You’re writing a book and all of your hundreds of readers want to know. “What’s it about?” And you, gather them around you, adjust your cravat, look over your half moon glasses that are pretentiously hanging from a gold chain around your neck and you say, “I’m not really sure.”
Why can’t you explain? It’s because your story seems to transcend certain genres, it’s a journey or it’s an introspective. Words like “romance” or “fantasy” don’t seem big enough.
You, dear writer, could be writing literary fiction!
But you say, “I don’t want to write literary fiction! Because I know the market for these kinds of stories! Yesterday I had nightmares that I’m locked in a room with someone reading Proust! I wish Hemingway would be more emotional!” “Sylvia Plath just needed to get over herself!”
Literary writers are kind of like the zebras of the publishing world. They’re wild, unpredictable, and you can’t put a saddle on them. It could be that your writing habits have put you into the often misunderstood category of literary fiction. I’ve created a little checklist (a tongue-in-cheek one) for your convenience, so while you’re chain smoking your clove cigarettes, go through this list. And check off what only applies to you. If you aren’t literary, then you can celebrate by going to that NASCAR event.
If you are a literary writer, then rest assured that not all famous literary writers took their own life. Some were killed by their lovers.
Let’s get crackin!
1. You may have spent a lot of time thinking about the beauty of language. This means that in the course of your drafting, you’ve thought about rhythm and tone. You weigh the length of sentences. You kind of wish you could throw in some poetry. I know you’re optimistic and you think that some reader, somewhere, most likely an English major creating grande lattes at Starbucks, will appreciate your craftsmanship. And your hope that if more people did, then the world would be a better place. It would be. Here’s a hug.
2. You’ve incorporated some unexpected imagery or comparisons. I would have said metaphor, but I didn’t want you to squeal like a fangirl at a Taylor Swift concert. Just because you love a good metaphor, doesn’t mean you’re book is literary, it just means that you’ve put thought into it. This is a good thing. It’s what writers are supposed to do. But if you are overly obsessed with the green light in The Great Gatsby, have a character you’ve based on George Orwell because of his role in society or think it’s a victory when your reader asks, “what the hell does that mean?”, then you could be literary.
“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”
― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
3. Your book is far more about the human condition and big ideas. If you’ve ever discussed your manuscript and said the phrase “a struggle between this foreign sounding word and that foreign sounding word”. If you have babbled for a good fifteen minutes about the concepts and never mention the characters, then we might need to get you started on pipe tobacco and buy you a tweed jacket with elbow patches. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in writing abstract meaning. Look on the bright side, your high school English teacher will love this. You should quiz her.
4. Your characters do get from point A to point B, but they take a long, long time to get there. Before you panic, take a moment and think. You probably do have good reasons to have your characters go off on tangents about what they did as children while they are standing in line at the Piggly Wiggly. But if your story’s big climactic moment is, after 250 pages, choosing paper over plastic, then, honey, we need to get you cat.
5. You want your MFA to count for something. Of course you do. I’ll take an order of fries with that burger, please. No, wait, never mind.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
6. You have nightmares trying to categorize it on Kindle Direct. Your book not really a mystery because you reveal the killer on page 82. Your book is not really a love story because she dumps him at the altar and your book not really fantasy because the aliens were just a metaphor. Let’s just admit it: this book is literary. Now, maybe The New Yorker is a better venue for you. Don’t wash that holey sweater. We’ll need it for your author photo.
7. Your brother asked how many explosions your book had it in and you stabbed him with the cheese knife. How are you going to serve your Wensleydale now?
8. You’ve lost writer friends over your stance on structure. “Three Acts? That’s totally predictable!” And then you launch a tirade that Stephen King’s On Writing could be a little bit self-serving. You once hit someone because their idea of a great book has the number 50 and a color between black and white in it. And the longer you do this, the more you understand why writers drink themselves to death. Their friends are idiots. Let’s calm down. We have J.D. Salinger on the phone. He wants to meet you for drinks. See? You feel better already.
“He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.”
― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
9. You find the expectations of specific genre too confining. And while you may be an Agatha Christie fan, or have a crush on Lovecraft or cry in your share of Harlequin romances, you’ve decided that you’ll take your favorite parts and twist them up. Marketability can go out with the window with all the vampire fiction as far as you are concerned. Your stories are beyond genre. Yes dear, put down that feather and quill. If your books can’t be categorized into a specific genre, then there’s a reason. You’re a literary writer and all the Chardonnay in the world can’t change that.
10. There are phrases in your books that require Google translator and your thought is, “come on, readers! Why are you so freaking lazy? You should just know Latin!”
Scoring: For every one of these ten signs that you agree to, give yourself one ounce of caviar. If you have more than six ounces, you’ll need some champagne and a friend. I’m on my way over. If you have zero points here or zero ounces of caviar, then you are not a literary writer.
If you are not literary, then your stories are probably solid, balancing both action and character development. You tell your stories simply enough without any of your characters resembling Frasier Crane. You probably can explain the story itself to a prospective reader who can say, without any dirty looks from you, “Oh! It’s a thriller!” (Or a mystery, or science fiction, or fantasy, or a romance.) Your books are easy enough to find on a store shelf. And your genre choice helps your reader understand what to expect. You may not have fretted over every single word for its poetic weight, but you write well. But you don’t need caviar. Chips, salsa and beer will do fine.
The world needs literary fiction.
We need to have unpredictable, meaningful, symbolic stories that remind us that the good guys don’t always win and that not every ending is happy. So wear your literary label with pride!
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” You can do this. I believe in you!
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Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement, and community.