When I conducted the survey of literary magazine editors that led to the article What Is Literary Fiction? in the August 6 issue of Writing World, my goal was to find out what writers might need to know to target this particular market. Sadly, what also reared its ugly head was the age-old controversy about the merits of "literary fiction" vs. everything else.
Now, I am sure that there are hundreds of literary editors, writers and readers who harbor no ill-feelings toward mainstream and genre fiction. Unfortunately, there are also many who regard anything outside the "literary" realm as, apparently, beneath contempt. Here are just a few of the comments about mainstream and genre fiction that my survey elicited (and that I didn't feel necessary to include in my article):
"There is little attempt to provide deeper insights into character, setting, the plot, or societal issues."
"... there's no complication in terms of ideas or even our emotions. We aren't asked to question or even think about anything."
"When I think of the word 'literary' I envision writing that is entirely memorable, vivid and original... I guess a 'mainstream' story, while enjoyable, would not have [these] qualities..."
OK, you may be wondering, so why even bring this up? For one simple reason: Because I've heard from too many writers who have been told, in one venue or another, that they are "no good" because their work is not "literary" enough. I've heard from writers who have gotten this message in writing groups, from instructors, from reviewers, and even from friends. And, quite often, the message has been devastating, leading some writers to wonder if they should just stop writing altogether.
It's a sad attitude to take in the world of writing, which is filled with enough obstacles as it is. It is an attitude that arises out of an inability to view alternate forms of writing as simply differing forms -- rather than "superior" and "inferior" forms. Tastes differ; if they did not, the world of literature would be a dull place indeed.
I tend to think of myself has having fairly eclectic reading tastes. My bookshelves are crammed with hundreds of volumes, ranging from Victorian classics to favorite young adult novels to genre fiction to... well, let's just say my husband has suggested that we reinforce the floorboards upstairs. However, varied as my tastes might be, I shudder to imagine what Barnes and Noble, for example, might look like if it provided only the sorts of books that I, personally, fancied. The store would probably fit into my garage! But my imagination doesn't stop there; it also envisions thousands of readers, wandering disconsolately through a vast, echoing, empty store, trying to find something they would like to read in a world that has suddenly shrunk to accommodate my tastes.
Thank goodness, my vision does not reflect reality. Instead, when I visit B&N or any other bookstore, I revel in the shelves upon shelves of books, books of every description -- including thousands upon thousands of books that I will never read and never even want to read. When I stand in the middle of some huge bookstore, I feel as if I am standing within the universe of possibility. There is so much thought, so much knowledge, so many ideas in this one place -- thought and knowledge and ideas that are perpetually spreading outward, every time someone picks up a new book and takes it home.
What a pity it would be if that spread of ideas were limited by any one group of writers, editors, readers -- or, as is the very real situation in some countries, by the censorship of a government. When I step into a giant bookstore, it becomes abundantly clear that there is a place for me, and for you, and for the writer down the lane, whether those places are side by side on the shelf or on opposite walls of the store.
Attempting to tell writers, or readers, that their tastes aren't "good enough" for the literary universe is a sad attempt to fit a giant bookstore into the garage of one's personal taste. Taste is a rainbow, not a hierarchy. One writer's taste may be different from another's; that does not make it better or worse.
More importantly, the very last thing we want to do, as writers, is to attempt to constrain the taste of readers. We keep hearing that readers are becoming an increasingly endangered species -- so let's not endanger them still further by suggesting to even a single reader that there is something wrong with their literary tastes. My readers may never become your readers -- but readers inspire other readers, and the person who picks up my book today may inspire someone else to pick up yours tomorrow.
So if you're one of those writers who has been told that you should be writing more "serious" fiction, or that your writing isn't "literary" enough, or that you're simply a "hack" for trying to "appeal to the masses," simply look that person in the eye, smile, and say, "I'm sorry you feel that way." Then go on to write whatever it is that you want to write. The only writing that will touch your readers' hearts is the writing that comes from your own heart -- and if we all want to keep writing, we need to touch as many readers' hearts, across the spectrum, as possible.
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