bear a day-glo yellow sticky note clearly declaring its genre. Way to agent.

  12. Anonymous said:

    Agents do not know literary fiction from tabloid articles on Britney Spears. Agents follow the money, period. If they can sell a concept, they sell the concept. If the writing transcends the ordinary, it is lost on them, for they feel the only question that is of any import is, “Can I sell it?” This is why it is so important for these folks of limited vision to know just what to call the work. Fantasy. Romance. Historical Romance. Paranormal Romance. Science Fiction. Thriller.

    Agents shy away from anything they cannot label properly, anything that does not fit onto their spreadsheets under the appropriate heading, telling them who to call to make the pitch. In previous posts, this agenthas stated that she avoids things she cannot figure out. That just means she avoids things she can’t put under a heading.

    My point? Don’t listen to an agent ramble on about “literary merit”. Agents have wiped their collective ass with the phrase. This is tantamount to listening to the head “chef” at an Applebee’s wax poetic on his restaraunt’s “cuisine”.

  13. John B said:

    An interesting thing I noticed was that you put Cold Mountain and A Thousand Acres in the commercial fiction category, albiet with literary leanings. Cold Mountain won the National Book Award and A Thousand Acres won the Pulitzer. Given this, I would turn it around and say that they were literary novels with commercial appeal.

  14. Celeste said:

    I didn’t really sense a judgment in the post on whether literary fiction was of “higher” quality than commercial fiction.

    I read and write both, and I tend to agree that there is a difference that is hard to define, but yet, you know it when you see it.

    When I’m writing something I mean to be literary, I write more poetically. I think very deeply about the themes that run through my characters’ lives. These books are defined by an emotion, a tone, a chord that they strike. That’s my goal when I’m writing.

    When writing a piece I know will be commercial, I put NO less thought into it. I still use themes and emotions, the book still has a tone! More important than metaphors, though, is making sure I have a sympathetic protagonist and a plot that doesn’t meander.

    When I buy a book labeled “literature”, I admit that I may pay more for the hardcover. But that doesn’t change the fact that I buy ten times more mass market paperbacks!

    Quality is truly defined by the reader (our customer). Writers and publishing professionals have to be cool with that.

  15. Brandi said:

    I don’t write literary, though I do read it from time to time. I write genre–fantasy and suspense–and what I’ve found the main difference to be is this: in a literary work the prose draws attention to itself. It’s beautiful, and the reader notices. In genre, if the reader is noticing the prose, the writer hasn’t done their job. The prose should be invisible and not draw attention to itself.


  16. Michele Lee said:

    This whole line of conversation is stunning. Obviously a few of these anonymous posters have selective memories. Of course some times agents can’t figure out when exactly they’ve been sent. Have you read Evil Editor or the Crapometer? If that is a true slice of what agents recieve I pity them! The slush pile is a mess! Having an idea of what your work is and how to form a business letter is a huge step up. It states, very obviously that you take yourself seriously. You don’t have to be “high art” to be taken seriously. This is a concept I’ve fought since I was a “baby writer” and made the mistake of looking to college to teach me to write. It’s bad enough that “literary” writers and those who teach it sneer down on those of us who like aliens and love and scary stuff with our plots. for the gods sake, don’t agree with them!
    The basic difference is that literary is for the art, genre is for the entertainment. Neither one is inherantly poor writing, just different. Personally, I can’t stand pretentious books that leave me thinking “When is something besides the characters whining going to happen?”
    Obviously since Kristin reps so many different things she doesn’t think genre is less than literary. Just different. Instead of insulting her, should you, yanno, be writing?

  17. Anonymous said:

    Here’s my test: Can I know how the plot ends and still find the book compelling to read? If so, it’s literature. If not, it’s genre.

    I always read the last chapter first to find out the end so I’m not tugged along through a lackluster book waiting for the answer.

  18. relevantgirl said:

    I’ve couched my fiction as literary suspense, two very different genres, to be sure, but it describes my first two novels to a tee. When I read Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, I felt I’d met a kindred spirit. Lovely, amazing, surprising prose coupled with page-turning suspense. I can’t wait for his next book to come out.

  19. Anonymous said:

    I’m not sure whether I’d call my books poetic–they seem so to me, but that’s me. I write YA and think about labels like “edgy.” What if the librarian doesn’t like it? Am I screwed?

    I think Don has it right in the fact that all sorts of fiction is mixed together. And that’s as it should be. I teach “literature” at a community college, and my students are reluctant readers on the best of days. “Literary” fiction, such as LOVE MEDICINE, doesn’t do well for them. But, I have lots of success with things like CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT TIME. Haddon’s language can be poetic, but the character is interesting and the plot is quick and crazy. That works for them. If I force something “literary” on them, they hate me and the class. And I want them to LIKE “literature,” no matter what kind I give them. Would I like to teach LOVE MEDICINE? Of course. But it defeats my purpose.

    I always wonder if, because I use S. King’s ON WRITING in my creative writing class, the “literary police” will haul me off to jail because he doesn’t write “literature”. Go read the fallout from his acceptance speech at the National Book Awards(?) (03? 04?)–he’s talking about just this thing.

    There’s no end to this discussion. My goal is to write well, no matter how I’m labeled. All of us have that goal, “genre” or “literary” or whoever we are.

  20. Linda Adams said:

    It makes it really hard to figure out what’s what when bookstores don’t always categorize books well–and each one is different. I spent years writing a thriller and thinking it was a mystery because that’s where all those books were in my bookstore (and I’m still trying to figure out how Tom Clancy and W.E.B. Griffin qualify as a mystery by these standards).

    Yet, in another bookstore, I find books like Clancy, Griffin, and Cussler in the General Fiction section. While looking for Chicklit, I found it both in the Romance and Literature sections–with at least one book being in both places!

    And then there’s Urban Fantasy. Vampires and werewolves. The Anita Blake series is in my horror section (and also turns up in Romance), but every other vampire story is in the fantasy section.

    No wonder people are confused about what fits where! It’s different in every single bookstore.

  21. beth said:

    Kathy said: Comercial fiction is plot based,ie charcters move with the plot.
    Literary fiction is character based and the plot revolves around the characters take on things, their feelings, etc…

    All good fiction should be character-driven. I think literary fiction can be characterized not only by its attention to character development, but by the elevation of language, emphasis on theme, and scope.

  22. Beth said:

    in a literary work the prose draws attention to itself. It’s beautiful, and the reader notices. In genre, if the reader is noticing the prose, the writer hasn’t done their job. The prose should be invisible and not draw attention to itself.

    Well…not necessarily. I love to see beautiful and resonant writing in any genre.

  23. Anonymous said:

    All good fiction should be character-driven.

    All good fiction should have vampire sex giggles. Because, you know, my taste is more important than anybody else’s, right?

    Or, less argumentatively, all good fiction should have people actually doing something important. Oops, there go many literary books.

    I think literary fiction can be characterized not only by its attention to character development, but by the elevation of language, emphasis on theme, and scope.

    If, by “elevation of language”, you mean overblown and repetitive metaphors, self-important self-reference, and so on, then perhaps. I remember reading Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, and about the third time that some emotion “blew across the savanna of [a character’s] face”, I was ready to catch the guy on a street and yell, “Hey, you, Savanna-face!”

    “Emphasis on theme” is in most good genre fiction. You need to add the words “to the exclusion of actual plot” to make it uniquely true of the literary genre.

    I have no clue what you might mean by “scope”, though. Clearly, Science Fiction and Fantasy have greater scope than Literary, by any definition of the word “scope”. They deal with the meaning of being human in much more profound ways than literary ever could.