Pub Rants

Literary Can of Worms

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STATUS: Just got news that my author Linnea Sinclair’s GAMES OF COMMAND has hit the extended USA Today Bestseller list. No, it wasn’t the top 50 (that would be really exciting) but it’s a start—especially after being out on the shelves for only one week.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? MY HOMETOWN by Bruce Springsteen

I just had to chuckle when reading the comments from yesterday’s blog. Who knew what can of worms I was opening by simply trying to define what is literary for edification.

Where in my post do I denigrate genre writers? Simply because I mention that “literary” writing is usually recognizable or defined by level or art of the writing doesn’t mean that genre writers don’t also achieve that. It’s simply that the industry doesn’t DEFINE them as literary. Folks, I don’t make the rules. I simply try and point out that they exist. That there is an expectation an editor has if I pitch a work as literary fiction. They are expecting whatever it is they consider to be literary—and in the way I took a stab at defining. (Mitchell, Robinson, Roth or whoever you put on that list.)

In fact, I posit that there are many terrific literary writers who write genre fiction (Dan Simmons, Diana Gabaldon, and Anne Rice immediately pop to mind) but that’s not how they are labeled in the industry.

They are labeled science fiction/horror or historical fiction (or as some would argue for Diana’s earlier works, romance), or fantasy despite the literary quality of the writing. Do I think that’s fair? No. But it’s the truth in this industry.

That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Still, I love when blog posts spark discussion because it has long annoyed me that literary genre writers don’t get the credit they often deserve simply because they don’t happen to write what is “traditionally” considered literary.

43 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    Ah, sage advice from the agent who loved reading Paris Hilton’s book. Yeah, you know your literary work. Bravissimo. I promise to read “Games of Command” right after I pick up “Confessions of an Heiress.”

  2. Marissa said:

    Me, I write fantasy and science fiction, and I want a reader to know that going in, because some ways of approaching the book are different.

    For example, last fall I was reading a book where the main character was holding up a cameo brooch that had belonged to her dead mother, and I came upon the sentence, “The carving winked at her in the lamplight.” If the book had been cyberpunk, I would have wondered if there was a data crystal in the brooch; if it had been fantasy, OMG, what’s in the brooch? Is it her mother’s ghost? Is it some spirit? Is it a spell? Did her mother put it in there? Did someone else put a spell on her mother? Did the brooch kill the mother? Is it going to try to kill the main character? But it was, instead, a literary novel, and so the information I got from that sentence was that the brooch was shiny. It’s not a question of quality. It’s a question — among other things — of which parts of the book are literal and which figurative.

  3. joanr16 said:

    That is so cool about Linnea’s latest!

    I didn’t see yesterday’s blog entry until just now, due to having a session with the first responders to my literary paranormal work-in-progress. It really helps to have an English Lit professor as a good friend. Now, to finish the first draft and those challenging revisions, so Kristin and I can make a sale and silence the likes of anonymous, above.

  4. Anonymous said:

    Does Sinclair know the artist who does her cover art? A cousin, maybe? Perhaps a demented aunt, with a degree in art and the unwavering idea that romantic heroines should always be posed as if holding in explosive diarrhea?

    Maybe she just lost a bet…

  5. Anonymous said:

    y’know, I love checking out reviews on sites like B&N, and reading the ones that are obviously plants by people the author knows.

    you can tell them apart from the others, because readers who write reviews give their opinions about the book, and what they thought of it. Plants, on the other hand, give a full synopsis of the book, accompanied by gushing praise along the review’s length.

    “Games of Command” has two reviews on B&N. One is a plant, and the other is by Harriet Klausner (who I understand to be a habitual reviewer and crazy to boot, since no one tells her to review anything).

    This made it into an “extended best seller list”? Must have been a slow week.

  6. Anonymous said:

    I loved yesterday’s post, and was agreeing with the bulk of it until this morning, when I awoke to an epiphany.

    The difference between so-called “literary fiction” and “commercial fiction” is a fib.

    Literary fiction is beautifully written, with complex plots. The problem is, most readers are morons, and booksellers are more concerned with their tastes than with any other group. Hence the differentiation. Commercial fiction is just bad fiction- it’s badly written, and for the sake of our moronic populace.

    Unfortunately, rather than ask the majority of the public to raise its standards, we live in a culture that caters to the lowest common denominator. I’m sure agents like Kristin have passed up gorgeously written pieces with elaborate plots, sheerly on the principle of “I don’t get it” and “I can’t sell it.”

  7. Katherine E. Hazen said:

    Good lord the anons are cranky today.
    I wonder how many of them are published authors and how many are wanna-be writers who do nothing but troll the internet rather than work on getting their own writing out there because nobody “gets” them.

