I've just recently moved to a new community, and I've been meeting a lot of new people. When I do, the conversation inevitably turns to that question, "What do you do?"
"I write," I say.
"What do you write?"
"What kind?" And I know the question means, what genre? Romance? Thriller? Chick Lit?
"Literary novels," I say.
There's that blank look. "What's that?"
I'm stumped too. How do I explain? I contemplate a few answers:
I write CanLit.
What the hell is that?
It's serious fiction.
As opposed to fun fiction? I'd take the fun stuff any day. Try again.
It's profoundly meaningful literature that makes you ponder some aspect of what it means to be human.
Scratch that. Boring.
It's literature that will endure, live on even after the author has gone.
Baloney. Dickens was a "popular" or "commercial" author in his time, as were so many of our authors whose works have endured.
Finally I venture something equally ridiculous as my internal musings like, "I write the highfalutin snooty fiction that wins awards."
"Oh," and that's usually the end of that conversation.
What is literary fiction? And does it matter? To publishers, writers and award juries, perhaps. But I'm not convinced it matters to most readers. They just want a good story, well told. I think I give 'em that. I think a great many authors of commercial or genre fiction give 'em that too. We just do it a little differently from each other.
Our guest blog author for April is NYT bestselling author Kelley Armstrong. Kelley writes commercial fiction; I write literary fiction. But our writing isn't so different as all that. I want to give my readers a story that cooks along, just like Kelley does. Kelley wants to dig into her characters and offer her readers some insight into "the human condition" just like I do. Even our subject matter ain't so different. As Kelley points out in her blog, she writes about werewolves. Well, in The Cure for Death by Lightning, so did I, sort of. I slip as much fantasy into my fiction as I think I can get away with. Only over here in literary land, we call it magic realism.
I'm currently writing my third literacy-learner novel, a romance, for the Good Reads program. These very short novels are meant to engage an adult reader who may never have read a novel before, and who struggles to improve his or her literacy skills. To that end, the writing must be fast paced, plot driven, and immediately engaging. To write these novels I turned to commercial fiction for inspiration and you know what? I've had a blast. So much so that one of my upcoming projects is decidedly commercial in approach: a YA/crossover novel. Writing "commercial" has put the fun back in writing for me personally, and informed my literary fiction. Us literary writers have a whole lot to learn from our commercial brethren when it comes to structure, engaging our reader and, well, having fun while we're writing. We often take ourselves far too seriously. I hope that last bit of snootiness we find in academic settings towards commercial fiction falls away, particularly in this age when publishers are increasingly looking for literary fiction that sells. In other words, literary fiction that borrows tools from the commercial writer's toolbox. Whether we write commercial or literary, the goal is the same: a good story, well told.