    To the lot of you who have nothing nice to say, back off. Kristen’s doing a really nice thing here writing a blog that’s been so full of helpful advice for those of us who want to use it. Go flame somebody else.

    I know I sound like a kiss-ass but I don’t care. I’ve gotten more good advice from this blog than from most the writing books I’ve ever picked up. The last thing those of us who find it helpful need is to wade through your crappy insults. Go somewhere else.

  8. Anonymous said:

    I would have said that commercial fiction must have a strong plot. It may, and quality commercial fiction does, have multiple layers beyond the plot. However, when you strip the non-plot layers away, an essential story remains.

    Literary fiction, on the other hand, can get by with little or no plot. Removing the constraint of plot leaves literary fiction free to focus elsewhere.

  9. Anonymous said:

    I meant to add:

    “literary” does not equal “superior”
    “commercial” does not equal “inferior”

    They just have different emphases, that’s all.

  10. Anonymous said:

    Thank you, Katherine E. Hazen, for expressing my thoughts.

    Anonymous 11:42 particularly needs a reality check. Just because somebody is honest enough to admit she found “Confessions of an Heiress” entertaining, does not mean that the person is devoid of all taste or knowledge.

    I wouldn’t want to eat either cotton candy or macrobiotic meals every day of the year. Different things are satisfying under different circumstances.

    An appreciative and non-cranky anon

  11. Katherine E. Hazen said:

    yay for non-cranky anons! lol

    I’m glad I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. it seems like some people feel like they have a right to be rude just because they don’t have to attach a name to it. It’s like working customer service, people say things over the phone they would never have the balls to say in person just because they don’t have to look you in the eye. It makes me mad.

  12. Linnea Sinclair said:

    To Anon 12:09 on my cover art. Wow, what a nice post. My cover artist is Stephen Youll. To the best of my knowledge, no relation. He’s not my aunt. I’ve never even met him. You can google Stephen if you like to see his credits–he also does covers for CJ Cherryh. No, she’s no relation either. Actually, I’m an only child.

    To Anon 12:17. Sorry to bust your balloon, darling, but no plants on GAMES’s page on Amazon. Would you like me to swear on a stack of bibles on that? Be glad to. I’m not sure why someone getting a nice review frosts you so. Why is there the assumption (and you do know what they say about ASSUME, don’t you?) that a compliment is a lie? Plenty of people like my books. Plenty don’t. Has my having a book out deprived you of something in some way that you feel a necessity to be so vituperative, and anonymously at that?

    If you’re an author or an aspiring author, then consider this: I’m in no way competing with you. Readers can read ’em faster than we can write ’em. The more books out there to entice readers, the more readers will read and buy. It’s a win-win situation. So if you’re laboring under “Sinclair took a space on the shelves that belongs to ME!” take off your blinders (and negativity) and realize there’s plenty of room for all of us.

    Om shanti,
    Namaste, ~Linnea

  13. Kalen Hughes said:

    Major congrats to Linnea! She let me hold her RITA last year while we in line to get drinks (I swear I didn’t even try to make a run for it).

  14. Gina said:

    For any comments posted here (nasty or nice), I think we might as well pick a name to use. Use a pseudonym, if you like. Try your great-grandma’s middle name. Or a name you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Something! Anything!

  15. Yahzi said:

    Anonymous said – “Removing the constraint of plot leaves literary fiction free to focus elsewhere.”

    Like, for instance, the author’s obsessive narcissism.


    I agree, though; that’s what I thought literary fiction was. Stuff that had to be entertainingly written because there wasn’t any entertainment other than the language and style.

  16. Spartezda said:

    I second Linnea’s point—readers read books far faster than we can write them!

    I remember being overjoyed when I discovered Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series somewhere around the thirtieth novel, because there was so much I got to read without having to wait (now, sigh, I am completely caught up and always waiting for the next one. But it was nice while it lasted).

    PC Hodgell is my personal demon for this: I love her Jame books, but the first one was published before I was born and the fourth came out late last year. Talk about non-prolific! In the meantime, however, what am I doing? Cruising shark-like down the bookstore and library shelves, looking for other tasty morsels.

    And Hodgell’s another example of an author who writes literary-quality under a genre-label. Patricia McKillip, too. Nothing wrong with them, it, or the categories. It’s like . . . discovering a sapphire in my flower garden. I love the roses and larkspur and lavender, but I also love the beauty of the sapphire. The flowers aren’t any less lovely for the gemstone’s presence, and the jewel’s not diminished for having been found in a garden. Both deserve a place in the heart and sight.

    If that metaphor wasn’t too hopeless mangled to follow. Sorry.

  17. Liz Wolfe said:

    Linnea, congratulations! I can only imagine what a thrill it is!

    As for the cranky anons, as I read through the posts, I was thinking, geez, there are a lot of cranky people posting. Then it occurred to me that probably most of the cranky anons are just one very cranky anon.
    Then it hit me that if the cranky anon thinks so little of his/her opinion that he/she doesn’t care to attach their name (or even a made up name) to it, then, well, I guess I don’t care much about their opinion either.

  18. Anonymous said:

    Dan Simmons is a horrendous writer and Anne Rice has no idea how to write an ending. I think to call either of them “literary” is a bit overboard.
    But if it is your opinion that either of them are stellar writers, then that is your opinion. I just think you could have come up better examples than those two as great writers who specialize in a genre.
    katherine e. hazen – keep in mind some people do not have a blog or google account to sign on with.

  19. Katherine E. Hazen said:

    Anon 9:53

    …that’s your response? Really?

    You don’t even have to sign up. All you have to do is click other and type in a name. But apparently some people lack the courage to attach even a fake name to their rude comments.

  20. Anonymous said:

    Thank you for that pointer. Will wonders never cease!

    If that is one’s opinion, then that is one’s opinion. It’s not rude as much as I don’t agree with the idea that Rice or Simmons are good writers. Quite a number of people also hold the same view. That is our opinion. That is all very well and I can live with it. Again, I thought that, to make the point about good writing in other genres, other more apt opinions could have been used. David Wingrove was a incredibly in-depth writer in his series (until his series fell apart). Orson Scott Card did a magnifent job with his prose. Do you have a problem with people voicing opinions or do you have a problem with people voicing opinions contrary to your own and/or this blog’s?
    To help you tally, the first comment from earlier was not meant to be rude; I am sorry you intrepreted it as so. However, this response is meant to rude.
    And what is wrong with not wanting you to know my name? Anonymity is a goal for some, not a crutch to hide behind.

  21. Shelly McDonough (see, you don't have to have a google account to stand behind your words) said:

    Anonymous said – “Removing the constraint of plot leaves literary fiction free to focus elsewhere.”

    Like, for instance, the author’s obsessive narcissism.

    Oh, that had me smiling! I can’t tell you how many lauded literary books I’ve attempted to slog through because they were critically acclaimed, only to discover they couldn’t hold my attention or were so self-indulgent a single sentence went on and on in a display of rambling literary-ism. One recent attempt to read a NYT darling resulted in reading the same sentence over and over again on the third page, a sentence that included four dashes, six commas, and went on for five lines of copy. Without really saying a thing.

    In any case, I don’t feel the need to disparage literary fiction because it’s not my cup of tea, I just won’t run out and buy the next NYT darling.

    As for Linnea, any time an author, and a nice one at that, succeeds, I’m thankful. With all the horrible industry news coming from publishers about declining sales and falling profits, successes fill the coffers so they can continue buying books. All kind of books. Congratulations!

  22. John B said:

    I read somewhere that the easiest way to figure out if a novel is literary is to read the title. If it ends with “A Novel,” it’s probably literary, or at least wants to be.

  23. Kimber An said:


    That’s Linnea’s next release and I believe it’s due out by the end of the year. Isn’t that a fantastic title? Makes me want to throw my head back and go, “Mwa-ha-ha!”

  24. Anonymous said:

    Just a comment on the whole anon thing:

    I’m lazy. Ok. And I don’t have a blogger account, so clicking Anonymous is just the quick-n-easy solution. Got nothing to do with courage.

    One thing more. I like the anon feature in case I want to say something nice. I can do so without being seen (perhaps) as a suck-up. I hate suck-ups.

    Which leads me to…

    Thank you Kristin, for your blog, your comments and insights into the industry, and your patience with some of the responses you get. I hope you won’t find it necessary to remove the anonymous option.

    Another non-cranky one.

  25. Daniel Tricarico said:


    Once, at a writers conference, I heard the distinction described this way by one of the presenters:

    Commercial fiction takes people on a roller coaster ride; literary fiction asks, “Why do people go on roller coasters?”

    Love the blog. Learn a lot.
    Thank you!

  26. Anonymous said:

    This is one of those endless debates–like gun control or whether or not Nicole Kidman’s had plastic surgery.

    Genre authors are offended that their writing skills are being denigrated. The knee-jerk reaction is to call “literary” snobby and not of-the-masses. This is silly.

    The literary genre is necessary because a LOT of people (myself included) read and write books that cannot be defined by a genre because they don’t fit a genre formula. And yes, there are genre formulas. That’s why they’re called genres. It’s not good or bad. It just is. And it just is because it’s developed this way in American publishing in order to sell books. “Literary” is a sales category just like romance. Sales categories are there to help sell as many books as possible. To treat these labels with affrontery, as if they define or say something about you as an author, is just silly.

    You KNOW, if 90% of what you read is genre and you’re contacting agents who rep genre and considering houses that sell genre, that you’re writing a genre novel.

    You KNOW, if you have an MFA and spend hours actively working literary devices into your story and are asking Jonathan Safran Foer to write you a book blurb, that you are writing literary.

    And I laugh at all the genre authors who love to stereotype “literary” as haughty and dark and boring and just about feelings. Try reading some George Saunders or Aimee Bender or Rick Bass. There are a lot of amazing, funny, wacky writers out there experimenting with form and structure publishing under the BROAD category of “literary” that could change your world. Kurt Vonnegut, anyone?

    And many, many books are cross-genre–Kiss Me Judas, by Will C. Baer (lit/hardboiled), Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (lit/sci fi), are two fine, gorgeous examples that immediately come to mind.

    Look, if you want to talk about how horrible the literary genre is, then I beg of you, at least read A Reader’s Manifesto by B.R. Myers first (the snobbiest of the anti-snobs. Here’s a preview: to help you form some cogent arguments.

    My thinking is that even Myers’ arguments are outdated. The definitions of literary and genre are shifting and mutable because publishing, as an industry, is faltering. Thus the powers that be are always coming up with new labels and subgenres and mix-and-match effects to help entice a wider and wider audience.

    But I, for one, am as sick of the anti-literary position as I am of the anti-genre position. It’s like telling someone they’re an idiot for liking or performing jazz, when all you listen to is classical.


  27. Anonymous said:

    Sorry, this has suddenly turned into Literanonymous rants, but I just want to add (before it is pointed out to me) that the existence of cross-overs does not mean that you, as an author, should be confused or worried about what category your book falls into. You should do some homework and find out. Most authors are in one category or the other. If you don’t know what you are, take a look at what you read, you are influenced by and where you’d like your book to be published. As someone has pointed out, being a professional writer means knowing your market and knowing what it is you write no matter what genre that may be.


  28. Therese said:

    In addition to what several sensible commenters have pointed out, I’d like to add this:

    “Commercial” means “sells very well,” which is something altogether different from a genre label.

    Thus, a work can be literary and commercial at the same time. ANY book that connects with a big audience (generating mega sales) is commercial.

    And as with every other category of fiction, some lit fic IS crap. But some is spirit-lifting, life-affirming, gorgeous storytelling (SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, BEL CANTO).

    Some genre work achieves similarly amazing effect.

    Quality storytelling is quality storytelling, regardless of category. Judging worth by category is prejucicial, and none of us wants our work to be dismissed that way.

    I like the term “upmarket” for fiction (of any type) that has high writing quality while also retaining a specific category as its first identifier.

  29. Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little said:

    Just to throw two cents in on a sentence taken out of context…

    Simply because I mention that “literary” writing is usually recognizable or defined by level or art of the writing doesn’t mean that genre writers don’t also achieve that.

    Of course Kristin doesn’t write the definitions, so I’m not aiming this at our generous hostess so much as at the conversation in general:

    I think there’s a trap in defining “literary fiction” by a certain standard of quality. If we speak of literary fiction as having a high level of art as an identifying or defining feature, that can be seen to imply that this feature is unique to literary fiction. It may not be meant to imply that, but you can’t use a thing’s feature to identify what that thing is without that feature being unique to the thing. So we end up sounding like we’re saying “If it’s achieved a high level of art, it must be literary fiction (and not genre fiction).”

    At best, there’s the somewhat left-handed compliment of a corollary that “If it’s genre fiction, but it’s achieved a high level of art, then publishers can raise it out of the genre ghetto and mark it for shelving with literary fiction.”

    We all know that’s not true of literary (“realistic”?) and genre fiction, but the language we’re using can sure give the wrong impression.

    Honest question I’d like to see discussed more: How do we amend the way we talk about fiction to keep from giving that impression?

  30. kpon724 said:

    Congratulations Linnea!!! You deserve this and more for all your hard work.

    I don’t know about other posters here but I actually READ the book. And it’s good – very, very good!

    It’s not great literature, it’s simply a whacking good science fiction adventure with a good seasoning of romance.

    Writing a believable and readable book of any kind is difficult but Linnea has managed it magnificently. Thank you for all your hours of sweat and tears – it shows!

  31. 'drew said:

    I really like Daniel’s distinction on the roller-coaster ride. That makes sense.

    Another distinction might be a work’s likelihood of being taught in university literature classes versus its likelihood of being optioned by a movie star. Literary fiction often requires some guidance, and contains things a college undergrad might not get unless they had a professor who helped them get it. Commercial fiction tells a story that will translate well to the screen.

  32. Commander Carla said:

    Yeehaw, Linnea and Kristen! Sorry, got a thing for cowboys, today. Space cowboys. ; )

    And, holy sheets, look at all the familiar faces! *waving madly*